Wednesday, September 16, 2009

More on Voice

What I'm reading: How to Abduct a Highland Lord, by Karen Hawkins.

Thanks so much to Neil Plakcy for his insights into voice yesterday. The subtleties and nuances of writing, those 'you can't teach it' intangibles are the things that we're always striving to improve in our own writing.

And speaking of writing. I'm finally back into a semblance of the pre-holiday routine. One thing I noticed—when I actually applied fingers to keyboard, my anxiety level dropped markedly. Even though I'm still not sure exactly how I want to get through the "and all hell breaks loose" moments, just putting words onto the page reminded me why writers write no matter what.

I'd like to expand on Neil's post about voice. He went into detail about the character's voices. It's important in a book that they sound like themselves. That means knowing their history, their age, education, as well as occupation, nationality—the list goes on. A reader should be able to know who's speaking from the dialogue on the page.

Keep Reading...

Cowboys don't talk like artists, who don't talk like sailors, who don't talk like politicians. And men don't talk like women, no matter what job each has. I went into this in my series on His Brain, Her Brain (if you type that into the search box, you'll find those posts back in early September, 2008.) When I write my male characters' dialogue, I always go back and cut it down by at least 25%.

I recall reading my first book by a best-selling author. A male character discovered a young girl, about 5 years old, who had been left to die in the woods. He brings her to his cabin and finds she cannot or will not speak. I was impressed with the way the character spoke to the child—it seemed exactly how someone should deal with that situation. However, as more characters entered the story, I discovered that he spoke that way to all of them. Not only that, almost every character in the book spoke with that same, "Talking to a Child" voice. Obviously, it doesn't bother the millions who buy her books, but it bugged the heck out of me. And it's consistent with all her books in that series. It wasn't just a one-time deal.

However, today I'd like to address the author's voice. From what I understand, voice develops as an author writes. I believe I commented yesterday that I judge the growth of my voice with the increasing ease of writing narrative. Not dialogue, because that is someone else's voice on the page—the character's. But all the other words, the way the sentences are put together, how the paragraphs break—that's the author. And that's where the intangibles lie. When I was starting, and I'd enter contests, I'd get very disparate feedback from judges. Another author told me it meant I had a strong voice, which might or might not appeal to a reader.

Voice is something a reader recognizes instinctively. It's what makes bestselling authors. Sure skill comes into the picture, too. You have to know how to plot, pace, create settings and characters, etc. But voice is what readers really fall in love with when they're reading. It's 'HOW' you tell your stories.
~Jordan Summers

Can anyone confuse Suzanne Brockmann with Lee Child? Janet Evanovich with Michael Connelly? Even Nora Roberts has a distinctive voice that is recognizable whether she's writing a romance as Roberts, or one of her "In Death" futuristics as JD Robb.

Try looking at your manuscript, or the book you're reading. Find a passage that's filled with narrative. How does the author deal with it? Is it in the same vein as the dialogue, or do you get jolted out of the story because all of a sudden there's an outsider taking over? If it's a funny book, the narrative needs to reflect that sense of humor. If it's serious, the author shouldn't be cracking wise in narrative. If your character speaks in short, choppy sentences, then he's likely to think that way, too. Again, the narrative should continue in that same style.

Which brings me to another thought. When I was in high school, we were required to discuss the "style" of all the books and stories we read. A student asked the teacher to define "style." He said, "It's the words the author chooses to use." Which sums it up pretty well for me. Perhaps we should use that term for the author's voice, to differentiate it from the characters' dialogue.

Voice can't be taught. It comes only after spending hours, days, months, years at the keyboard. It is, to use a favorite term of an author friend, "organic." It comes from within, and it feels right. If you're thinking about it, you're not developing your voice.

Elmore Leonard points out that the essence of being a good writer is keeping yourself off the page. So if it sounds 'writerly' it needs to be cut.


P.A.Brown said...

Striving for voice is one of the things writers spend a lifetime doing. I've finished two books recently, one out now, one still in progress, where voice is critical. The first one is a dark, humorous piece, with a character who looks at the world as his oyster and someone keeps throwing sand in the works. Since it's told in first person his voice is always 'on'. Time will tell whether I got it or not. The second book is harder. It's told from the POV of a young Latino man in a Los Angeles barrio who is struggling to keep out of the gang life and come to grips with his homosexuality. He talks like a banger sometimes, though through the story he grows and his speech and thought patterns have to change to reflect that. It's touchy and will take a lot of work to make sure it flows, but hey, I like a challenge.

Writers like Neil make it all look so easy. That's talent for you.

Skhye said...

Amen! I often tell other writers there's a difference between character voices and writing style and mechanics. A character's voice is all about his/her personality and biases to me. Of course, writers have that too. I call my voice theme. Writing style is merely mechanics to me. I've studied anthropology too long to not sit around pondering this great mystery without seeing my own bias in my tales. So, I rationalize this way. ;) I find it easier to write in 3rd person limited omniscient deep POV because of this rationalization. The byproduct just feels most natural and realistic to me. Other writers may not feel that way.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Voice is never easy. Writing often flows naturally, but then we reread and find dialogue doesn't quite sound genuine and we must go back and rewrite again. That's the hard part.
Terry I think you hit it when you say that we have to fully develop our main characters before we sit down to write. We have to know their life history, how they think and why. Only then we will know how they can express themselves.

Jacqueline Seewald

Sassy Brit said...

I agree, it should come out naturally, but that doesn't always happen. Does that just mean the author is trying too hard?

Terry Odell said...

PA - getting the character's voices down is tough, but I still think it's easier than nailing your own voice at the beginning. At least you've got some parameters to deal with, and you can say, "That doesn't sound like a gang-banger, or professor, or chef" and tweak dialogue. Of course, its NOT easy -- just different.

Skhye - everyone finds a POV that works, although sometimes the characters insist on changing it. My mystery short stories are in 1st person -- it wasn't my intention, but as I sat down to write, that's how the character spoke. (And given that he's a male homicide detective, finding his voice was a challenge).

Jacqueline - thanks for your take. If writing were easy, everyone could do it! I always start my books with characters, although they continue to surprise me as I get deeper into the book. The funny thing is, the seeds for whatever they reveal to me have usually been planted without my conscious effort.

Sassy-- I think you've hit it. If your voice is forced, it's probably not yours. You can't really TRY to get your authorial voice on the page. I think it works the other way -- you have to try NOT to sound like anyone else, until you're the only one left!

Liane Gentry Skye said...

These posts are fascinating reading, particularly the bit on character voice. For me, as a writer, it was very hard to keep all my characters from sounding the same. Wonderful work, Terry. Thanks for the refresher! :)

Liane Gentry Skye said...

These posts are fascinating reading, particularly the bit on character voice. For me, as a writer, it was very hard to keep all my characters from sounding the same. Wonderful work, Terry. Thanks for the refresher! :)

Neil Plakcy said...

Thanks for the compliment, Pat.

I think another way to polish voice-- whether it's your own narrative voice or the voice of a character-- is to read out loud. I tell my college writing students to read aloud as part of proofing, but it can also be a great help to hear our characters' voices.

P.A.Brown said...

I belong to an in person crit group and we read our excerpts to be critted, and yes, I find it's a great way to 'hear' my voice. Though my Spanish pronunciation of words sucks.

Terry Odell said...

Pat, I agree hearing the words out loud is an excellent way to both edit and get a feel for one's voice. I believe Harlan Coben takes a day to sequester himself and read his final draft out loud.

I hate listening to myself. Usually I end up whispering or mumbling. But I really have to commit to doing this; I had to do a reading once and realized that I had a horrific "clunker" in my opening paragraph. Of course, it didn't seem to bother my editor, but it made me cringe when I read it out loud.

Some things just don't sound right.

P.A.Brown said...

I'm always amazed how something will look great on paper or the computer screen then when you read it out loud, it clunks and falls flat.

PS: I hate the sound of my voice too.

Terry Odell said...

Related tip, more for editing: Print your work out (or display it on the screen if you must) using a DIFFERENT FONT. It makes it look new, and should mean the line and page breaks come in different places.

I used to print mine out in two columns, which gave a very different look to the page, and was easier to scan. It's amazing how many repeated words popped out in that format.

Anonymous said...

Terry: I only had one complaint from a contest judge (so far-ha!) and it was that my heroine sounded too much like her Aunt - I labored over every word and found it's because THEY ARE ALIKE! I used the age difference to create a recognizable dialogue - the aunt's impatience, her touchiness about age etc. Made me very conscious of this particular aspect of my writing.
Love and best,

Sheila Deeth said...

I like the distinction between character and author voice. I'm still trying to figure out why some of my characters insist I write them in the first person though. They're not me. Honest, they're not. And they can't have my voice 'cause I'm not sharing.

Terry Odell said...

I know what you mean, Sheila -- I did my character interviews in 1st, but that WAS me. Why my detective in my short story insisted on 1st person is beyond me, since I've written 2 other cop books in 3rd. Maybe because in those, it was a dual POV.

But, regardless of POV, your voice should still shine through.

Dory Stewart said...

Short and sweet: Talking about 'voice' is never over-done.

Nice job.

Carol Kilgore said...

Another fantastic voice post. I love the tip about printing in columns. I'm going to try that next time.

Mary Ricksen said...

I agree a good part of it is instinctual. I know if I like the voice after the first five pages.

Joanna Aislinn said...

Hi, Terry,

Using narrative vs. dialogue to distinguish the intangible but oh-so-present voice made so much sense to me. Barring a couple of transitions (and getting past writing one major inciting incident), the narrative to my recently completed wip came much more easily and quickly than for its prequel. I'm also finding it harder to find those nitpicky things to revise. Dare I hope to believe I've found mine?

Joanna Aislinn
The Wild Rose Press Jan 15, 2010

Terry Odell said...

Joanna -- there's always hope!

Seriously, I think your voice matures with experience/practice/time, and if things seem easier, it's probably because you're finding your voice.

I look at my first short story, which I think was heavily influenced because I'd been reading a book set at the turn of the century (end of the 1900's) and some of that cadence carried over. But I doubt anyone would confuse me with Anita Shreve!

I've never written anything else so 'literary', yet I still think it's "me" in there somewhere.