Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What is Voice, Anyway?

Today, my guest at Terry's Place is author Neil Plakcy, who has published six novels (four mystery, two romance) and edited three anthology collections. He teaches writing at Broward College in south Florida and is vice president of the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America. In the course of writing and editing in these different genres, as well as teaching students how to write better, he’s become an expert at developing and customizing the way writers address their topic—the “voice” they use.

Welcome, Neil.

I was thinking a lot about voice this summer, as I revised a book I wrote a few years ago. The voice of this character is very different from the one I’ve been refining for my Honolulu police detective protagonist. So working with it has made me wonder -- what is voice, anyway?

To me, it has a number of components, first of all the choice of first-person, second-person and third-person. Is your narrator telling the story himself? Has the author created some disembodied narrator who has access to the feelings and impressions of the character? A first person-narrator is expected to speak like a real person, and that person’s background is going to influence how he or she speaks—and narrates the story.

Word choice is an important part of voice. The character I’ve been working with is a college professor, a stuffy kind of guy, though he’s only in his early thirties. I’ve noticed he waffles a lot, using “He seemed to be in pain,” rather than “He was in pain,” when observing another character grimace as he stands up. He uses a lot of what my father used to call ten-dollar words—abundance, serviceable. He knows the names of obscure things, like a chesterfield sofa or a torchiere lamp.

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His voice also rises out of the details he chooses to mention. For example, he says, “One of the benefits of living in a college town is the abundance of good coffee shops.” That tells you he’s not the kind of guy who buys his coffee at McDonald’s, even if they do offer cappuccino now. He’s nowhere near as worldly or jaded as my detective hero, who has killed a man, and seen a lot of dead bodies and injured victims.

His voice does not use many contractions, especially not in dialogue. His sentences are often long and involve complex structure, layering clause on clause. His voice reflects his upbringing and his education. He’s obviously read a lot, in the course of receiving his PhD, and written a lot, too.

One way in which this voice is like my detective, though, is in access to language and description. Both guys, like me, grew up reading, and both pay attention to detail. So Kimo can describe the arc of a wave, and Steve the smoothness of a handmade antique wooden box. Both of them live in the place where they grew up, so they know its neighborhoods, its flora and fauna.

I try to use humor when I can, no matter what voice I’m using. Kimo’s humor is darker, while Steve’s is more sarcastic. Both of them like word play, riffing off a word said by another character.

Some writers have such a distinctive voice that they are easy to imitate. After I read Nabokov’s Lolita I started writing a story that channeled his arch, playful voice. Big mistake. But I also tried to imitate Elmore Leonard’s style, telling the story almost exclusively through dialogue, and that worked for me. I’ve read Laurie Colwin for her emphasis on domestic detail and tried to emulate the richness of her settings.

A couple of years ago I sat down to write a story about a naïve teenager who is befriended by a male prostitute just a little older than he is, who takes advantage of his generosity and then breaks his heart. I was appalled, on looking over the first draft, to find that this Chicago teen spoke like my jaded Honolulu detective. Oh, my God, I thought. Do I only have one voice?

I went back over the story and polished it, delving deeper into the character’s hunger and pain, and that helped me modify his voice. He started speaking more like a kid than an adult. The college students I teach have a pretty narrow frame of reference; they don’t know much literature, and they don’t even know movies, TV shows or music from more than a few years ago. Making sure that all the references a character makes are believable is another part of voice.

There’s still more work to be done revising that five-year-old novel. I will continue to try to improve it while maintaining the integrity of the character’s narration. And the more I learn about all the elements that make up a voice, the more confident I feel I can do it.

Neil Plakcy’s website is http://www.mahubooks.com, where you can find more about his Hawaii-based mystery novels, including Mahu, Mahu Surfer, Mahu Fire, and Mahu Vice, as well as his M/M romances.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Finding the right voice isn't easy.
In mystery there are often multiple viewpoints to consider. How do we make each an individual, each one unique? Choice of vocabulary is certainly one way. But each person thinks differently and we have to show that. A lot of beginning writers choose first person point of view because they think it will be easier. But if done right, it's just as challenging. Nick, your books sound really interesting.

All the best,

Jacqueline Seewald

Sir John said...

This was very good and I enjoyed reading it. I recently received a nice rejection letter that mentioned several good parts of my novel, but stated the problem was my "dialect" which gave her a problem. My characters are Russian so they naturally talk differently. I would love to hear your advice on handling dialect in your novels.
Johnny Ray

Neil Plakcy said...

Thanks, Jacqueline. You're right-- lots of writers start out with first person because it seems easier.

Dialect is tough, Johnny. I run into that problem with my Hawaiian characters. I think a little goes a long way, and it's easy to overwhelm a reader with too many verbal tics-- "t'ink" for "think," "dat" for "that," and so on.

I think you can choose one that represents a character's speech, and be consistent with it.

You can also be judicious with using foreign language words-- dropping in the occasional word gives flavor to speech without overwhelming the reader.

But it's a tough call. We try to be true to the way a character might really speak, but have to temper that with the reader's needs.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Neil. I have one caveat, though. You said: "I’ve noticed he waffles a lot, using “He seemed to be in pain,” rather than “He was in pain,” To me, saying he was in in pain, could be seen as a POV switch. What do you think of that?

As for first person being easier, I found it more difficult. It took a while for me to write a novel in first person. My last mystery--DRAG QUEEN IN THE COURT OF DEATH-- is in first person. I find the person I write in more or less just comes to me. But the voice...one does have to keep on eye on it. :)

Caro Soles

Terry Odell said...

I'm going to pop in and agree with Caro -- unless you're writing in omniscient POV, one character can't really "know" another is in pain. To keep the POV tight, I will use the 'seemed' and 'as if' qualifiers.

I'll agree with Neil's answer to Sir John as well. If you're using 'creative spelling' to show dialect, it will probably drive a reader nuts. Handling the flavor without slowing the read is a fine art.

ryan field said...

Great post, Neil. I've been have a POV problem with something I'm working on right now,and this post will help.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great tips and an informative post. Thanks, Terry and Neil!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Watery Tart said...

This was great! I've been told the fact that my voice sometimes changes means I haven't found it, but this reinforces that in different works it SHOULD be different. My finished work, CONFLUENCE is all written in 3rd person, but one character at a time and I try to keep the language consistent with how that character would think--most noticeable when I am the five-year-old, who understands less and so thinks about things differently.

And excellent advice on dialect. My current WiP has several Romanian characters--I have a source for actual phrase translation, but KNOW I need to limit that. It is helpful to think just a few ticks are probably the best bet to get the point across without interfering with flow.

Terry Odell said...

I love chatting about Voice, so thanks again to Neil for his post, and I'm going to join the discussion with my thoughts -- think of it as a 'twofer'. And I might branch off this post with one of my own soon.

It's been said that an author's voice will grow, but once it's established, that author is recognizable regardless of the genre. I'm still new enough that my voice is still developing, but I do think it's getting stronger, if for no other reason than it seems 'easier' to write. I don't give as much conscious thought to word choice or sentence structure.

Even when Nora Roberts writes as JD Robb, her own voice shows through. There's a difference between the voices of your characters and your own author voice.

Linda LaRoque said...

I love your professor's voice and can hear him using those ten dollar words and elaborating on a subject.

Someone mentioned the importance of dialect and I so agree. Living in the Texas, chicken fried steak is a staple, but an editor in NY didn't know what I was talking about. We also use the term "grace" when returning thanks at a meal, another term which a fellow writer wasn't familiar with. To me, particulars such as these are what adds to a writer's voice.

Enjoyed your post.

Debra St. John said...

Voice is so tricky because so often it seems like it's the one thing that is so hard to teach or learn. Either you have it or you don't. But the way you've broken it down makes developing voice into much more of a learning process. Thanks!

Jeanne said...

Wonderful post, Neil.
I know what you mean about differentiating voices of one character and another. It's one of the things that maked writing so frustrating, but also so rewarding.

Mary Ricksen said...

Great Post, I feel that voice is a part of the writers personality.

The characters voice borders on personality. They are who they are.

Wishing you the best.

Maryann Miller said...

Very good post and discussion of voice. Just wanted to add another comment about dialect. I think it works best when we use the rhythm of speech to show dialect instead of fracturing words to show it.

I also like Linda's suggestion to use local colloquialisms that add flavor, again without fracturing words. Most editors will allow you to keep those, once you explain what they are. At least my editor has let me keep the Texas expressions in my latest book.

Skhye said...

Excellent perspective. I've always told my critique partners that characters have a voice as well as the author. ;) I'll send her over to read this! LOL

Neil Plakcy said...

Lots of interesting ideas!

Yes, Caro, you're right, the example I used is really a POV shift. Maybe I should have said "He cried out in pain" or something similar.

I love Maryann's idea about using rhythm of speech to convey dialect, too.

Skhye said...

LOL. That didn't make sense. My critique partNER. May none of you be cursed with Lyme Disease. It really makes my fingers type all over the place...

Sheila Deeth said...

Interesting. I'm heading into my editing phase, and my first novel has the same narrator speaking at three different ages. I'll keep "voice" in my mind as I read what she wrote.

Rob Walker said...

Voice can be found easily if you decide from the outset that your story is going to be told in so and so's voice -- be that an anonymous "detective's" voice, James Earl Jones' voice, Shirley Jones' voice....but in the end Voice is the sum total of all the elemental parts that arise out of the myriad decisions an author chooses to make. Voice is crafted to look easy when in fact it is as difficult a job as the trick-cyclist has who puts up ten plates on ten sticks and keeps them all spinning in the air while cycling on one wheel. THERE is a difference between POV and there are different POVs to consider and select or disregard. My best advice read the section on Voice and POVs found in Jerome Stern's great, masterful Making Shapely Fiction. Then read the last chapter in Elements of Style by E.B. White.

Carol Kilgore said...

This is such a great post. I've printed it out to read again and mark up. So many points and so many hints and suggestions. Thank you.

Sassy Brit said...

Hello, Terry, and Neil,

What a great post! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

There's so much for an author to remember!


Terry Odell said...

Thanks, Carol & Sassy. I'm continuing the topic today (Wednesday) so please stop by.

Julie Kramer said...

What you said about a character's choice of language/vocabulary is so very true. This is a great guest blog, I'll be emailing the link to some writer friends.

Terry Odell said...

Thanks for stopping by, Julie. From what I've seen of your writing, you've got a very nice and distinctive voice.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

I think of voice in different terms than how our story characters speak. I see it more as the author's style. No matter what you write, when a fan picks up your book, she knows what she's getting. Maybe it's a lyrical voice, like Allison Chase. Maybe it's witty dialogue interlaced with sexual tension. Or maybe it's fast-paced, edge of your seat thriller material. This is the reason why some bestselling authors become brand names. When we pick up a Nora Roberts book, we know we're in for a treat. So when editors say they're looking for "voice", they mean a distinctive writing style unique to that author.

Terry Odell said...

Nancy -- I think they're two separate areas, and I blogged about the other, the 'authorial' voice in my own post today (Wednesday). Time scrolls backward in blogland.

Ashley Ladd said...

Great post, Neil. My older daughter went to Broward College and we live nearby. Do you teach any courses at night? If so, which campus? Hopefully North? If so, I'd love to sign up for one of your writing classes.