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.
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.
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.