Tuesday, January 30, 2007
When I did the rewrite for Crimson Eve a couple weeks ago, I mentioned one of the things I needed to work on was character voice. In fact, once I got that straight for each character, the rewriting stuff—like fixing any over-writing, cutting extra words—pretty much fell into line.
A couple of you wondered about the specifics of character voice. What did I have to change? How did I do it? I promised to get to the topic this week.
To answer these questions I have to back up. In a nutshell, in fixing this problem I needed to suppress my author voice and let the characters have their own. But wait—what’s author voice? How is it different from character voice?
Surprisingly, for all the topics listed in the archives here, we’ve never covered author’s voice. I’d have sworn I did at some point. The problem with discussing author voice is that it’s such a nebulous topic. “What is it? How do I get it? Where do I find it?” As if it’s a cache of gold to be unearthed somewhere. Many of the well-known books on writing fiction simply don’t tackle the topic at all.
Let’s dig in. And I do hope for a lot of comments from you all, BGs. This truly isn’t an easy topic, and your thoughts may be worded just the way that makes the “nickel drop” for someone else.
My one-line definition for author voice (AV): The distinct manner in which a novelist creates sentences and story. Doesn’t exactly sound like rocket science. So why is the concept so hard to pin down?
We understand voice in the auditory sense. Each person’s voice carries a certain timbre and tone. We know a person’s voice by the way he/she sounds. AV is similar—we can know an author by the way he/she “sounds.” We can mentally “hear” its cadence and rhythm, which come from such things as the kinds of words chosen, sentence length, tone (informal to formal and anywhere in between) and the repetitive use of certain techniques (such as dropping “and” between phrases).
Now here’s the rub, as I see it. A lot of novelists don’t have a very distinctive voice. In fact, in my opinion, most novelists don’t. Doesn’t mean they don’t have one at all—just means that it doesn’t particularly stand out as all that different from the rest. This is why you’ll hear editors say, “I’m looking for a fresh voice.” Because they don’t often find it. Many authors get away without having a distinctive voice. Their strength lies not in voice but in knowing how to tell a good tale. They come up with good plots. They know story structure, pacing, dialogue, etc. So they sell to publishers. And their books sell off shelves. And some of them sell very, very well. In short, you don’t have to have a distinctive AV to do well in this business. But it doesn’t hurt.
So—how does one “discover” his/her AV? Two ways. You write. You read. (Remember, learning the craft of fiction means lots of reading.) Then you write and read some more. You can’t force voice. Actually, AV seems to be quite the tease. It tends to sneak up on you when you’re not looking. That is—when you’re busy writing.
As you read (as long as the books aren’t from the library), I suggest reading with pen in hand. When you hit a certain narrative passage in a story that makes your soul sing—mark it. Don’t stop to analyze at the time, just mark it. And keep marking, book after book. Meantime, you’re writing. And after awhile (as in months, more likely years), you’ll begin to see a pattern in what speaks to you. The passages that make your soul sing will resonate with your own developing AV. As I did this is my first few years of learning the craft, I began to notice the passages that sang to me were somewhat lyrical, and employing metaphor. Then I began to notice these types of passages cropping up in my own writing. And that’s when I began to “hear” my own AV.
Now, there’s a downside to developing a strong AV, particularly for new novelists. We tend to like our voices just a little too much. If you tend toward the lyrically descriptive, this can lead to overwriting—a battle I still often face. A strongly voiced new novelist needs an especially skilled editor to pull her back—to show her how to use just the right amount here and there.
My other struggle with AV: when to use my own voice, and when to let my characters have their own. Well, shouldn’t every character have their own voice? We might think so. But think of all the books you read. How many novelists really use a different voice for each character? And how many write basically the same way no matter whose POV (point of view) they’re in? Which technique is right?
I think of Dean Koontz—one of my favorite authors. Koontz has a very strong AV, which is what sells his books. I could pick up a book without a cover, read a page or two and know I’m reading Koontz (at least, his later works). His AV tends to come through no matter what character’s POV he’s in. Yet he paints some very vivid characters. Frankly, he does this by a lot of telling rather than showing. He’ll stop the story for a paragraph or two just to describe the character. But his AV is so wonderful, he can get away with this. He just tells so doggone well.
Maybe if my AV were as well honed, I could do this, too. But when my AV begins to cover every character, they all just sound the same—which translates to rather flat. My technique for characterizing is to concentrate on showing and allow the reader to “hear” the character’s own voice.
Sounds great. But how do you accomplish that? More on that tomorrow.
Some reflection questions for today: What author do you like with a very distinctive voice? What makes it distinctive? Why do you like it? Does his/her AV carry the books, despite whose POV we’re in, or do the characters have distinctive voices? If the latter, how does the author separate the two?
Read Part 2