Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Voice--Part 1

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.

Author Voice

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?

Neither. Both.

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


Kristy Dykes said...

Great topic. As you said, an author needs to write a lot in order to finally recognize his/her voice. New authors worry about it, fret about it, but it finally "comes," I've found.

You said, "...do the characters have distinctive voices?"

I think this ties in with the personalities of the characters. I think that's why it's good for authors to understand personality types so they CAN give their characters distinctive voices. Florence and Marita Littauer teach on the four personality types: popular sanguine, powerful choleric, peaceful phegmatic, perfect melancholy. A good novel characterization of these is found in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' Pulitzer Price-winning The Yearling. Ma is a hard-nosed, difficult, cranky person; Pa is tenderhearted and tells his son Jody that Ma's the way she is because of the hardships they face living in the wilds of Florida; little Jody is compliant and cheerful like Pa. Figuring out your characters' personalities helps you as the author give them distinctive voices.

Thanks for a great post.

Kristy Dykes said...

I meant "Prize-winning."

Also, I wanted to point out that Ma's the way she is because of her personality type, NOT because of the hardships they face (Pa erroneously thinks this).

Lynette Eason said...

I really enjoy Dee Henderson. I think she has a very distinct way of putting words together. In some ways I like it and others, I don't.

For example. I like the character interactions, the give and take, the humor. It's short, sweet and to the point.

Then other times she seems to string words together in a way that don't make sense at first, and I have to go back and reread the sentence and go, "Oh, that's what's she saying." That can be kind of aggravating, but she's always been a favorite of mine and I've come to realize that's her way of writing...her AV, if you will...smile.

Great topic. Thanks,


Jerome said...

Brandilyn, I had a friend recently tell me that as he read my novel, The Election, he could HEAR MY VOICE. It took him about 100 pages to finally get my voice out of his head. First time I've had that happen.

Bonnie Way aka the Koala Mom said...

In one of my university English classes, our prof printed several snippets of poetry on a piece of paper, without listing the author's name, and had us read them and tell him who the author was. His point was that each poet had a distinct voice and way of writing that we should be able to recognize. It was a great exercise, and is also true of novelists. When I think of authors like Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte, I can hear their voices, their distinct way of writing. This is definately something hard to develop, however, and lacking in many writers. Angela Elwell Hunt is a good modern writer who has managed to capture her characters' voices. I enjoy reading her fiction just to find out how she's written her characters. Great topic here - thanks for the thoughts!

Katie Hart - Pinterest Manager said...

Siri Mitchell has a distinctive voice, though the POV voices aren't as well-defined. One exception is Chateau of Echoes, where a medieval journal contrasts with a contemporary story.

I recently read Allah's Fire, cowritten by Chuck Holton and Gayle Roper. Their author voices didn't seem very distinctive, but they used them in a unique way. Holton wrote the scenes from the male POV and Roper wrote the female ones. This helped the story feel authentic, while not distracting from the plot.

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

BTW...I loved the Election...LOL, but Jerome already knows that. Now he has a distinctive voice.

Present company accepted...I like Alton Gansky's and Robert Liparulo's AVs!

Anonymous said...

Brandilyn: great post (as usual). And I find you're a Dean Koontz fan to boot. Mighty sweet! Yeah, voice, that elusive "whatsit", that aggravating thing that's as slippery and hard to grasp as a sliver of soap in a galvanized tub. But, oh so critical. Koontz has it, Brandilyn. And so do you.

Anonymous said...

So do you, John.

Karen said...

Great post, Brandilyn. This goes along with the discussion they're having at Speculative Faith about the ever-illusive author's voice.

This is definitely a discussion that Christian writers and Christian filmmakers need to be having. Even though I'm not a fan of Quentin Tarentino's work, I know it's his in about 5 minutes or so. Christian artists need their own distinctive voices like Spike Lee, Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine...), Pedro Almodovar (Volver), Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation) and Stephen King - but with own flare.

I'm still developing my voice, still practicing the scales (like they do in music) until I can use what I've learned to make my instrument SING!

What I do know is this: I love narrative voices. I think that's why I enjoy blogs so much (like yours). When I can hear an author's voice, I tune in and sit down for storytime like a kid in the first grade. It's the voice that captures me and the story concept that keeps me sitting.

And you're right about us newbie authors needing a good editor. Newbies tend to think they "know-it-all" when the truth is we desperately need the grace of a good editor to guide us along.

My favorite author by far is Francine Rivers, she writes with complete command when it comes to AV and character's voice. And as I was writing this response I paused and ran to the other room to grab a couple of books to see who her editors were. Rivers gave a "special thanks" to Karen Ball in the two I picked up, now that tells me what kind of level Ms. Ball is working on. So it's official, I need to find my own "Karen Ball" in the industry.

I tend to run with my responses but I'll end on this note:

I really like Melody Carlson's
Diary of a Teenage Girl" series. Her narrative voice is on point - in the first book she wrote: "I heard somewhere that when you write in a diary you should pretend that you're writing a letter to a really good friend, someone you trust completely, and you know will never laught at you..." Now, that's something I wish I wrote.

Great post Brandilyn! Keep on doing your "thang".

Karen said...

Oh--and for all of you who enjoy the narrative style. Try reading some past Pultizer Prize winners for feature writing. One of my journalism professors had us read "The Umpire's Sons" by Lisa Pollak and--WOW! Go to http://www.pulitzer.org/index.html and do a search for the archives for "baseball umpire" and click on the works tab and enjoy!