Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Night at the Question Emporium!

I've read on your blog that you place value in a writer's voice, and other agents, such as Jessica Faust and Rachelle Gardner, agree that it's important.

I've also taken classes and read writing tips, such as Allen Guthrie's, that say one's voice should not creep into one's writing as this authorial intrusion detracts from the substance of a work. (Ref: Hunting down the neoplasm, item 11) or here

Should I assume people are using the word 'voice' to apply to different stylistic aspects? Or that there is good voice and bad voice? Or merely that different readers want different things, so while some consider a strong voice a plus, other consider it an annoyance?


Hmmm- that's not very helpful is it?

I had to think about this for awhile. Voice is one of those ephemeral "musts" that drive querying authors mad because there is no objective answer.  Unlike spelling, format and word count, there's no way to measure voice...but I know it when I see it.

I know it by its energy and confidence. I know it because it stays in my head. I know it because it makes me believe in things like talking cats, invisibility suits, and happily ever after.

None of that is at all helpful, I know.

I tried to think of places where voice failed.  The best example I can think of is one that greatly pains me: Rita Mae Brown.  I'm a devoted fan of the writer herself, and of her work. I love her SneakyPie books a LOT.  But what drives me to distraction is when her own voice creeps in to the story.  And by her own voice, I mean that she has her characters most often the animals (yes they talk...but only to each other) voice opinions about politics and the human condition that I know for a stone cold fact are the opinions of Ms. Brown.  Ms. Brown is venting her spleen in feline dialogue and it stops the story cold.

I love those books, but I skip over the section where the cat discusses economics.  I can suspend my disbelief that cats can talk; I lose it when the cats pontificate on the world beyond their ken.

I think you can tell when voice slips or is inconsistent  by comments like "I didn't believe this." If I can believe in talking cats, I can believe pretty much anything; if I don't it means it doesn't fit with the world you've created for me.


Bill Cameron said...

I've reached the point where I can (mostly) tell when I'm writing with Voice—that obviously mannered style which shrieks "Writer At Work Here!"

In first drafts, I don't fret it, but in revisions, I work very hard to eradicate Voice. I strive to shape the language of the story in ways which subtly cue the reader to the kind of people the characters are. Usually that means a lot of cutting. Just as well. I've never written anything which didn't get better when I made it shorter.

What's left, if I've been successful, is voice, the infusion of character with narrative. It doesn't draw attention to itself, but to the story. It establishes pace and mood. It has a tone, a style, but it's recessive and suggestive. You can't exactly point to it, but you know it's there, like a shift of light and shadow in the corner of your eye.

The standard trope is you can't teach voice, but you can learn it. Practice, practice, practice, as they say.

Josin L. McQuein said...

There's a huge difference between character voice and authorial intrusion. If the character suddenly goes off the rails of his/her own established personality, and instead starts spouting the ideology of his/her creator, then the voice is off.

I know that with the best 'voice writers' out there, you can open a book with multiple POV's to a random page and know which character is speaking without being told. With the worst, you still wouldn't be sure, even with a chapter heading and dialogue tags. said...

At a workshop recently, a fellow writer and the super agent workshop leader both commented that I had strong authorial language and control. From the context, I know these comments were meant to be positive, but I can't help thinking that what they were hearing in my pages was me, not my characters.

Gary Corby said...

Isn't this the "Don't Preach" rule? It should be possible to place a disclaimer at the start of a novel which says, "All opinions expressed are those of the characters and not necessarily of the management."

Character voice is this: if you stood behind a wall and listened to the characters conversing on the other side, you'd be able to tell who was who without the speech tags.

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that when agents talk about a writer's voice, they are talking about that ephemeral thing that is a combination of style, language, pace, rhythm, word choice, sentence structure, etc. etc. etc. It's not a single thing that can be pinpointed, but you know it when you see it. It's the 'X Factor', the 'Star Quality', and all of those other terms that we usually hear applied to entertainers. (Oh, wait. Authors are entertainers, too. Who would have thought?)

Your voice distinguishes you from all the other writers out there. Read a paragraph written by Hemingway. Now read one written by Douglas Adams. Without judging either, I can promise that you'll be able to tell that they were written by different people.

If you have a strong, consistent voice in your writing, it makes it easier for people to believe what you're saying, and also easier for people to keep reading - even if they don't like the story. (Think about how many people will go and see a movie just because it has a particular actor in it, regardless of plot.)

When writing teachers talk about not letting your own voice creep into your writing, they're not referring to this mystical je ne sais quoi. They mean that you should lecture, add in your own irrelevant opinions, use "impressive" words rather than appropriate ones, etc. In other words, you aren't a character in your novel, so leave yourself out of it.

By letting your own voice creep into your writing, you detract from your own writing voice. Clear as mud.

Sean Ferrell said...

As Bill said above, you learn to trust that what needs to be on the page will be there after you clean out the crap. First drafts are easy. Revision is where writing takes place. And, finding the crap is easy, once you get some distance from the material. As the words drop out during the first draft each. one. is. golden. Weeks later you go back and realize that under the gold-leaf is cow-pie. You learn your rhythm. You learn your cadence. You learn your favorite words and you learn when not to rely on them. That's voice. When you know not what you're going to say but how you're going to say it, when you know when to pull back and when to push. Voice is when you no longer need to THINK about riding a bike, or running, or ordering food at a restaurant. You just do. And you get to "do" by doing. Practice, practice, practice.

Aimee L. Salter said...

Speaking as a Reader:

The 'voice' we want (in my opinion) is what I describe as personality in print. It's the tone and mannerism of expression that make a voice sound like a real person - with their own idiosyncratic way of seeing the world and commenting on it. It replicates our ability to recognize who's on the other end of the phone (without Caller ID).

Author commentary (or 'intrusion') isn't 'voice' - it's the opposite. It's a recorded message. It's facts, figures, opinions expressed through the loudspeaker of a character(s). It has nothing to do with voice and everything to do with a mission. And when it occurs, it sounds like that pre-recorded message the school used to send my parents when I cut class.

But I digress...

Messages (or missions) are delivered by every author in every story. But a good author disappears behind the book so the reader absorbs the opinion without realizing it.

magolla said...

I had been writing for eight years before discovering my writing voice--and it wasn't in the genre that I had been trying to break into!

When you discover your voice, it's like being set free. I became excited about writing again and that love poured onto the page and into my characters.

I've been told that I've nailed the voice of my 11-year-old character, but personally I think I just reverted back to my true self.

Anonymous said...

Like Aimee's description. It makes sense to me. That is one of the challenges in writing a good query.

Terri Coop said...

Stephen King was outed as Richard Bachman because of his unique voice. You know a King book when you read it and the ones that have been less successful are where he has tried to alter that voice.

I can also tell when a writer is nearing the end of his career because the voice changes, and often becomes sloppy and preachy - yes, I'm talking about you Tom Clancy . . .

It's the difference between singing in the shower and singing on stage. As to the "don't preach" rule, I just did a beta read for a friend and pointed out the places where his political leanings showed through, even in descriptions. Since he and I have different political views, it irritated the heck out of me. Not a good way to get a message across to the reader.

Callie Kingston said...

I just attended a workshop at the Summer in Words conference where we had a lively discussion about voice. Jessica Morrell defined it as "the personality that author is presenting through the work." So in this definition, it's clearly linked to the particular novel. But the waters get muddied when she went on to say: "Voice is the sound of you on the page." While your characters' voices may differ from novel to novel, your author voice is distinct and enduring.

David said...

Much of what has already been said is helpful information. Here is another bit. James Wood gives probably the best discussion (yet) of voice in How Fiction Works. He speaks of psychic distance and how to vary distance between character's voice and authorial perspective. Now this is a very complex and difficult task--one that many of our readers might not be able to describe while still being able to follow it in our narratives. I think it's the kind of skill where even when it's done right, some writers put up their fingers to object... kind of like those hyper-correctors who use 'I' in the predicate.

Wood uses Henry James excerpts to explain the technique, and when you see it in James you know it... kind of like when Janet says she 'knows it when [she] sees it.'

However, psychic distance is one of those writerly skills that not a lot of us chase down and learn. You don't hear agents talking about it or even many authors. Perhaps because it is so difficult to master...perhaps because they are agents and voice, after awhile, becomes kind of a generic term... or perhaps because hardly anybody can write in omniscient anymore, not that psychic voice is only for such a global perspective. Gardner has a good explanation of psychic distance in one of his books.

But essentialy, when other comments are talking about a character's words versus an author's words (or an intrusion), psychic distance is the tool of that separation. What's more difficult is that this is also tied to pov. Middlesex is a good example of varying distance in first person. Pride and Prejudice is the classic example of varying distance in 3rd.

Good luck and happy learning.

Shannon Heather said...

I agree, I think voice fails when you can see the author's opinions on politics, society, etc shine through. When the author feels the need to "teach" the voice is lost.

I think that's what makes a book like The Help so good. it could have been a poster-child for the author to interject her own voice, but she didn't. I didn't feel like one side was more right or more wrong. I didn't feel like the author was trying to give me a history lesson. The judging was equal from all races and economic POV's, which is more realistic to me.

hannah said...

When you're writing in first person, there's a weird balance you have to strike between your authorial voice (your style that extends beyond that one book) and your main character's voice. If you lose your own voice, you risk pissing off readers who are looking for the feeling they loved in one book to appear in the next. If you ignore the unique voices of the different characters, you'll have main characters who all sound the same.

Experts at the balance (in YA, because that's my speciality): Melina Marchetta, Jaclyn Moriarty, David Levithan.

Taylor Stevens said...

"Voice" as it makes sense to me, is just another way of saying, "the way you write."

It seems to me that when writing throughout a book is consistent in terms of cadance and structure, word usage and tone, when the patterns are unique to the author and they have a confidence and flow--that is voice--that is the way you write.

When you haven't found your voice, all of these bits and pieces that make up a book are going to be inconsistent and hodgepodge and the voice will not be clear.

Ann Marie Gamble said...

If you don't get voice, it may help to read outside your usual genre--voice can be part of what defines particular genres, so stronger contrasts might help highlight what it contributes.

DK said...

The "author's voice" can intrude whether or not he preaches her own opinions. When we speak, we all have a certain way of expressing ourselves. Unless the character is pretty much the same person as the author, then if the character's words and thoughts "sound" like you (the author), rather than her, then your own voice intruded and the writing is weakened.

Personally, I also disagree with those who say "voice" should be consistent in all an author's works. If you're writing a series with the same protagonist then, sure, the voice should be consistent from work to work. Each time you have a different main character, however, the voice should be different.

Bill Peschel said...

I'm seeing here a bit of overlap and perhaps not quite clear definitions of voice, so let me list how I see it.

There's the Narrative Voice, which is the stuff outside the dialogue. The observations, word choice, pacing and telling phrases that leads to a laugh or a tear make up some of the elements of that voice. When I think of a distinctive voice, I'm thinking of Hemingway, Pratchett, Gaiman and King (from my reading, of course).

There is also the Character Voice, which refers to the person above who talked about characters being so distinct that you should be able to tell who is who without the dialog tags (and so right, too). Equally distinctive, but it is not what people talk about when they talk about the author's voice.

However, to muddy the waters, in first-person prose, authorial voice and character voice can come together. Think Huck Finn and Holden Caufield.

Understanding this can lead to a huge jump in the quality of your writing. There are a lot of similar plots out there, but only one distinctive voice: yours. Bring it out, and it will set you apart.