Tuesday, May 12, 2009

That Elusive Voice

photo from http:// flickr.com

Aren't we all searching for that elusive voice? To say it comes naturally to some and not to others is too simplistic a view, in my opinion. It may come easier to some, others may struggle with issues of plot and structure, but there is not any single part of our writing we can't or shouldn't improve.


by Elizabeth Engstrom

" I have come to believe that there are no new photos and few new stories, only unusual reombinations of things that have been told before. But what is new, and fresh and original is the author's lens through which these situations are viewed. Our gift, and consequently our responsibility as writers, is to view life situations in our naturally unique way and report the truth about their meanings and values to the reading public so they can have fresh insight into the human condition. We are each unique in the universe and, therefore, so are the stories we tell."


If you feel yourself (as we all do) struggling with the issue of voice, ask yourself these questions:

Am I more concerned with what is happening (action) than with the experience of the reader (tone/voice)?

What emotion or mood am I invoking in this scene? How am I doing it?

How can I better balance action and mood?

Too often we get caught up in what the forward action needs to be. We assume that action equates mood. It certainly has the potential, but even the most sock em rock em scenes can fall flat if you don't pay attention to how the story is being told.

Patti Gauch (VP/Penguin) once told me (in a critique session):

"Make it yours by the words you choose"

That was her definition of voice. I thought it fantastic advice.

Could this crazy, elusive, difficult thing called VOICE really boil down to something as simple as WORD CHOICE?

I decided to put her advice to the test. Let me illustrate her point with a comparison example.

In this scene of my manuscript, Virginia Koppel, accused of murdering her husband, responds to the question of innocence. This first example was my initial draft.

A. "True?" Virginia Koppel laughed. She was small in stature, but had a deep laugh. "What's truth got to do with anything?" Virginia stood up and raised her thin arms out to the side. She was short.

Now, using Patti's advice, I changed a few key words and came up with this revision:

B. “True?” Virginia Koppel laughed. She was a tiny thing, but her laugh was deep and throaty. “What’s truth got to do with anything?” Virginia stood up and raised her twiggy arms out to the side. She couldn’t have been an inch over five feet tall.

Is it any better? Well, I think Patti was right. Changing "small in stature" to "tiny little thing" and "deep" to "deep and throaty" and "thin arms" to "twiggy arms" and "she was short" to "she couldn't have been an inch over five feet tall" gives a better feel for the passage. It better invokes the 1957, Arkansas mood I am going for in this particular piece (I think.....I hope).

Let me be clear when I say this is not an area I am even close to solid in. Each day, each revision teaches me new lessons. In fact, I sometimes go to the other extreme and get so lost in prose that my readers lose interest. That is my challenge.

These are simply thoughts I've been having and goals I am striving for in my own writing.

What say you? What would you add?


Danyelle said...

Very good information, and a great post! There's not really anything I can add. I think voice is such an important thing to have in the writing, and yet at the same time, it's so hard to pin down. Great job!

Lisa and Laura said...

The Haunting of Pemberly Brown is definitely written in a distinct voice, but it was easy because it was our voice. The challenge of writing in another person's voice scares me and excites me. I can't wait to experiment.

Great post, Tess!

Scott said...

I took who I am and infused that, as much as possible, into my writing. That was how I found my voice . . . at least for the current out to query project. The current project I am working on has a similiar, yet very distinct, all its own voice.

I truly think that the voice, at least for me, is one of the hardest parts of writing. I was (notice the past tense) too formal. I learned to relax and just let things happen. That, seems to have worked for me . . . at least so far.

I think the struggle with voice will be a constant one as I move forward with each new project. I don't want to write the same thing every time. My voice doesn't have to change totally, but it does need to adapt in some way, to be different from what it was in other projects.

Thanks for the post, and the great quote. My advice as always . . . keep writing. The voice is within you, you might just have to listen a bit harder to hear it clearly enough. : )


Tess said...

Danyelle: thanks for the comment and, you are right, it is hard to pin down - but, somehow, looking at it from an objective view (like simple word choice) helps me.

Lisa and Laura - can't wait to read your novel! Whose voice would you write in if not your own????

Scott - so true, so true. the more we write, the closer we get.

Wendy said...

I love the twiggy arms. I think for me the experience of having my voice surface in my writing is perhaps one of my favorite things about writing...it's like learning who I am over and over.
~ Wendy

Robyn said...

I love this post and what a great quote. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Voice is the thing I DON'T have trouble with. My trouble comes with description, not enough , too much, blah, blah,blah. I wish I could get it right. All of it. I think you definitely improved the scene. The reader can visualize Virginia now. :)

B.J. Anderson said...

You said it all. :) Awesome post.

Lynnette Labelle said...

I've always heard that the more you write, the more your voice will come through. People have told me I have a voice, but I can't see it myself... Probably because it's ME. Kind of like I don't think I have an accent, but someone further south would say I do.

Lynnette Labelle

Davin Malasarn said...

I have a very broad definition of voice, which may be right or wrong. I think voice is made up of a hundred different things, and word choice is definitely one of them. Different writer's have different vocabularies, and that comes through in the writing. I think what you did in your revision worked really nicely. You ended up trying to sound more like yourself. In a sense, you chose the path of least resistance, which, for me, is the way to get to your own voice.

Jill Kemerer said...

Love this topic! I think voice is the way a writer handles all of the elements in her writing. Word choice is a huge part of the equation, but I don't think it's everything. I recognize writers by their quick pace or their descriptive details or the emotional depth they bring to a story. Even sentence structure affects voice.

Tess said...

Really good points to think about. The idea of pacing....sentence structure....hmmm. I like it :)

Amy Allgeyer Cook said...

All very good points. I'd only add that (very obviously) dialogue plays a huge role in voice. I've heard editors say you should be able to tell who is talking without the tags.

Scott said...

Tess - you have my permission to use my tombstone entry. : )

Wouldn't it be a hoot to actually see that on a tombstone? Hmmmmm . . .


Charlie said...

Voice is one of things I'm having trouble with. Trying to be as honest as possible with my characters, sometimes they all come out sounding like me. (I'm shuddering at the thought of a world of Charlie's) That doesn't work. It's hard for me to get in the head of a girl from the future who's struggling with knowing the world is ending but has fallen in love with someone from the past that cannot leave. I just try to break it down to some raw emotions and write about what I would do, say and act.

Naturally, I can't say it works for me until people tell me they love what I have written.

Charlie said...

Obviously, I'm having trouble with grammer too. :)

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

Patti gave good advice :) The only thing I feel solid in with my writing is knowing my characters. I meet a new person in real life and I know which of my characters would like or dislike the person. I know what songs they'd turn off, which ones they'd sing along too. Who would loves todays weather and who would bitch about it. I hope that comes through in my writing cuz they are all so different, yet great.
Doing them justice in printed words is the hard part. I'm still a work in progress therefore so are my characters. As we all are. Which is what makes the journey so much fun (and trying).

Diana said...

Hi, Tess. I'm coming to this a little late, but here's a little analysis I wrote at the end of the voice workshop I took at Boyd's Mills. It's sort of a summation of everything I learned:
It's tug-at-your-heart words. Deep, emotional, getting to the core words. Sometimes stand alone. Sometimes repeated in different ways, always getting closer and closer to the truth.
VOICE is a zeroing in. A closer look. Noticing the details. Writing the feelings.
VOICE sings. Has rhythm. Has fun with words.
VOICE makes you see and hear and smell and feel. Sometimes in stucatto.
VOICE is the texture of your story. The tone of your words.
VOICE is revealed through metaphor and simile - the ones you choose, the way you see.
VOICE is the way YOU illuminate the ordinary.

Crystal said...

Love this post, Tess! Sorry I missed it. Yes, voice IS very hard to pin down. The only way I can get the voice of my characters is to really envision myself as being that character. And for me, male voices are much harder to pin down.

And I am taking Patti Gauch's advice to heart . . . that's so true . . . it's all in the words that we choose.

Diana's summary is great . . . yes, I think voice is all of that, too.