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Monday, November 9, 2009

Don't Use That Voice With Me!

Today, I'm going to talk about the voice of a novel, which is the literary term used to describe the individual writing style of an author. Voice was generally considered to be a combination of a writer's use of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works)... One author may have a voice that is light and fast paced while another may have a dark voice. (Source: Wikipedia: Writer's Voice)

So, how do you establish the voice of your novel? I've read it around a lot of publishing blogs. The voice of your novel is a deal breaker. Meaning, you need to have one. A strong one.

Most of us have a natural writing voice. It comes through in our blog posts, our informal emails, even out loud when we speak. You can write a novel in "your" voice. But what happens if you've A) already done that? or B) your voice doesn't match your character's story?

Let's explore.

Picture this: You sit down to write. You proceed to stare. Because you can't find your character's voice. Or your voice. Or any voice. This happened to me. I had a main character. He was in my head, talking away. He had a story. But he was vanilla. And while I like vanilla, I like it better with caramel and pecans and some of those peanut-butter-filled footballs. A lot better.

So how do you capture a new voice, one that isn't as familiar to you? Here are a few tips and tricks I learned as I went through this exact same problem.

Tip #1: Voice can't be forced, but it can be found. 
If you're having trouble finding your characters voice, sit down to free-write from the point of view of that character. But don't write your novel. 

What I Did: I imagined my MC in a high-stress situation, like he's been dating his best friend's sister, and his buddy just found out. I didn't worry about backstory, because I can imagine a situation like that. I simply wrote DIALOGUE my character would have with his bff. (Or do girls only have bff's?) The scene was mostly dialogue with some physical clues thrown in for emotional impact.

This showed me A) how my MC reacts in a tense scene and B) how he talks.

Then I imagined a completely different scenario. One where my character would have to convey information to the reader. Since I had just learned how he talked, I transferred that to narration. This second piece contained no dialogue whatsoever. Only narration. Establishing setting with sight, smell, taste, etc.

This showed me A) what details he might notice and B) how to move the unique voice most of us can establish in DIALOGUE into NARRATION. 

Trick #2: Choose something unique and have your character use it consistently. 
This is done to develop character, which is one of the parts of voice in a piece of writing. In Scott Westerfeld's PEEPS, one of the characters calls everyone "Dude." In Stephanie Meyer's TWILIGHT saga, Jacob always says, "Sure, sure." In Kristin Cashore's GRACELING, her narrating character begins a lot of sentences -- both in narration and in dialogue -- with "Well".

What I Did: In my first novel, my character starts a lot of her sentences with "Yeah". (ex: Yeah, that doesn't work for me. If you read my personal blog at all, you'll notice that I do the same thing.) So I certainly couldn't do that again. As I was free-writing, I seized on a word that my MC said, and now it's his "thing." He uses it in dialogue and in narration. It's not something I would've chosen on my own, but something I was looking for during the free-write session.

Tip #3: Don't go overboard.
Don't get me wrong. Voice is essential in a piece of writing. But it's essential the same way baking soda is in cookies. No baking soda = flat cookies. No voice = flat writing.

But how much baking soda do you put in? Not as much as the flour. Think about it.

So watch yourself. Sprinkle it in consistently, but don't take off the lid and dump it on us.

I might be back with another post on voice. How do you find the voice you write with?



Abby Annis said...

Speaking of voice--I can always tell which posts are yours before I get to the end. :)

This is something I've been struggling with for NaNo. My new MC is male, which is a whole new world for me. It's been an interesting experience.

I actually had to sit down and do a character sheet with backstory and everything before I felt like I had a feel for his voice. (I've never done that before, for any of my characters.) Then I wrote out one of the tenser scenes in the story, and after that, it just started to flow.

Stina said...

I agree with Abby on the first point. It's a game now for me to guess who the blogger is by the voice. :D

You also have to remember the voice, like everything else in publishing, is subjective. One person may love it. Someone else thinks it's sucks big time.

How do I find the voice? I don't really think about it. I just get into character and let it flow. But to get to that point, I've already done a character sheet so I know my character inside and out. I'm not winging it.

Great post as always!

MAGolla said...

Great post, Elana!

It took me YEARS, and numerous manuscripts, to find my voice, partly because I tried to please my CP's as I learned the craft of writing.

Now, I have a voice, but no CP's.

I think I took the better deal.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Elana!

You might want to make an edit, though. Jacob Black says "sure, sure", not "yeah, yeah." Minor difference, but still...

Lynnette Labelle said...

Great post. I just found my voice. What a relief!

Lynnette Labelle

Melanie Hooyenga said...

This is a very helpful post! One of the things on my list for this draft is tightening the father's voice so it sounds more a) masculine, and b) fatherly. Little things...

I seem to have a knack for female voices -- go figure -- but for some reason I keep writing men.

Elana Johnson said...

He says "Sure, sure"? Dude, now I have to go find my books and re-read. But that sounds right... Thanks!! (Color me red. Yikes.)

And I like this game of the readers guessing who the author is from the voice of the post. You guys rawk!

ali cross said...

This rocks so hard I think I should spike my hair, put on tons of black eye liner and my fave band shirt.

Thanks Elana!

Unknown said...

This is something I struggle with a lot, but no one has been able to tell me how to write with a voice other than my own. Thanks for this!

Hardygirl said...

Wow!! Incredible post.

Voice is often elusive for me. I love the idea of putting your characters in a tense situation unrelated to the book.

I also love the baking soda analogy. An overdone voice always sounds fake and can ruin a great story.


Betsy Ashton said...

After retraining my CP through too many rewrites, one of my friends sent a provocative e-mail: "Why don't you let Max be Max?" I stopped editing her and let her voice fly. Sometimes it's sad, sometimes it's sassy, always it's now hers. I feel better letting her have her say, even when she's less than politically correct at times. Whew! Took two years to let Max be Max.

lisa and laura said...

Great post Elana! Something that we struggle with occasionally is overdoing the voice. I know, hard to believe, right? So I guess just something to be aware of. You don't want the voice to be distracting...

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for another great, practical post. I struggle with voice a lot and you really give a step by step approach to figuring it out.

Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

Great post. I've actually been thinking a lot about this lately, because the voice of my current WIP is so different from the voice of my previous work. Maybe it's because this is my first 1st person POV, but this MC sounds a lot more like I do with my best friend -- more informal, more intimate, more okay with cussing -- than the way I do with most people. It's interesting.

Anonymous said...

These are some awesome suggestions. I've always had no trouble writing the storyline but I'm never quite sure about the character's voice. I like the idea of free writing as the character. I'm going to try that today.

Andie Pandie said...

I was lucky in a way. I had voice from the beginning. Folks loved it but that love got in the way of plot. Balance is tough. There's a lot to writing a novel. It isn't rocket science. It's harder. Much MUCH harder.

J. R. Tomlin said...

I don't find a voice. It just is. I write from inside the character--not by doing a character sheet though. I suppose writing the novel IS free writing for me.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Trolling through past posts - this is a great one! And just the spice I needed to tackle my MC's voice ... again. :)