Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Sock Knockers: VOICE

*Note: This is in a series of sock-knockers posts, trying to analyze why particular books stand out above the rest for me. Click on the label below for the others so far.

Ah, voice.

Voice is a tricky little squirmy thing for writers. It can be the reason given by agents and editors for why they don't clamp onto a book ("the voice didn't grab me"), or the reason--whether or not they realize it--why readers can't get immersed in a story. If done well, it's the reason some books excel. But voice isn't really something you can be taught. It has to come naturally and it has to come with practice.

WHAT, you ask. And then you start rolling your eyes at me for being obscure and mysterious. I get ya. I'll explain.

Okay. To me, voice is the representation, the...well, voice (sorry) of the main character(s). If third person, it can be the narrator speaking or a character. If it's first person you're down in the head of that character, and voice has GOT to be representative of their singular perspective.

A good, unique voice should consider the character's:
  • vocabulary (rich or sparse? long words or short words? slang?)
  • cadence (how do they phrase their sentences? Different characters should have different rhythms)
  • experience (does your character know what an IPod is? Does he or she use one every day, or has seen but never owned one? how does that affect her description of it? what does she or does she not notice around her?)
  • beliefs (attitudes should come out in descriptions as well as dialogue and thoughts)
  • feelings (how does the character sound when she's angry? What auto-reactions does she go to? How often does she GET angry?)
At the least. I recently read a book where there were two male, one female. And I could NOT TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THEM. Every time I had to stop and look to see who was speaking. I should have been able to distinguish the two voices, easily, for any of the reasons above. This does not make a sock-knocker.

Above I said nailing voice has to both come naturally and take practice. I believe there is some talent inherent in the ability to immerse yourself in a character: to truly imagine yourself in that skin. Some people probably just can't do that. But it takes real practice--more than one novel practice--to figure out how to pour that imagined person onto the page well enough to portray a whole, real voice. It takes awareness of every word, every choice of dialogue or action, to see if it *fits*.

Though maybe not on the first draft. :)

So what are my sock-knockers for voice?

I thought back to come up with a "classic" example, and it fell easily into my head: Anne of Green Gables.

I know! It's third person! But Anne is so clear to me, even this many years later. I feel as though I Know Her. She is a real person with clear likes and dislikes and foibles and an attitude (who can forget how Anne felt about her red hair? Or her name? Or diamonds?), and every inch of the text reflects Anne as Anne.

Well done, L.M. Montgomery. Generations have loved Anne's voice.

For a modern book:

I tried not to use a friend's book as an example. REALLY I TRIED. But the problem is, see, I know a lot of writers, and they tend to write rather fantastic books which are perfect examples...

So my modern book is Joanna Bourne's The Spymaster's Lady, for which she happened to win a Rita this year.

Jo's book is a textbook example of How to Win at Voice. If you haven't read it, please, please do. You will thank me. The book is set in Annique's head so skillfully that she is able to even pull tricks on you, and it makes sense and you don't care and you only see what Annique sees. It is breathtaking.

There are other books that excel at voice, but I've mentioned several of them in other sock-knocker posts already, so that isn't really fair, is it?

*cough cough, Courtney Summers, cough cough*

Anyway. The book I'm writing now is particularly slippery in terms of voice and perspective, so I've been thinking about this a lot. Man, I hope I'm able to nail it. I'd like to blow YOUR socks off too, someday. *hope*


Annika said...

Just wait till you read Nova's DANI NOIR. Dani's voice knocked my socks clean off and I still have not found them. As long as I am barefoot, I'll add The Spymaster's lady to my library list.

courtney said...

Oh my God, I'm nodding my head to this whole entry, sipping my coffee then get to the end and anyway, you owe me a new keyboard is all I'm saying. These are great posts, Suze. Extraordinarily helpful & I totally agree with you about Anne of Green Gables. I found Anne just... a tad annoying heh (GOODNESS SHE TALKS!) but that voice got me totally carried away. And I totally agree with Annika too--DANI NOIR is FULL of voice and is amazing. Can't wait til you read it so we can talk about it!!!

Mechelle Fogelsong said...

Voice is, indeed, a tricky little squirmy thing. I'm teaching my middle school English class about voice right now, and they're having a tough time grasping it.

As we begin our essays for the VFW's Patriot's Pen essay contest, I keep asking my students, "Does this sound like you're writing the essay for a teacher or a veteran? Because it needs to sound like you're writing for an audience of veterans."

Do they get it? Nuh-uh. Their voice is all wacky, starting their essays with phrases like "My first paragraph will be about..." and "I'm only writing this because my teacher told me to..."

Yeah, that'll go over great at the VFW! We're really showing those vets how much we appreciate them. Not.

pseudosu said...

Hey- great post!
I think voice is probably the hardest thing for writers to understand if they don't have it. I'm not really sure you can teach it. This might be where the line between learned skill and talent is drawn. (?) I def think it's something that develops with more writing/time.

If it's missing or off everything pretty much goes out the window.

Tara said...

I loved Anne of Green Gables so much that it irritated me when my brother refused to spell his daughter's middle name (Ann) with an E on the end.

Elisabeth Black said...

Great post. Thanks for sharing!

Harley May said...

Yes. Yes. Yes. It is late and I will digest this. By digest, I mean "sleep" on this, but yes. You're so nice. I've been working on queries and drinking wine. We've all been there, right? RIGHT?