Interesting. The Afrikaans translation for "voice" is "stem."
Where do your words stem from?
Kelly Irvin tackles the difficult subject of voice in this post.
Kelly's debut novel, A Deadly Wilderness will be on the shelves next month, but is available through preorders right now at Amazon.
Voice: Just listen. You’ll know it when you read it.
At the last meeting of my local writing group, we talked about voice. One of the members looked around, her face puzzled, and said, “Can I ask a stupid question?” Being assured that there are no stupid questions among friends, she asked, “What’s the difference between voice and point of view. Character, in other words.”
It’s a tough question. I know voice exists because I know it when I see it. I would know Janet Evanovich’s work even if her name wasn’t on it. Same with James Lee Burke with his rich rolling thunderous passages of narrative that pick me up and slap me down right in the middle of New Iberia, Louisiana, or the filthy, ugly back streets of New Orleans. No one writes alcoholic binges or criminal intent like he does. Each one of his characters is distinct and gorgeously drawn. Every time I read one of his books I say to myself, I want to write like that.
Those of us at the table who have written published novels all agreed that we have distinctive, if still developing, voices. One author says she has a rather masculine voice, and her editor is always asking her what her characters are thinking and feeling because it rarely shows up on the page. I’m the opposite. My characters emote all over the place. But that’s really not my voice. My voice is in the words I choose to use. For example, in A Deadly Wilderness, there’s a time when a hung-over alcoholic cop takes a drink from a water bottle “like there isn’t enough water in the great state of Texas to slake her thirst.” Now others wouldn’t have said it quite like that. Some might have said she sucked it down greedily or gulped it like she couldn’t get enough. Or any number of other ways. Yes, I had to think about whether my POV character, the protagonist, would think like that. Now Ray is a vociferous reader, a theologian, and a bit of philosopher. So, yeah, I can get away with having him think the word slake.
The important thing to note here, is I didn’t sit down and try to come up with this particular phrase. It just came in the throes of the writing, as do the metaphors, like Ray watching Deborah work as a cop and thinking she was like a ballerina driving a bulldozer. You would’ve said it differently. Because your voice is different.
The bottom line, I think, is that you cannot teach voice. A writer’s voice is her own. In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Rennie Brown and Dave King conceded that a strong, distinctive, authoritative writing voice is something most fiction writers want—and something no editor or teacher can impart. It is . . . something any writer can bring out in himself or herself. But oddly enough, you can’t bring out your writer’s voice by concentrating on it.”
Members of our group struggled with that. They wanted to make lists of phrases used by other authors and use them in their WIPs. They wanted exercises they could do that would bring out their voice. The best way, Brown and King agree, to bring out your voice, is to write. And listen. Listen to your words, the rhythm of your sentences, the vividness of your verbs, the colorful way you bring that fictional word to life. Without impeding the story, mind you. The story is paramount. If you’re really pleased with a particular turn of phrase but it brings the reader out of the story, strike the phrase. And remember, when you’re in a particular character’s head, whatever he’s saying or thinking has to be in character. Stay in character. Don’t worry about your voice, it will come.
CR: The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass. For some reason, since I'm on the stretch just before the home stretch of my novel, and the books in my TBR pile beg for hours curled up with them and only them, I can't get my head around reading a novel. Weird, but true.
It's all better with friends.