Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Voice Voce Expressar Vocale

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.


  1. So, if you read something and nothing vivid or distinctive is in the writing, either the writer hasn't found/developed their voice or they aren't truly a writer?

  2. I can't wait to hear what Kelly has to say, but I'm gonna jump in with my opinion anyway—especially since there's no one here to stop me.

    If I had to chose between those two options, I would say the writer had not yet found or developed his or her voice.

    But, I think it's even more thant that and it could depend on what you read.

    I believe that different stories/genres call for different voices. And that an author's voice can vary if they write across the board.

    For example, the voice you would use in writing suspense is a very different one than you would use writing a children's book.

    Sometimes, when something you read comes across blah (and it's not because the character is blah), it could be because the writer is trying too hard to be technically correct. The cure for this is to give yourself a chance to write free-form.

    Is there something you're particularly passionate about? Something that gets your juices flowing and you can almost taste the heat? Write about that passion. Feel how the words spill out. That's your voice.

    I received a great piece of advice from an author the other day. Robert Fate said, "It's easier if you don't do the writing—allow that woman in alpha state to do it all and you take credit for it."

    I know of only one way to develop your voice. Write. Then, write some more.

  3. Great topic! And great question, Lee. I think I would say that even the most untried writer has a voice already. When I read unpubbed mss, they are all distinct, even if I can't quite put my finger on how.

    I'd also make a distinction between a character's voice and the writer's. My personal goal is for a writer's voice that almost disappears so that you hear the characters and almost forget that you're being told a story.

    Hemingway (whose work I don't particularly love) said something like the writer should be a clear window through which to view the story.

    But then there are writers whose voices are so wonderful I'm glad they feel differently!

  4. I'm constantly learning this craft, but to me, there can be a very fine line between voice and author intrusion, which I think you're alluding to, Jenny. Right?

    Most of that is resolved by remembering to keep in the right POV. The writer is the recorder. It's not an op ed piece. If you want to do that, start a blog. {smile}

    I love that you see a voice in even the most untried writer.

    I think you can pick up a James Lee Burke or Carl Hiassen and know exactly whose words you're reading. But I aslo think that's because they've remained (to the best of my knowledge) genre specific.

    It's not a character thing as much as it is an situational thing. Or an audience thing.

    BUT, even with the same genre, and the same audience, Kelly's and Jenny's and Lee's and my voice are distinct. As long as we're writing more from what Robert Fate calls the "alpha state" as opposed to the conforming to the rules state.

  5. Point of view is a device which can be applied by any writer to the construction of a piece of writing. POV is essentially neutral until applied by the writer to her or his work. Voice, on the other hand, is something intrinsic and intensely personal. Unique. It arises out of a complex background supplied by the author. I think voice exists in all writers, although not always obvious to the observer or reader. And yes, voice may be altered by an author to fit different characters and projects, although I see very little evidence of complete change of voice by an author. Social attitudes, a component of voice, are difficult if not impossible to change.

  6. If an author is centered, strong, and confident in who they are, I think you might be right, Carl.

    My voice, attitude, word-choices (where not character driven) will come from my personal history.

    Where is the line from voice to intrusion?

  7. If the writing isn't vivid or distinctive, will you keep reading? The writer might not be a very good writer, but still a writer. Voice and craft are two different things. Craft can be taught. I'd argue voice cannot. Great discussion

  8. Why can't voice be taught? Albeit, self-taught.

  9. I'm so glad you brought up this topic, and I think your answers have been very thoughtful.

    I'm a new author. I've always been the storyteller in the family. I made them up and told them to my younger siblings, then my own children, now my Sunday School classes... Unfortunately that isn't transitioning well into writing. The old show-vs-tell problem. It's proving difficult to overcome that mindset.

    I've had other issues as well, and it doesn't help that I'm a bit of a perfectionist. I have spent a small fortune on writing books. I want to learn and do the best I can. However, sometimes I get so stressed about choosing the perfect word, overcoming all the telling, or the problem with reusing the same word too many times... I just freeze up and can't seem to move forward at all. I'm a plain spoken person, and I tend to write that way as well. My dialogue is true to the characters - but every time I veer away from them speaking, I tend to fall back into "me" and that is more or less plain language. I don't speak with interesting metaphors and similes ~ and it doesn't occur to me to write with them either. Couple that with fighting the urge to just "tell" every scene and I'm really frightened I may let people down.

    Any advice about overcoming that "freeze" mentality when it happens?

    Also, specifically about voice, I wonder if I have a hard time seeing it in my writing because I'm working so hard to employ all the various rules I'm working on.

    My critique partner & editor think the story & characters are good. I needed to polish the story, get rid of telling and work on the ending. I didn't like it either, but at the time, I wasn't sure what to do with it. I've come up with some ideas since then. So if they liked it, could I still have a voice buried in there I might not see? And by self-taught do you mean to simply keep on writing?

    I asked the initial question because although I've gotten good feedback on the story, it seems so much harder for me and it's taken longer. My critique partner has a voice and her rough drafts are cleaner and have a... grace about them that my writing does not, even after far more revisions. I had several people tell me I should do this, and I really believed God gave me these ideas so I could write. However, now I'm doubting myself because those He calls he also equips, doesn't he?

  10. Peg said it: voice is confidence in who you are.
    I think that as we grow older, we become more and more who we really are and not what society expects us to be
    Maybe it can't be taught, but we can learn it along the way.
    I don't think you can force a writer who hasn't found their voice to suddenly develop one. But you can guide an artist to being more and more confident in expressing themselves in an authentic and original way.

  11. Lee, just knowing that there's a difference between showing and telling (even if your not quite sure what it is) puts you on the right track.

    Self-taught. Yeah. Keep on writing. Keep reading. What I found is that something that ran up against a brick wall one year, seaped through the next and I finally got it.

    We all doubt ourselves. Wonder what the heck made us think we could write. The thing is, we are ready to take the hard knocks to get this right. We're willing to pay dues that no one else in the world would understand.

    It's what we do.

    That perfectionist thing that makes you freeze? Oh, man. I've been there. You just have to plow through it. Anne Lamott gave me such freedom in her book BIRD BY BIRD. She made it okay to write a horrible first draft. No one else ever need see it. Stephen King—the same thing. I've never ever heard of an author who sits down and writes it right the first time.

    The thing is, you have to write SOMETHING in order to make it better.

    Oh Linda . . . thank you for mentioning age. I have another birthday coming up and well . . . it's another birthday.

    It took me longer than any of my contemporaries to do anything. Now, it seems like it's taken me longer to come into my own. I still have huge moments of self-doubt and insecurity. I think it's mostly a woman thing, but when it hits, I pay more attention to it than I do the fleeting moments of confidence. Why is that?

    I have to say though, that a 14 year-old, who is confident, can have a voice. But that would be a rare thing for it to be a unique voice, don't you think?

    I love what you said about guiding someone toward finding their authentic expression. If only we could all find that groove and stay there with confidence.

    Way past my bedtime. Hoping I added rather than muddled.

  12. The absolute best discussion I have ever seen in print about POV and Voice and the difference between them and the variants and nuances was in a now out of print, terrific little book by Jerome Stern entitled Making Shapely Fiction. You cannot do better than to read the sections of this book on this topic. That said, let me give you a for instance. If I write a cop procedural book, an ME serial killer book, or a PI book each will have a separate VOICE whether I choose to use the first person or third person to tell the story with; whether I choose to have it narrated by one of the characters or by a separate narrative voice. In a novel, you are making thousands of choices in all the hundreds of sentences the entire way through and major among them is your choice of POV and your choice of narrative voice. They may intersect and overlap if you choose your main character to tell his or her story. If you choose the more distanced narrative voice and that voice is not your main character or any other character in the story but a more "omni" voice then your story will sound an entirely entirely different voice. Just as I chose there to repeat entirely, I made a conscious decision to emphasize that word in that clumsy manner; I might better have chosen to italics it or bold it, and so it is with Voice. You make the choice and you can learn to be CONSISTENT with your narrator's voice. In my Instinct series, for eleven books, I crafted the work in the framework of an omni voice that had the authentic tone of a law enforcment speaker who would not call Dr. Jessica Coran informally by the name JESS, while other characters close to her did call her Jess. That is a major difference in choice of voice. Voice is not so nebulous and mysterious as many would have you believe; it is a consistent narrative tone that you establish from the first sentence to the last and is made up of every small choice you make down to whether to use maybe or perhaps, before or ago...whether to tell the tale with a twang or colloquial speech or formal and proper standard English...whether to use a phrase like copse of trees or stand of trees...in a YA book for instance. Oh yeah, why not throw the reader out of your otherwise consistent voice/story by having him to rush to a dictionary to look up what is a copse.

    Christ Roerdan and I proposed to do a panel on VOICE at a prominent well known writers conference one year but we were told the subject was too damn nebulous to tackle on an hour long discussion. Of course they were terribly wrong and this would make an excellent topic at any gathering of writers and readers. In fact, Voice is the single most important lesson a student of writing must conquer if he or she is ever to see a story past an editor. Voice tells an editor if your langauge is passive, if it is plodding or fast paced, if it is action and character driven or sleep inducing, ahowing and dramatic or reading like an encyclopedia or textbook. Voice is the culmination of every decision you have made for your story, and when the voice falters or fails so goes the story. Even here with each comment, we all display a voice of one sort or another in the choices of word and tone and all the decisions of grammar down to where we put our commas. The sum of all the parts of a dramatic piece of writing equals Voice. Not neccesarily POV but Voice for sure; if you choose to mix POV with Voice as one that works too.
    By the by, I have blogged on this very subject more than once and such can be found archived at acme authors link.

  13. POV/VOICE - Interesting discussion! I struggled with this distinction when I was writing my book on mystery writing.

    My conclusions! In most mystery novels, each scene is NARRATED by one of the characters. POV is about whether it's always in the same character's viewpoit(either first or third person) or whether scenes are narrated by multiple characters. VOICE is the attitude (someone else said this) and perspective conveyed by the single or each of the multiple narrators (usually third person).

    Read the first chapter of a Kinsey Mihone/Sue Grafton Novel. You'll hear the attitude in Kinsey's VOICE as narrator -- and Grafton chooses the first person POV to convey it.

    Hallie (www.hallieephron.com)

  14. MAKING SHAPELY FICTION by Jerome Stern was the first book on craft I bought—at the recommendation of Lisa Samson.

    His section on voice isn't very long, but it's pretty concise. Here's what I have highlited:

    "Voice is the writer's style as it is expressed in the characters' speech and thoughts.

    Writers can be many people and can have access to many voices. They can assume the voice of an adolescent girl, and elderly woman, a bitter young boy, an incompetent salesman, an unhappy teacher. Each voice creates a character. . . . .

    To stay in voice you have to hear that voice in your head. . . . Reading your story aloud is a fine way of testing your control of the voice. You'll hear where the voice has gone flat or lost its rhythm. You'll hear where a certain insight or piece of information seems out of character."

  15. I wish I could pour you all another round of coffee and then be "Mary," sitting and listening while you discuss. I can't quite grasp this concept yet. Every time I think I have it, I realize I'm back to the idea of my characters' voices instead of my own.

    I realized as I read ~ this may be one of those areas I need to give myself permission to not know right now. I only just started this journey. I shouldn't expect to understand it all right away. That doesn't mean I'm going to quit trying though. lol

    I'll have to look up that book. I am a big reader and could always use another good book, especially one on writing. I'm 1/3 of the way through BIRD by BIRD right now. :o) I've been savoring it a little like a box of chocolates; nibbling at just a few pages here and there as a sort of reward for good behavior.

  16. Voice is sound.
    POV is who's making the sound.

    You hear a cello playing a melody. The cello is the point of view. The melody and the way the cello plays it--the sound it makes--is the voice.

    I can tell you the POV in a novel. The voice you have to experience for yourself.

  17. Wow! Look at this discussion!

    Hey, I left you an award over on my blog. Check it out: