Monday, April 06, 2009

Defining Voice

It’s interesting how sometimes one’s reading life and writing life can manage to intersect perfectly. It usually happens when I’m in need of a Lesson, and right now, that lesson is voice. It also probably has a lot to do with the fact that I’m working with three very disparate voices, and I find myself getting diluted a bit if I don’t pay attention. So clearly I need to pay attention, which is why I’ve been thinking so much about voice for the past couple of weeks.

The truth is, I am a sucker for voice. That is the one thing that can pull me into a book faster than anything. It’s nice to have character development and narrative drive show up at some point, but honestly, if the voice is strong enough, I’ll read just about anything. If a book has all of those? I’m in love.

And I’m not the only one. At conferences and in interviews, time and again I’ve heard editors say they are looking for a great voice. The thing is, everything else—plotting and characterization tools—can be taught. Voice must ooze up from the core of the author and takes time to develop.

The problem is, voice is difficult to define. It’s an, I-know-it-when-I-see-it, kind of thing. It can also, like a favorite fragrance we’ve worn for years, be impossible for us to detect in ourselves. How then do we recognize it? Work on it? Strengthen it?

I know that some people claim you don’t have to find your voice because it’s always there, and that may well be true. However, I do think one can lose one’s voice, either through misuse or because we’ve been educated by workshops or writing programs that our true voice isn’t valid or or because as we apprentice ourselves to the craft of writing, we lose sense of our own unique voice’s value. So while our true voice may not need to be found, sometimes it needs to be excavated or re-discovered. I suspect this may be especially true when writing stories for kids—we have to be able to reconnect with our child’s voice.

Of course, that brings us to the question of what exactly is voice?

For me, voice encompasses not only the words a writer chooses and how they string their sentences together, but also the very subjects they choose to write about, how they view those subjects, and in fact, their entire world view: hopeful or edgy, tragic or matter of fact.

Voice is an author’s core emotional truths and personal wisdom, combined with their use of language.

And when writing for children or YA, we must try to reconnect with what our emotional truths were at that younger age.

One of the things that made voice so hard for me to understand was that my voice changes pretty drastically (I think) from story to story. So how then, does an author’s voice and story voice fit together? Not to mention the shifting voices of our main characters?

A very brilliant writer and teacher, Barbara Samuels, gave me this extremely helpful analogy.

Think of your author voice as a potato. Your story voice, then, is whether you are baked, French fried, scalloped, boiled, or mashed.

To stretch this poor metaphor even further (and this is me mangling it, not Barbara) then character voice is whether it’s plain mashed potatoes or garlic mashed potatoes; scalloped potatoes or au gratin, chili cheese fries or shoe string fries. (Lord, is anyone else getting hungry besides me??)

Your author voice encompasses your core stories, those thematic issues that you are drawn to time and time again. Perhaps it is finding a place to belong, or coping with great loss, being free of the past, or issues of trust. I know for me, finding one’s personal power shows up over and over again in my work and issues of power are very much a part of my core themes. I so remember being powerless as a kid—and that amazing feeling when I first learned I did have some power. In fact, I think that’s why I write fantasy—fantastical powers create such a great subtext for personal power.

I am also (clearly) drawn to historical settings, although I am unsure why that is. Maybe it’s a distance thing—maybe I need the distance of time to explore issues that would feel too painfully raw if I dealt with them in a contemporary setting? Or maybe that’s simply where I feel fantasy and reality meet in the most convincing way?

How do we reconnect with our author voice? Well, that's the challenge, isn't it? I'll talk about that tomorrow and maybe have a few exercises as well. . .

p.s. Speaking of language, notice how fond I am of clauses and adverbs and qualifiers...


Lexi said...


potatoes..... :)