Hey, gang! Hope this post finds you all doing well and, especially if you're of the NaNoWriMo kind, pushing toward your goals. :)
One thing I always try to stay aware of as I revise a story is voice. (I know, my hackles rise a bit when that word gets mentioned, too … but stay with me!) I want to figure out what's going to take it from being A story to being MY story as it were.
This is at least partially because I'm writing urban fantasy, and there are lots (and lots, and lots more) of stories about vampires, werewolves, etc. these days, and I want my work to stand out in some small way.
Now, I was just as confused as everyone else when I first began trying to figure out what voice was all about. I'd read all of these articles, books, and interviews from various-amazing-authors that seemed to give it an almost spiritual quality.
Apparently, voice was this ethereal ball of gas floating in the subconscious writing portion of our brains that couldn't be contained, only harnessed. And only the wisest and most determined writers would be able to master it.
Yeah, I felt totally screwed. I'm not the wisest writer (by a wide, Grand Canyon-esque margin I'm afraid), and writing--for the most part--for me isn't a very spiritual process.
When I'm writing, I tend to swear at my computer, drink ridiculous amounts caffeine bang my head on tables, stare at ceilings, curse my dull brain--well, let's just say it isn't all that Zen-like.
I'm more of a construction foreman for a highly-emotional, chaotic, and never-ending road project than a high priest quietly orchestrating a beautiful religious ceremony.
But I am determined, so something had to give, right?
What I learned was this: Voice isn't abstract, or at least the components that make it up aren't. In fact, it's the furthest thing from it! Is it hard to apply? Yes … mostly … well, just more tedious until you get the hang of it I suppose.
Voice is your personal flavor. It's your spice of choice. Just like how you take your coffee (or iced tea in the South), voice says, "That one is mine."
But it shouldn't be confused with just being description, which is something I did early on. My thought was, "I'm the only person who can describe a sunset the way I see it, so that has to be what will make my writing unique."
That was only part of the formula. The rest of it includes pacing, dialogue, action/reaction, humor, plot choices, and pretty much everything else that goes into a story.
Ultimately, how you apply all of that results in your voice, or your "thing". And that's where the discussion gets a little philosophical in my opinion, because that "thing" is pretty much open for interpretation.
What I think is clever, you might find trite. What scares me, won't necessarily keep you up at night. But when a writer has a thing, we know it--even if we can't agree on what it is, and maybe even if we don't like it.
Think about some of the great "voice" authors out there. Here are examples from a few of my favorites. These are completely random finds from books sitting on my shelf. I'm not looking for a specific paragraph. See if you can guess the authors based on the excerpt:
"I worried about it for a moment as I held the bottle by the neck, but I wanted to trust her, and so I did. I took a minor sip, and as soon as I swallowed, I felt my body rejecting the stinging syrup of it. It washed back up my esophagus, but I swallowed hard, and there, yes, I did it. I was drinking on campus."
If you're a fan of his, you probably immediately recognized John Green's handiwork in Looking For Alaska.
Components that make up his voice: Long, protracted sentences. (He doesn't get super-clippy unless it's dialogue.) A very mature and pragmatic character perspective (for YA … "I did it. I was drinking on campus."). Using a big, and probably anatomically correct, word like "esophagus" instead of the simpler "throat".
"He could be as quiet as a Viet Cong guerrilla creeping through the bush, but her ears had gotten attuned to him over the last three weeks, and tonight, as a bonus, there was a moon. She heard a faint scrape and clatter of gravel, and she knew where he was going. Ignoring her aches, she followed. It was a quarter after ten."
This one is a little trickier, but Stephen King (The Stand) can create tension like no other.
Components that make up his voice: Non-lavish, but highly evocative descriptors ("quiet as a Viet Cong", "a moon"). Also, how little he gives the reader in terms of perspective and motivation, yet still manages to convey direction and purpose in the scene. ("she knew where he was going", "It was a quarter after ten.")
Last one--this one has a giveaway if you're a fan, but it's a great example nonetheless.
"I'd made a vampire cry. Great. I felt like a real superhero. Harry Dresden, breaker of monsters' hearts."
Jim Butcher (Storm Front, Dresden Files Book One) is a real case study for anyone looking for examples of voice in first person storytelling.
Components that make up his voice: You could take almost any paragraph from one of his books and find the same sarcasm and gloomy humor woven throughout.
As I said earlier, and the examples hopefully illustrate, voice isn't an abstract concept. By evaluating things like word choice (are you the type of writer who uses throat instead of esophagus?), description, and tone you can force voice into your work.
But here's the (another?) thing: There are many talented authors and great stories out there that don't have a strong voice. In fact, I'd argue that many genres of fiction rely heavily on the author NOT pushing their own style overboard.
Much of the science fiction and fantasy I read is intentionally left bland, forcing the reader to put their own personality into play. There are risks involved with such storytelling, because it can lead to undefined and uninteresting characters. But when the focus is on the world and sociology, I don't believe it's always wrong to let the reader paint the canvas you've given them.
Two of my favorite authors in those genres, Tolkien and Orson Scott Card, aren't overly ham-handed with their style. They simply tell a good story.
So that leaves me with a bunch of questions: How important is voice? Do we need to have a definitive writing style, or is telling a good story enough? How important is it to readers?