Monday, April 4, 2016

Voice: What It Is and How to Write It

Recently I did a critique for a new acquaintance, and after a bit of back and forth with her about the voice in her book, I wrote up the following. Here it is, for anyone else who struggles with voice, even after reading through all the standard advice.

On Voice

I went looking for some links to give you an idea of what voice is all about, but the ones I've found weren't as helpful as I hoped. They all say some version of "voice is what you sound like when you're talking," but if you're anything like me that's really hard to pinpoint. For one thing, it's harder than it seems to figure out what your own natural speaking voice sounds like, and for another, a lot of people change their speech patterns depending on the crowd they're with.

Beyond that, there's the fact that my own natural speaking voice is *not* the right voice for most of the characters I write. If I wrote the way I speak, most of my characters wouldn't fit their stories. This is particularly clear when writing historical novels--the slang and idioms that pepper our language are very out of place in books set centuries ago. I'd have to have some idea of how people spoke in the time period I was writing if I wanted to do them justice.

Voice is, in essence, what your words sound like on the page. That might seem nonsensical, because *of course* words on a page don't actually make any noise. And yet, as we read we can hear the words in our minds. The cool thing about writing is that, depending on the cues you give, the reader can hear different voices through the text.

Voice encompasses such things as accent, vocabulary, tone and rhythm. Consider these two opening lines:

1. I ain't a smart man, but I reckon I know a thing or two 'bout horses.

2. The thing about horses is that they're much taller than people generally seem to recall, and, if you must know, I'm rather afraid of heights.

Each of these is just one sentence, and yet it's easy to see that the speakers are two very different people. They have different accents, use different word choices (the first would use words like "reckon" and "recollect," whereas the second would say "suppose" and "recall"), approach their stories with different outlooks (which affect tone) and speak in very different rhythms (one straightforward, the other rambling). Their voices make them sound human instead of robotic.

Unfortunately, it can be hard to get comfortable writing with voice if you're used to academic or technical writing. Professional writing of that sort so often strips away everything that is unique about a voice. There is a very proper voice to use in academia, and it's challenging to break away from that.

But if you don't, your book will sound stilted and lifeless.

So how do you come up with a voice? Well, if your setting is very specific (as yours is), the best thing to do is to listen carefully to speakers native to that setting. If you can talk to those people, that's great! If not, can you watch videos? Can you read books written with those voices and imitate the style? Can you find other resources to give you clues? (I came across a Dictionary of Americanisms from 1848 that was vital to writing one of my books.)

Once you've done the research, try to get the voice into your head. Imagine the character talking to you. Imagine the accent and the words or phrases they overuse. Imagine their attitude toward life and toward their story, and let that inform the way they speak. Do they put everything out there? Do they hold back? Do they take forever to get to the point or pounce on it abruptly? When you start feeling comfortable with the voice, pull up a blank page and start typing in that voice--about anything at all. Break it in like you'd break in a new pair of shoes. Then, once you like the feel of it, start writing your book in that voice.

And let your characters' lives inform your story. This is something I've struggled with, but that I make an effort to improve. When a thunderstorm rolls in, don't just say that it's raining. Tell us whether the character likes the rain and why. Were they frightened of thunder as a child? Do they get a thrill watching the wildness of nature at work? Is the rain a nuisance or a blessing? If you give a unique perspective in a unique voice, your characters will truly come to life.

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