Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Writer’s Voice—Or, I Know It When I Hear It

Voice. Surely no subject (except maybe the Holy Grail, or the elusive "will of God for my life") has been so misunderstood, had more mistaken info bandied about concerning it, or been a greater mystery to all and sundry than the subject of a writer’s “voice.” I once had a person ask me, “When I’m writing about the heroine, then I’m writing in her voice. And in the hero, I’m writing in his voice, right? So what do they mean when they talk about my voice? I’m not supposed to put my voice into stuff, am I?” Upon further questioning, I discovered that this poor newbie writer soul had somehow deduced that the writer’s “voice” had to do with dialogue. In reality, she wasn’t far enough along the craft road yet to realize what people meant when they talked about “voice” rather than “how characters sound when they talk”; in cases like that, you can only steer someone toward where they can get more answers and explanation, and then hope it eventually sinks in. The other side to that coin, however, happened this morning. Our local classical music station played a theater piece by Bizet—not from Carmen, but from another production for which he had also written music. Within the first minute or so of hearing it, even though I’ve never heard this piece before, I knew it was Bizet, and I would have known that even without the announcer telling me it ahead of time. How? Because of the composer’s voice. The orchestration of woodwind lines, in this instance—their particular melodic and harmonic combinations—was a dead giveaway. I’d heard Bizet do those same things in other pieces; those things are part of his orchestral “language.” If you will, they’re his vocabulary, his word usage, and his turn of phrase. Same with Beethoven and his endless codas. (Nice boy, but he can’t finish anything.) Same with Tchaikovsky and his “clouds of rosin.” (Translation: lots and lots of running passages played by lots and lots of strings!) Now, I know these “voices” partially because I’m an educated musician, but also I’ve listened to thousands of hours of all kinds of music. This is uncannily like the training we do as writers, in which we’re told to “read widely.” So we do. In the process, we read millions of words by lots of different people. We learn who we can't put down, who leaves us indifferent, and who we fervently hope will never land another contract. We learn, in other words, whose voices we enjoy. After long consideration, and much second-guessing and trying to read between the lines of rejection letters (a totally fruitless endeavor, by the way), I’ve finally come to the conclusion that voice is everything. Period. Editors and agents mention voice, of course, when they talk about why books get their attention—but they mention it as only one in a laundry list of items they “look for.” In reality, however, no one “looks for” anything in a manuscript; one listens for it instead. Which is why, in the end, what sells our books is not the beauty of our plot line, the heroism of our protagonist, or the complexity of our mysteries…but how we tell the reader about all these things. Or, put another way, how they sound. Psychologists and reading experts have lots of multi-syllable terminology to describe and label this process, but in essence, when you read, something in your mind “speaks” the words to you. Your mind either likes the sound of what it hears, or it doesn’t. That’s the “spark” that grabs you…or the lack of same that leaves you cold. And, yes, it’s as individual as your fingerprint or stride—which is why an editor, when pushed to the wall, can only shrug and say, “I can’t really tell you what grabs me until I see it.” Translate that as “hear it,” and you’re on to something. Most of us don’t have concrete “writing” reasons for liking certain authors. We just do. The reason, boiled down, is that their voices speak to us in ways we enjoy. Only in analysis after the fact do we put official-sounding “professional” writing terms to the elements involved. But in the beginning, it’s a sensory and emotional decision, and nothing more nor less than that. If the voice of a work speaks too slowly, seems to drag or be too shallow, you’ll get bored and distracted. If the voice is too frenetic or harsh, you have to set the book aside—either temporarily, to “catch your breath,” or permanently, because you just find the story too “rattling.” If the voice sounds too cloying, or whiny, or evokes too much pathos for what you find appropriate, you feel as if the author is in a sense “telling lies” to you; she’s speaking in terms you know are not true. Books that "fail" us in these ways end up in your giveaway pile. But if the voice of the writer employs pleasing sounds (words that “roll off your tongue” well), relates the story in a rhythm compatible with your own internal auditory preferences (a pace at which you can travel easily), and resonates with you internally (and ending that satisfies you)—guess what? You’re probably going to like that book. That combination of elements is what makes a “keeper” as well…because that pleasant “reading” auditory experience is one so enjoyable most of us like to repeat it, and sometimes we’d rather go back to a familiar well and drink from it again than take the risk of drinking from a new source. Which is why once you find an author you enjoy, you tend to want to read everything she’s written—just to see if the experience is equally satisfying every time. Which also, to me, finally explains the sense behind “branding” as well. It’s not, as the experts keep telling us, so much that “readers like to know what to expect.” On the contrary: as a reader, I love being surprised by an author. But I like to be surprised in a way that resonates with me, a way I understand, a way that seems “true,” and a way that doesn’t require me to change the way I listen to the author’s story too very much. That means I need the author to speak to me in a consistent voice.If she does, I’m loyal to her and spread the word. If she doesn’t, I’m confused. And confusion, for an editor or agent, means working harder than necessary to listen to a story…which is why, if they find my voice unclear or unappealing in any way, it’s easier just to send the rejection slip and move on to something that may speak to them more clearly. Voice. It’s everything. It’s the spark. It’s the difference. But how to develop your own? And how to target where your listeners are? Stay tuned. We’ll talk about that next time. Janny


Deb said...

Now, see, here I thought story was everything. My bad. (G)

I'll second your thoughts about voice. I have a favorite writer (well, several, actually) in the CBA, who's an auto-buy for me, and it's not plot or story that pulls me to that shelf: it's voice. One author in particular didn't please me so much with this last book, but I forgive her because of her voice. I'll probably buy her next one, also, despite the gaffe on the current release.

A funny thing, also: looking back, I could've probably predicted I'd love to write, because when I first learned to read as a kid, I began to SEE words when people spoke to me. My brain seemed to want to translate oral to written in a single, seamless step.

Of course, that didn't keep my high school Creative Writing teacher from saying I'd never amount to anything. More fool him. I feel semi-vindicated at this time...

Donna Alice said...

Yes, this is a question I always puzzled over too. What the heck is VOICE? I know with my own work, I have something very different than other children's writers. Is that my voice? Or just the technique I use to tell the story?

And although is off topic and shameless self promotion--I have to mention my Honorable Mention in the W.I.N. contest. Like Deb says, I feel vindicated today!

Deb said...

Yay, Donna Alice! What great news to hear. What sort of story was your H.M. for?

I hear what you're saying about "voice". It's hard to pin down, but your comments look to me as though you already know it when you see it.

Voice can be defined as nothing more or less than the total "way I write." You may use a lot of dialogue tags...or none. You may use adverbs...or avoid them. Your sentences may have a certain rhythm: long-long-short, or what have you. You may use $0.50 words when other writers use nickle words. This, in sum, IS your voice--that part of YOU that is distilled through your writing, and becomes the word on the page.

I can't think of any clearer way to define it. Janny, help!