Monday, October 10, 2005

BJH: Hearing Voices: Part One

If I had to pinpoint the one question I’m most often asked--and the one element in the craft of writing that seems most puzzling to writers, both beginners as well as experienced ones--it would most likely have to do with voice. The writer’s voice. Usually, you’ll hear it discussed along these lines: "I haven’t found my voice yet." "I’m still searching for my distinctive voice." "What do you perceive my voice to be?" "I don’t know if my voice is contemporary or historical."

What is this "writer’s voice?" Why does it baffle so many writers? And why is it important anyway?

In trying to bring a little clarity to an issue that doesn’t necessarily have to be so confusing, here are just a few thoughts:

We often confuse "voice" with "style." They’re not the same thing. "Style" is made up of the decisions you make about your novel, the fictive devices you use in writing your novel, the technical approaches and elements of the craft. "Voice" is what all those other things add up to. The result. The whole. Voice is what your novel "sounds like."

The voice of a novel is not the author’s voice. It’s the narrator’s voice. The voice of the person telling the story. At times the narrative voice is first person: "I." More often, it’s "he" or "she." Sometimes, rarely, it’s "you."

Voice is what readers "hear" throughout the reading of a story–and long after, if it’s written well. The one overriding voice that makes the novel original and distinctive.

What dictates that narrator’s voice is the sum total of who and what the narrator is. His personality. Her character. His background. Her attitude. All of him. The essence of her.

A novel’s voice–the narrator’s voice–may be an informal, conversational voice. This can be a bit like sitting down with a friend, someone you’re comfortable with, and telling him a story. It’s often used by the first-person narrator, frequently found in coming-of-age and young adult novels. It’s exactly what the description says: it’s informal, a kind of confiding voice. A come-as-you-are, inviting voice.

Other novels have a more formal voice. That doesn’t mean it has to be stilted or artificial. It really has more to do with the emotional distance from one’s characters. It’s not quite as up front as the informal voice. Historical novels often employ it, but it’s definitely not limited to period stories. We find it often used in third person POV, but it can also work in first person, depending on the makeup of the narrator. As with the conversational voice, the education and background of the narrator are important factors in how the story is told. Many of the older writers used this voice--Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, Tolstoy are only a few. But this is a voice that’s also common among more contemporary writers, as well--James Michener, Thomas Flanagan, Allan Eckert, Richard North Patterson, Stephen Lawhead, Susan Howatch, and many others.

The risk in using the formal voice is that you can easily fall into sounding like "the writer" instead of the narrator. As with all the other voices, you need to be consistent, while not "performing" to impress your readers with what a brilliant writer you are.

Then there’s the extremely formal voice, sometimes called the "ceremonial" or "authoritarian" voice. Some writers use a mix of this and the formal voice. Think Dickens. He often mixed the two in his writing. The extremely formal voice calls for complete detachment from the characters and a kind of "speech-giving" overriding tone. The use of this particular voice has more than one downside. The one I most often see is that it makes for a slow story. It can also take the edge off a story, serving to make it dull business indeed. I’d say there needs to be an excellent reason to use this voice--and the writer using it should be coming from a background of much experience in the craft of writing fiction.

It’s important not to fuss or worry about your voice. Real damage has been done by some writing instructors pushing and preaching at students to "find your voice." You don’t find your voice. You grow it. It’s a part of you, and eventually it becomes a part of your fiction. Just tell the story you want to tell with the characters who seem right for it, tell it to the best of your ability--and be patient. In time, although you may never be able to define it, your voice will begin to sing through your fiction. At some point, an editor, a reader, another author will comment on "your voice." You might be surprised to hear what it is or how it sounds to others. You might even be surprised to find out you have a voice. But after a good measure of experience--writing experience, because more than anything else, that’s how it’s developed, by writing--you will take on a voice that’s your very own.

I’ve touched only the surface of the subject. There are other, less-often used voices, but no less distinctive, and there are also authors who can change voices as easily as changing shoes. More in Part Two.



Post a Comment

<< Home