This past week, Catie and I both began blog “series” in writing, and it seems that for this week and potentially down the road, there is going to be a fair amount of overlap between our posts. Catie and I might reinforce each other’s points. We might disagree. That’s okay. Getting more than one perspective on any of these writing issues can be a good thing. Specifically, last week I began my “Writing Your Novel” series and Catie began her “Developing Your Voice” series. The overlap comes because this week’s “Writing Your Novel” post is about “Finding Your Voice.”
I have long believed that “voice” is something that works on several levels — and I believe that Catie’s post later in the week will make a similar point. Again, though, I expect that she and I will come at the issue from slightly different perspectives. Let me offer you my definition of “voice.” Basically voice is the distinctive tone, mood, and style that makes any particular book unique. As I say, for me voice exists on four levels, and I like to distinguish between 1) Authorial Voice, 2) Genre Voice; 3) Book Voice, and 4) Narrative Voice. What do I mean by each of these? Let’s take each one in turn.
Last week, Catie offered this definition: “Voice is the distinctive style that tells you who wrote the book you’re reading.” That is a perfect description of Authorial Voice. Every author writes differently. Clearly. You can read Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, and identify stylistic quirks and tendencies that set each one of them apart. You can do the same with fantasy authors. An Anne McCaffrey book is going to read differently from a novel by Guy Gavriel Kay. They can write high fantasy, contemporary fantasy, YA fantasy, and you’ll still be able to tell one from another. (Yes, I know, McCaffrey has always said that she writes science fiction and not fantasy; work with me here…) An author who is just starting out might have a harder time establishing a unique Authorial Voice, for the simple reason that he or she is new at this. When we first start writing we tend to mimic others. It’s hard to help. I know I did it as I was working on short fiction and early drafts of my first couple of books. I admired Kay, and so I wanted to write like him. But I also admired the simpler, more direct writing style of Ursula LeGuin,and so at times I imitated her in my work. I had read a good deal of McCaffrey and Donaldson, Card and Herbert, and I’m sure I brought elements of their writing to my own. I also had things that I liked to do that were more idiosyncratic — they were mine. And with time, what began as an amalgam of stylistic mimicry became something entirely my own. I don’t think I’m unusual in this regard. Writers are readers. We learn what we like and dislike; and inevitably the styles that emerge as our own are actually alloys of individual preferences and chosen influences.
Like Authorial Voice, Genre Voice is an outside influence of a sort. Lets go back to the example I used earlier. Guy Kay and Anne McCaffrey have individual styles. But they also are guided in part by what they write. If they’re both working on high fantasy, their books are going to reflect what I would call the “received culture” of that subgenre. The prose and dialogue might be somewhat more ornate than it would be for, say, a contemporary urban fantasy. The pacing might be somewhat slower. There might be more threads to the plotting. If for their next books, Kay and McCaffrey wrote urban fantasies, their books, while still distinctive, would reflect that subgenre: tight prose; terse dialogue; fast pacing. Just as an epic movie feels different from a “noir”, different types of books read in certain ways. This is Genre Voice. As beginning authors move into one subgenre or another, they should familiarize themselves not only with tropes and trends of that field, but also with its voice, so that their work reads as it should. It’s not that you want your work to sound like everyone else’s, but rather that you want your stylistic choices to reinforce your pacing and plotting.
Book Voice might be the hardest of my four voice levels to explain. I find that every project I work on has a different feel, a different mood. Usually the Book Voice is a blend of plotting and character and worldbuilding; put another way, it is the sum of all the storytelling elements that I draw upon to write the book. I’ve often found that the first 50-75 pages of my own books are the ones that need to be reworked most extensively in rewrites. And I think this is because it takes me several chapters to find the right voice for the book. With time, I grow more comfortable with the characters, I start to see exactly how the plot is unfolding, what themes are developing. If the book is one of a series, I get a better sense of how this volume fits into the larger work. And so, by page 100, I have found the right tone for my writing; I have established my Book Voice for this particular novel. If I was smart, I would stop there and go back to rewrite those first 50 pages. But usually I save that for revisions. For me, the importance of Book Voice is greatest in a series. Every series has its own style and mood (I suppose I could have created a fifth level: Series Voice). Book Voice ensures that you don’t write the same book three times in a trilogy. Each book within a series should stand apart from the others. Yes, the characters and the world are the same — it might even be one extended story line — but each book should be unique. Book Voice makes that happen. One way to establish Book Voice early on is to write short fiction about characters or situations that are going to appear in the book. They don’t have to be stories you send out for publication, though it’s great if they are. But simply writing character studies and vignettes can help you establish that Book Voice, so that you don’t have the 50 page lag time I describe above.
Finally, we have Character Voice. If you’re writing a book from a single point of view, then Character Voice is going to be quite similar to Book Voice. Your point of view character — your narrator — is going to establish the mood of the novel with her personality, her humanity. And yet, if you’re writing a series of books all with the same POV Character, you will still have to distinguish between Book Voice and Character Voice. You want your narrator’s style to be distinctive, but you don’t want it to be static. Remember, every book should be different from the previous one; otherwise readers have no reason to keep reading. But it’s in books with multiple point of view characters that Character Voice really takes on importance. If you’re switching narrators, your goal as a writer should be to make each Character Voice distinctive enough that your readers don’t need to be told whose point of view they’re in. Again, writing short fiction about your characters can be enormously helpful in establishing Character Voice. So can taking the time to learn as much as you can about your character’s background. Finally, I find it helpful to give some of my characters (definitely not all of them) distinctive ways of speaking — a verbal tick (“ya know?”), a speech impediment (I have one character with a lisp and another who has a nervous habit of clearing his throat quite often), or even something weirder. One of my characters in my urban fantasy always talks about himself in the third person, and sometimes, for no reason, he speaks in verse. These are things that can help establish unique Character Voice. Ultimately, though, Character Voice is made by the character him or herself. It’s not verbal tics, but established attributes that make a character, and his or her Voice, unique.David B. Coe http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net