On Voice and Timing

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In the comments of Wednesday’s post, Coming in out of the Cold? John G. Hartness, the topic of voice and its importance in a successful book came up. (Okay, so I mentioned it and Faith expanded on the subject, but the conversation still sparked the idea for this post.)  Voice has been discussed several times on Magical Words, and there is a good reason the topic emerges again and again: it is one of the most elusive tools in your writer toolkit.

Grammar can be taught. You can learn how a plot arc should progress. You can even glean tips on how to make your writing leaner by identifying commonly abused/overused words or parts of speech. But no one can teach you how to find your voice. It is something you either have, or you have yet to develop.

If you have a distinct voice in your writing, congratulations–you’re ahead of the game. If you’ve yet to find your voice, you’re just going to have to keep writing until something finally clicks and it falls into place.

If “just keep writing” is the best advice I have, then why did I bother adding yet another post on voice to MW? Because when I picked this topic, I glanced through the archives and found a lot of wonderful insights on voice, but I didn’t see anyone mentioning something I find to be a very important aspect of voice: timing.

Timing? What could I possibly mean by timing?

Well, voice is not only what you say, but also how you say it. Voice is your word order. It is your punctuation. Your paragraphing. Your rhythm. It is what determines how the reader “hears” your words in their head.

Think about it like someone telling a joke. A successful comedian understands how to use emphasis and dramatic pauses to increase the laughs he receives. A less talented comedian fudges that timing and the joke falls flat. Now think about that same joke told in a monotone–not only is it not funny, it’s boring.

If you’re still searching for your voice, try paying attention to your timing. Are you writing your book like a term paper with all the paragraphs approximately the same size? Do all your sentences follow the same noun, verb, direct object, ect.  pattern? If so, try to shake things up.

You might have a paragraph that is a single word. If that’s the emphasis you feel the word needs, go with it. Occasionally a sentence fragment might be the very best thing for a situation. Don’t fight it. You can’t throw the grammar book out the window, but feel free to try a little more creative punctuation. How does the story sound in your head? Can you capture that pattern, that rhythm, on the page?

Voice is a combination of the words you choose and how those words are delivered. A strong, distinct voice is one your reader can hear.  If you haven’t found that voice yet, keep writing, keep playing with words and with timing–you will find it!

Have a great weekend everyone.

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9 comments to On Voice and Timing

  • Does anyone else find that their voice shifts slightly depending on what genre that they’re writing in? I’ve written in three different genres of romance and my voice seems to be slightly different in each one. The same but with a twist if that makes sense.

  • Vikki, I would say I definitely see that, not only in authors writing across genres, but also in a writer’s work within the same genre. Otherwise every book and every character would sound the same. I touched on voice in a very broad way in this post, but a year or so ago David wrote a post about voice in which he broke down several different types of voice present in books. If you’ve never read it, definitely check that post out HERE.

  • Vikki, really good writers have a distinct voice for every series, individual project, and stand alone. Each voice is what the project needs.

    I like to point out the difference between the voice of a Sam Spade novel and the voice of a modern female detective novel. Same description, different voice.

    Samm-ish: She was long, lean, and curvy, from the toe-tips of her red leather, five inch spike heels to the bust of a low-cut skin-tight dress, to the top her flaming red hair. I knew she was trouble when she walked in the door. Dames like her always are.

    Female detective: She was dressed like a hooker, if a hooker could afford to shop on Rodeo Drive. From the open-toed five-inch stilettos to the top of her bottle-red hair, she was trashy trouble–gorgeous and utterly female. And she knew it. I disliked her on sight.

  • Haha! Loved that voice reference, Faith! 😀

  • Great examples, Faith! And since my post was on how the delivery of words influence voice, I’d like to point out the tempo differences in the samm-ish voice and the female detective.

    The first sentence in the samm-ish voice is a long, detailed description, but it steadily builds on itself. Noire voices are broodier, slower. Now look at the difference in the female detective. She starts with a simple statement and then at the comma she makes an aside on that statement. The effect is flippant and the tempo has a fast change. The sentences here are shorter, almost interrupting themselves.

    The stylistic uses of punctuation and sentence structure (on top of the word choice, of course) that Faith chose for these examples helped establish the voice.

  • Yes! Timing! I find myself aware of the “beats” in my words. (Maybe ‘cuz I’m a natural filker.) There’s a rhythm that happens, almost a song. Each song is unique, and when I write to the rhythm, it feels right.

  • A recent fantasy story with a high concentration of voice would be Jemison’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. That said, I would be very careful that voice does not interfere with story comprehension. My number one priority is clarity for the reader, and part of that involves avoiding repetition, varying sentences, to avoid distracting the reader with clunky sentences.

  • Razziecat

    My voice changes depending on what I’m writing. It’s faster, leaner and punchier in my space opera stories; more vivid and more rhythmic in my fantasy. And this seems to happen without conscious thought. It always helps to let myself become completely caught up in the story, to just “see where this is going” and write the first draft for myself. When I’m not worrying about what someone else will think of it, my creativity flows with far fewer blocks. Once the voice is “fixed”, as it were, then I can revise as needed.

  • Rhythm and cadence — that, it seems to me is what you’re talking about here, and it’s absolutely essential to finding the correct voice and tone for any work. In past posts I have likened writing to creating music, and this is part of what I mean. Nice post, Kalayna. And Faith, those voice examples were wonderful.