Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Writer Wednesday - Writer's Voice

Today's topic -- by request -- is a writer's voice. Voice is an elusive thing. When submitting to agents and publishers, among their guidelines, you often read that they want "an engaging voice." But how do you achieve that?

Voice to a writer is like light is to an artist. For an artist, skill is one thing, but the paintings truly come alive in in how you see -- and reproduce -- the light on canvas. It can be taught, but only to an extent. It's really something that must grow. The same goes for writing. When I first started writing, my voice was obscured by whoever my favorite writer was at the moment. As time went on, I started sounding more and more like myself. Nowadays, my writing sounds like "me" no matter who I'm reading at the moment.

Nathalie Mallet will be joining us for today's discussion. Her novels, The Princes of the Golden Cage and The King's Daughters, feature the voice of Prince Amir. Here are her thoughts on a writer's voice:

Finding one's voice is a term that one hears frequently in writing courses. But although one may know about the elements that make up voice—diction, syntax, tone and dialogue—it does not guarantee success. The way I do it is to simply assume the voice of my protagonist. And usually the tone of the narration comes from whichever details of the main character’s personality speak the loudest to me. In Amir’s case, it was his overly careful nature and his strong desire to remain anonymous.

Here’s an excerpt from The Princes of the Golden cage that best exemplifies this:

Being noticed meant having your potential evaluated. Never a good thing when one lived caged with so many power-thirsty brothers. To say that you didn’t want to become the next Sultan, that surviving was enough for you, was useless, even if true. For many of my brothers, only dead princes posed no threat. I counted myself lucky for being of average size, for having the dark hair and brown eyes shared by most of my siblings. Because of this I could blend easily in their midst. With its high cheekbones, square chin and short well-groomed beard, my face was one of many alike—unremarkable. I cultivated every bit of this blandness. I slumped whenever I was with shorter brothers, tried to sound dull when with dimwitted ones, and mimicked the affectations of my high-ranking brothers when near them. Even in my choice of clothes, I was careful. Blue and green were the predominant color of the palace’s walls, and therefore of my kaftans. Even my name, Amir, was common. There was at least four or five other Princes Amir still alive—a real blessing. 

I liked this excerpt because it really captured Prince Amir's personality.

Please join in with your own comments. Remember to keep any excerpts to 300 words. Please post replies and your own excerpts as separate comments, to make for easier reading.

Thank you for joining us, Nathalie!


A. Grey said...

That excerpt disturbs me in the best of ways! I found myself evaluating my own clothing, who might notice me, what about me it is that stands out. I'm someone who never pays attention to who notices me, meaning people I went to school with will come up and start talking to me, and when I figure out who they are, I find that they're people I had very little contact with, but something about ME stuck with them. Very curiously engaging, to be sucked into a mindset where it's vital to know exactly how you come across to others. I'll be pondering this for a good while. And I'll post again later as well.

Tia Nevitt said...

I identified with Amir because I did exactly the same thing in high school. I didn't want to stand out because I hated being called upon. I became good at being invisible. Once I got to Basic Training, however, I discovered that the T.I.'s were EXPERTS at finding invisible people and yanking them to the forefront.

Chicory said...

I like the idea of tone coming from narrator. My problem is keeping the narrators of different stories from all sounding alike -and all sounding like me. I guess part of separating them is thinking about how their experiences will affect the character's thoughts and language.

superwench83 said...

Okay, now I'm definitely going to have to read that book. I've been hearing about it for the past couple years and never picked it up. I'll have to remedy that.

I know this post is about voice, but I kind of feel like it's hard to talk about voice without mentioning style, because the two are so inter-related, and neither can be easily defined. Voice, I think, comes from the story and the characters, and a writer's voice can change slightly from book to book. Style can also change, if the book's voice requires it, but I think style is more like the author's personal stamp. For example, a writer might be known for creating beautiful imagery, and you could generally find that in her books; if her voice was snarky in one book and self-depriciating in another, the authors style would more or less be the same.

I think voice mostly comes from the pov character(s), but it can also be influenced by the story itself. Like, if the story calls for a certain mood or atmosphere, the voice used would help to create it.

Tia Nevitt said...

(2nd attempt trying to respond to Chicory)
I think writing as a narrator is a lot like acting. I become the person whose voice I'm assuming. My two major narrator stories are as a hick 18 year old boy from the future, and a proper maiden from the Regency era. I had no trouble keeping them separate.

A. Grey said...

Having a go at posting an excerpt. I chose one from my WIP 'Evernow'. I think it's easier to connect voice-wise when you're dealing with first person, rather than 'she thought this, or that about the subject'. Anyway, a few notes, Donriel is the name of Evernow's bow, a picker is a voracious creature rather like a cross between a wild boar and a wild dog and Brother is a raven. So, here goes

Dragging my rucksack and buckskins, quiver on my back, Donriel in hand, I crawl, slowly, to the pickers stinking carcass. Thankfully, the creatures thick skull hasn’t damaged my arrow. I carefully remove it and wipe the bone broad-head on the grass before adding it to the others in my quiver. I’ve got thirty-two. All hand-made. All vitally valuable. Each one has a name, and some have specific purposes. Like breaking the skull of a picker.
Leaving the pool of water I crawl back the way I came. Downstream I slip into the creek. There’s not much water, but it’ll help mask the smell and evidence of my oozing blood. I’ve got several long days ahead, and no shelter or guarantee of survival.
The pain makes me careless. It chews up my senses, saps my strength. I’ve only gone a few hundred yards when Brother swoops over me again. This time his croaking cries are rigid with distaste and anger. Humans.
I stand no chance of avoiding them, no hope of going unnoticed. The best I can do is to meet them bull-cock and balls, and make it clear the I can take care of myself. Even if I can’t. By the time the first man comes into sight, I’ve gotten myself wedged into a reasonably defensible position atop a mound of boulders. I’ve got one arrow notched and drawn. No one will be able to get closer than a dozen yards without my seeing them. My abdomen clenches against waves of pain. I ignore it and wait, frozen.


I'm still writing the first draft of Evernow, so I'm constantly going back and reworking bits.

Nathalie Mallet said...

Hi, Tia!

Thank you for inviting me to participate in Writer Wednesday.

You got it, Chicory, a characters’ background is often the key to his individuality.

I always believe that when writing in first person one must assume the voice of your main character. Forget how you would do and say things. What really matters is how your character would. And that’s where a detailed background comes handy. Give them flaws, distinctive mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, nervous tics if need be. As for your own voice, don’t worry; it will still permeate your work, starting with the style of story you write, the way you set the action, the pacing, etc.

Memory said...

I'm like Nathalie: I try to get inside my narrator's head and see which parts of his or her personality come through most strongly. I really enjoyed her excerpt because it let he experience Amir's personality for myself. I felt like I was in there with him, evaluating my place in things.

On the topic of distinct voices for different narrators, I think Tia's actor analogy is spot-on. I have two narrators in my WIP, and I'm still fine-tuning things to ensure that they sound distinct. Actually placing myself in their roles has helped.

Tia Nevitt said...

Grey, I liked your excerpt. I definitely am interested in how she handles the next encounter.

What about that elusive quality, as Nathalie suggests, that permeates your work no matter what? No one could have written the following:


IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.


Except Jane Austen. No one could have written the following:



No answer.


No answer.

"What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!"

No answer.

The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked THROUGH them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for "style," not service -- she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:


Except Mark Twain.

Neither are first person narratives. Sitting down to read an author who's work you know well is like sitting down to tea with an old friend, because of the author's style and voice.

And it's even more so when the novel is written first person.

Chicory said...

A. Grey, I think it's interesting that you used present tense. It really gives a sense that the character is someone who lives moment-by-moment.

Chicory said...

Superwench, when you read Nathalie's books, make sure you have a nice chunk of time. They're hard to put down. :)

Nathalie Mallet said...

Very engaging excerpt, A. Grey! It captured my attention and imagination as well.

Tia, I love your acting analogy. I agree with Memory: it is spot-on. It’s probably why I am attracted to characters that are different than me. Characters that would do and say things I would never dare say or do…it’s quite liberating, really.

Speaking of easily recognizable voice, the writer for me who has the most distinctive writing style is Ernest Hemingway. Who’s your top choice?

Jeanne Ryan said...

When I started writing, coming from a fanfic background, I was terrified of Mary Suing my heroine, so I kept as much of myself out of her as possible. This left me with an incredibly boring heroine that no one liked.

I'm a pretty interesting person, or so people tell me, so I started putting more of myself in her--my hopes, fears, interests, beliefs, habits, shortcomings--and not only did she become more interesting, but I found my voice. By keeping myself out of my characters, I was distancing myself from my voice.

It is interesting you bring up light because my heroine is an artist/art history teacher and much of her voice is focused on light.

Memory said...

A.Grey, I love how your excerpt doesn't just tell us about Evernow - it also gives us a good idea of the world she moves through. I think present tense was a good choice, too; there's a real sense of immediacy here.

I've got to go with J.D. Salinger as my instantly recognizable author. I consider him the king of voice.

A. Grey said...

Chicory, this is the first and only story where I've used present tense. It all started with the first line, 'Life is so much easier without underwear.' It fell out of my head, matter of fact and very much in the present tense, so the rest just followed. It had to have been influenced by the Hunger Games though. Damn fine book, and the only one I've ever read that was written in first person present tense. Must have stuck in my mind somewhere.

Chicory said...

Here's a bit of prologue I wrote while trying capture the voice of a character who didn't want to jell. (Turns out I hadn't given her enough motivation before.)

The Feordani are terrified of me. They call me the Ice Princess. They believe that I've sliced out and hidden my heart so I can be cruel without regret. They whisper that I should be executed, but none have courage enough to bind me and take me to the gallows. Instead, they've locked me up here with my five younger sisters.

Our prison is comfortable enough, I suppose. Harald Gynt, self-styled `king' of the Feordan bandits thinks if he allows us our accustomed luxuries we'll grow careless and he can discover where we dance.

He underestimates us. We are princesses of Kishriel. He does not know what that means. Gynt believes he has conquered us? We will fight. Harald Gynt has never before crossed wills with Princess Blanchefleur Alicorn.

Nathalie Mallet said...

Gripping intro, Chicory! And the third paragraph does a particularly good job at showing your princess’ steely temperament and resiliency when faced with a crisis. She doesn’t sound like an imprisoned victim at all. She sounds dangerous…and rather pissed off. I like that!

Tia Nevitt said...

Ok, my turn. I was stuck at work all day away from my manuscripts, and forgot to post something before I left.

This is from my Regency Fantasy. The narrator--Tory--and Mr. Crain are both spies.

Mr. Crain looked even better in person. He was beyond handsome--tall and lean-figured, with dark, wavy hair, and eyes that seemed to smile even when the rest of his face was serious. He was the perfect choice to pose as a footman. Footmen were usually nothing more than ostentatious ornaments, selected for their handsome face and shapely turn of leg, who opened doors, moved chairs, and who occasionally did something useful--like hoist chandeliers.

Now to read everyone else's stuff!

Tia Nevitt said...

Jeanne, my early stories were all told from a male point-of-view! I guess there was no problem with Mary-Suing there!

Ok, I have some new classical authors to look into now. I pretty much picked my favorite-voiced authors already. I read Tom Sawyer as an adult, and I just fell in love with him--even though he was only about twelve!

Chicory, the princesses of Kishriel definitely don't sound like your run-of-the-mill princesses.

Hany of you ever heard of the book Women Warriors by David E. Jones? It's all about tough women over the centuries, including the battle-queens of pre-Islamic Middle East. It helped inspire my own battle-queen, Abriel. Also, some of these women were outright evil, so it's good villain fodder.

It's still in print!

superwench83 said...

I guess I'll take a turn now. This is from Hex:


“Nein, nein! Let me.” She needed to do it herself, to assuage the guilt that had been slowly building since the day before. Their encounter with Johann had shaken loose all kinds of thoughts and feelings she had tried to pretend she didn’t have.

Stina hated him, oh, she hated him for saying such things about Grandfather. But when he’d said she needed to get out, too, asked if she’d come with him, a tiny voice in the hind part of her mind urged her to run away from that tiny, work-filled house and fling herself at Johann and the life he could provide. So much work, so much work, so little money, so much work, awaited Stina night and day in the life she lived now. It had been easier before Grandfather’s mind was all, but now that he’d lost his senses, she had his work to do, plus the task of caring for his special needs, plus her own work , plus commissioned work like Johann’s mother’s wool to fill in the financial gaps. She loved her grandfather more than she loved anyone, including Varick, but the work, the toil, the constant laboring and the constant running behind, took an emotional toll. Some mornings, she woke up and wanted to cry, but she couldn’t, because all the tears her eyes could hold had already been shed the night before. And she hated Johann most of all because he’d weakened her resolve. It shouldn’t have mattered that she was drowning in a sea of undone chores; her loyalty to Grandfather should never have wavered.

superwench83 said...

A. Grey: It's neat to read something written in present tense. It can be very effective.

Chicory: Is this from the same story you posted an exerpt from last time? All week I've been thinking about that bit you posted. It was very engaging.

Tia: I really loved Mr. Crain when I read the manuscript. And yes, that story had great voice.

Right now, I'm reading George Orwell's 1984, and it has great voice. From the very first line, I was hooked, and soley from the story's voice. A more recent example of great voice, I think, is Lisa Shearin. She perfectly captures her character's essence.

Tia Nevitt said...

Thanks, Wench!

What a coincidence. Lisa Shearin will be up next week to discuss Dialog!

Also, Wench; your excerpt does a good job plunging us into her point-of-view and letting us experience her thoughts and feelings. However, you're doing lots of repetition, which can be very effective, but as a reader I felt a bit overwhelmed. Here are the problem phrases:

Stina hated him, oh, she hated him

So much work, so much work, so little money, so much work

but the work, the toil, the constant laboring and the constant running behind

My suggestion is to avoid using a powerful technique like this too often. I would pick the most powerful one. Personally, I liked the second one the best.

superwench83 said...

I think you're right about the repetition. I got to thinking the same thing as I was reading it before I posted. Guess that's what I get for posting from a first draft!

Nathalie Mallet said...

Great excerpts, guys!

Tia, I love Mr. Crain—makes me want to hire a spying footman. ;)

Superwench, your piece conveys Stina’s emotional turmoil very effectively.

Tia Nevitt said...

Thanks, Nathalie! Now if I could only sell it!

CaroleMcDonnell said...

I've always found voice comes best to me when I write in first person. Something about third person narration takes away my confidence, and that is such an important part of voice...for the author to be totally confident in his/her skills and for the author to totally understand the right tone she wants to project. If you're afraid..... well, if I'm afraid, it's difficult.

Tia Nevitt said...

Hi, Carole! Fear makes many things difficult. I have stage fright when it comes to music, and it robs me of my skill!

I find myself using first person when I have a distinctive narrator whose part I want to play. Right now, I'm circulating a short story manuscript that has the pov of an eighteen year old boy with a heavy hick accent. It's all written in dialog--and may well be unsellable. My other first person POV is a regency-era fantasy.

Other than that, I've written in third person almost exclusively.

Merc said...

Tia, I liked the comparison of voice to light (for an artist). That's a good visual--nice.

For me, voice is definitely related to character--I have to pay close attention to WHO the narrators are (first or third person) and what quirks or focuses they would have that will stand out in voice and style when writing from their POV.

It's SO hard. :P I constantly struggle to figure out what makes a voice distinct to a character so they all don't sound the same. (First person is harder, for me. In third, I feel like I have a little more leeway, though I focus more on voice/style on third person more once I'm done with a draft. First, I tend to focus more on it as I'm writing.)

Great topic and discussion!