[My bold in what follows.]
Catt said, "You say that one should not look for one's voice. Indeed I agree there is some natural-ness in one's voice, but is it something we have to accept as it is, or is it possible to refine it, or in fact alter it? Like, you say you shapeshift your voice - do you do that consciously (which I think you do as you said 'on purpose') or does it naturally adjust to suit the book you are writing? Sorry to bombard, just wonder if you'd ellaborate a little on that point." [Edited to change reading to writing, as I know that's what Catt meant. She told me!]So, we're looking at how intuitive / uncontrolled / subconscious a book's voice is / should be. Whether it's about technique more than instinct and "inherent / nurtured skill". And, if it's about technique, what are those techniques?
And M Louise Kelly added, "And I'd love to see a post answering Catt's questions. Are there tricks/shortcuts to help refine your voice in a book? (And I know these 'shortcuts' might involve hard graft - i'm not a complete lazer!) It feels like I'm doing it all by instinct at the moment (which maybe how it has to be done) but I have a hunch that there are stylistic tics, (or something) that I could check over to see if they all pointed to the same voice."
OK, so, I can't see into the mind of every writer so, to some extent, this is going to be about me and my own truth. However, I think I do also have a sense of what at least some other writers feel about this, from conversations and such like. I've also written a fair few books myself and if I can do a Thomas the Tank Engine voice and a Wasted voice, a Fleshmarket voice and a Chicken Friend voice, I think I probably know what I'm talking about.
First, let's be clear that here we are talking about the voice of the book, not the overall author voice as sometimes evidenced throughout one's work. If you're not sure of the distinction, please go and read that post from Monday.
A. Although I might have some ideas about the voice before I start the actual writing, I will not properly know it until I have started to write. The voice never forms part of any preliminary note-making, though I may have an inkling (or sometimes more) of what I'd like it to sound like. Ish. Essentially, I start to write and it "just happens". So, to that extent, there is a distinct lack of premeditated control and a definite sense of flying by the seat of my pants.
B. Very quickly - as in within a couple of paragraphs - I know whether I'm getting the voice and whether I like it. Things that I need to feel at this point and over the first page or so are:
- Whether this is a voice which is right for the book / theme / atmosphere I had envisaged and planned.
- Because I'm usually writing for young people, whether this is a voice which is right for the age of readership, the age of the characters and the type of reader I'm looking for.
- Whether this is a voice I can sustain for a whole book - a very distinctive and unusual voice can be hard to sustain and there is a risk of beginning to irritate the reader. Also, if the voice is flippant, for example, how will that acceptably adjust into serious when the drama gets nasty?
- What are the distinctive elements of this voice? How would I identify or describe it? (Because that will allow me to make sure it remains consistent.)
a) Bear in mind the answers to the fourth point above (which I will come to in a moment).
b) At the beginning of every writing session, read over bits of what I've already written, in order to get back into voice.This is crucial and is a technique I strongly recommend.D. If I feel I haven't "got" the voice right at the beginning, I will look to change it. To do that, again I will alter and consider elements of point 4 above, or the elements that should be there and aren't. (To be honest, I do this instinctively but I've tried to delineate mental process for you.)
- Tense - past tense and present tense create, inevitably, very distinctly different voices. Just try turning your present tense first chapter into past tenses, or vice versa, and you'll see what I mean.
- Point of View (POV) - because the voice of the book is hugely dependent on the narrator, your choice of POV is enormously important. First person creates a hugely different tone from third person and your choice will affect many subsequent choices throughout the book.
- Personality of narrator or person through whose POV the story is told. This personality crucially affects the voice. Sometimes if I haven't got the voice right it's because I haven't nailed the MC's deep personality. Or because I've picked out the wrong bits of personality to convey the voice. A worried / frightened / stressed MC can come over as whiny or too fragile or boringly introspective if not carefully controlled, for example.
- Any mannerisms or, as Louise said in her question, "stylistic tics". However, you have to be careful with these as they can become irritating over time if they are too odd, frequent or contrived. Meg Rosoff's narrator in How I Live Now sometimes uses initial capital letters to Make A Point. That's one mannerism but the very special and successful voice that Meg creates in that book is made of far, far more than stylistic tics. Go read.
Actually, several people have said that another book you should read to understand voice - especially how to manage an unusual one - is my own Wasted. Do, please!
There's one word that kept coming back to me as I wrote this post: personality. And I think this is the key to understanding and creating voice: think of it as personality. Your book's voice is its character and personality. That's why voice is so important, why without it your book is nothing, anodyne, unmemorable. That's why every bit of it must be consistent and believable so that the reader comes to believe in your book and its voice as much as she believes in your characters.
As I suggested earlier, most of this should come naturally. It's part of being a writer, wanting to create voices, make them sing, make them live. There's very little mechanical about it, except in the tweaking and editing; it's almost all inspiration and skill borne of years of reading, listening and practising. To me it feels as though voice is something that comes (or not) as I start each book - all I can do is feel whether I like it and want to nurture it or whether I need to refine the narrating personality until it sings with the perfect voice.
So, to answer Catt's question in a nutshell, I think it's a delicate mixture of conscious and instinctive. Yes, I can refine it, but only if it's there. And the most damned horrible feeling is when you just can't get that voice from the start. But if you know what you're looking for, you'll find it. And what you're looking for is personality.
Tomorrow begins your Crabbit Towers holiday and I have a gift for you every day until the New Year. Hooray!