Wednesday, 15 December 2010

FINDING YOUR VOICE - Part the Second

Following my first Finding Your Voice post on Monday, I had a couple of interesting questions in the comments and I felt I should use a separate post to answer them.

[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!]

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." 
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?

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.

So, some thoughts:

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:
  1. Whether this is a voice which is right for the book / theme / atmosphere I had envisaged and planned.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.)
C.  If I feel I have begun to create a voice that fulfills those first three criteria, I will obviously continue, and to do so I will do two things:
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.)

So, what are those elements that go to make up voice, those elements of point 4?
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
If you click that link, you'll see that Mark Haddon wrote of How I Live Now: "That rare, rare thing, a first novel with a sustained, magical and utterly faultless voice. After five pages, I knew she could persuade me to believe anything.” So, it's very much a must-read if you want to understand voice, but it's also important to realise, as I said in the last post, that your book does not have to have a strikingly unusual voice, just a consistent, fitting and true one.

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!


catdownunder said...

Yes, I think do understand what you are talking about. I had to think about it a few days ago when my father wanted to write something. He is an English graduate but he uses words in quite a different way. (I blogged about it a few days ago.) He says voice is "as slippery as an eel" and has to be watched or it will escape!

Sarah Callejo said...

As I was reading I was thinking the same. I was thinking, this is like personality. You're showing the book's personality and the character's personality through your words. So, as you say, you have to really get into that personality to convey it and make the reader feel it.

I always wonder if style and voice are the same. People seem to use them indifferently.

Nicola Morgan said...

Sarah - style and voice are not the same but they overlap. Voice goes deeper and is more important. Voice goes to the heart of the book; style is the clothing.

Nicola Morgan said...

Sarah - PS, perhaps it's like saying that if this is about personality, then voice is the inner personality and style is the clothing that shows off the personality, but also the personality often determines some of the clothing choice.

M Louise Kelly said...

This is so useful. Thanks.
I think in my current WiP I've tried to use the MC's personality in the voice but I've not nailed it yet. Your point about being careful to pick the right aspects of your MC's personality really struck a chord. It might be just what I need to refine what i'm doing.

I find that re-reading a paragraph of two of earlier bits of a WiP is essential too. During the Nanowrimo when you're encouraged to do high speed writing, no editing, and not to read over earlier work, I observed the first two but not the latter. I found it impossible to get rid of the voices from anything else I'd just been reading otherwise.

And I agree about How I Live Now - and Wasted. Both utterly compelling voices.

Dawn Kurtagich said...

My best writing usually occurs when I write in present tense, first person POV. I like snarky characters, but my narrator is not always snarky. At the moment my WIP is first person, past tense, and is working well.

Great post, thanks for sharing. Love your blog!

Dan Holloway said...

Nicola, that rewriting in the other tense thing is a really good idea - people get used to writing a certain tense or POV and often wheel it out whatever the book only to find, when they do an exercise like this that the reason they were struggling with the new project is it needed a different tense or POV.

At the risk of plugging (not for me so I hope that's OK) I chose the first two books to publish at eight cuts gallery press based largely on the fact that the voice got me within a paragraph. Both are startlingly original, but each writer approached in a completely different way. Oli Johns, who wrote Charcoal, has a very cerebral approach to his writing - with Charcoal he wanted to write a meltdown from the inside. During editing we'd have long conversations about his first person, and the fact he doesn't write paragraphs. "People don't think in paragraphs" he'd say "they also say um and yeah a lot but you don't write it" I'd respond "nah, it's not the same. People don't get first person, they don't do it right, they reflect on it, first person shouldn't reflect" he'd come back - now you may not agree at all (I disagree violently) with his analysis of 1st person, but it gives a very clear insight into how he created the extraordinary voice of Charcoal - and how he went about it - the editing process was, very consciously, a chipping away at al the reflection.

Cody James, on the other hand, wrote The Dead Beat during a five day fever brought on by a particularly heavy amphetamine binge in the late 1990s. "There was this mess in my head and I scooped it out" is how she describes it. She and a zine publisher then spent 7 years editing it together, but I don't think she touched the sentences themselves - she cut parts or sentences, but the actual sentences themselves she left intact "because they're true". The result is that every single sentence, taken in isolation, is wrong and should be changed - it's adjective and adverb heavy, and has all kinds of dialogue tags and modifiers - but if you change any words the book is diminished because the overall thing captures the maelstrom of a 20 year old meth addict trying to make sense of his life perfectly. Two very individual approaches, that relied on the building blocks being there, but nonetheless very consciously done, and clearly thought out then executed.
I won't quote from Cody (if you click my name it'll take you there) because like I say, it doesn't work as snippets, but do take a look, but here's a piece from Charcoal - read it through and it's seamless, and the voice is perfect for the book, but you can see, from what Oli says, how he got there:

I put my thumb in my mouth and chew the nail.

I get back home and I’m thinking of Deleuze.

I thought I knew what rhizomes were and what duration was all about, but it’s gone again. I can never keep it there.

I lie down on the bed and repeat to myself again and again…





But I don’t get any further…

In the bath I think of the same things I usually think of when I’m in the bath.



The friends I had a year ago.

I put my thumb in my mouth.

I bite at the wrinkles.

They weren’t real friends…they were bastards.

It wasn’t my fault.

I was unwell, they knew that.

They’re too simple to get it. Wong Dillon talked about depression like he knew it, but he never knew it.

Bluejun said...

Great post, great blog, Nicola! Getting published hasn't been my main concern, so I've neglected to find you, but thoroughly enjoyed my visit.

How bout another blog -- Wrestling Your Book Into Submission? Nice pun and all.

JO said...

Thanks for your efforts to wrestle with this issue. It's interesting the the construct of 'voice' seems to be the one that writers find most difficult to express in words - which would suggest that it goes far beyond something we can explore verbally but emerges, at its most honest, from our unconscious.

As others have said - it's much easier to spot where it's going wrong than to notice when it's right!

Melinda Szymanik said...

My writing tends to be character driven and therefore the voice is strong. The voice is stronger too when I write in 1st person POV. My current project is third person and has a very different, less distinct voice than my previous novels and I've worried over it but perhaps on reflection this is the right 'personality' for this story?

none said...

I have this character I have written a lot and I feel it's easy to slip into their voice. Of course, someone reading the book(s) might disagree XD.

Sarah Callejo said...

Thanks Nicola for clarifying the difference between voice and style. I think I get the idea.

Rebecca Laffar-Smith said...

One of my favorite authors, Les Edgerton, wrote a book for writers that focuses entirely on discovering your voice and using the strength of voice in your writing.
Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing by Les Edgerton

Les equates voice to "personality" too. And that's really what it's all about. The voice adds that dimension of narrator-to-reader relationship. Without a sincere and interesting voice a reader won't connect with the story. Failing to remain consistently within that voice can create distance and confuse the reader.