Monday, December 01, 2008

A Voice Giving Us Voice

Last week, I told you all the wonderful nuggets Jennifer Rofe shared with us at Prairie Writer’s Day. This week, I’m going to share editor Caroline Meckler’s (of Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House) insight on Voice. And it’s amazing insight!

Voice is one of the most nebulous aspects of writing, and I haven’t found a satisfying definition for it. I’ve searched websites and blogs, asked at conferences and other get-togethers, and pretty much everything else short of shouting out questions from my rooftop.

Last month, Caroline Meckler changed all that. Her presentation gave me the clearest, most understandable definition of Voice that I’ve ever heard.

She said every piece of writing has Voice – it’s the expression of the content. Some expressions are more compelling than others... Voice is something that must come from within – editors won’t be much help, especially with first time authors. Voice must already be there for most editors to take on the project.

As to what makes up Voice, Ms. Meckler said there are five elements:

This is the choice of words used both to narrate the story, and in the characters’ dialogue. They should be deliberate, concrete, and surprising (i.e. not predictable). The meaning and connotation of each word should be clear and consistent with both the characters and the story.

These are specifics that create a clear image of both the story and the character. It makes the story and characters seem tangible, and pulls the reader directly into the story. The kind of detail revealed will also reveal aspects of both the story and the characters - the characters because we are seeing his/her perception, and the story because we are seeing the author's perception.

This gives the reader a full-on experience of all five senses. Shown, of course, not told. The senses should pertain directly to the story (as should everything else), as well as reveal more about both the story and characters that we couldn't otherwise see without those senses. This adds to the personality of both the story and the characters.

This is the technical side of things, and has to do with grammatical structure: varied sentence length, run-on sentences, incomplete sentences, perfectly balanced and correct sentences, etc. All of these show the reader what kind of story we're reading, with what kind of character(s) - breathless, perfectionist, intellectual, etc.

This sets the relationship between the writer and reader: close, distant, direct, funny, intense, dramatic, etc. Is this a story being told after the fact, in a debriefing kind of situation? Or is it an intimate setting where the story and characters are speaking directly to the reader?

She went on to say Voice is the personality of your writing, meaning it’s the mood or feelings as a product of the author. The authority of the Voice matches the character, which makes the book come alive - evoking emotion from the reader.

She cited some examples of good Voice:
CALVIN COCONUT by Graham Salisbury
HOW I LIVE NOW by Meg Rosoff
ROSIE & SKATE by Beth Ann Bauman

Then, she closed with some brilliant advice: the wrong Voice will weigh down your story, so keep trying on new Voices until you find the right one. If you stay true to your writing style, it will be easier to both find and keep your Voice.

I don't know about you, but I know exactly what I need to do now in order to strengthen my Voice! Thanks, Ms. Meckler!!


Marcia said...

It does help to have someone try to break voice down into elements instead of always talking about the whole. Still, I think these will take some study, as voice is just hard to pin down. I think the distinction between voice and tone -- tone is but one aspect of voice -- is really helpful.

Carrie Harris said...

Interesting. And I've never read any of the books cited as having good voice, so I'll have to check them out.

Kelly Polark said...

I liked her presentation, too. Great summary!

Mary Witzl said...

And thank you, Tabitha. Voice is one of those things you hear about all the time but never hear defined. I've always thought it was a synonym for tone and choice of words, but Meckler has given me a lot more food for thought.

What amazes me is that even my students, some of whom have almost negligible writing skill, definitely have voice -- a certain clever way of phrasing their sentences. They are certainly experts at using words I would never expect.

PJ Hoover said...

Thanks for the great summary! It's perfect and helpful and all that!

Gottawrite Girl said...

I love talking about and examining voice. The thing I find most helpful is something an editor from Greenwillow once said... that the voice should be very YOU. That the second you try and imitate, you've lost it. It's encouraging. I shouldn't be aiming to sound like any other writer but what bubbles up in unique me... it's nice to think of this, especially as I'm prone to comparing!

Unknown said...

Ooo, thanks for sharing. This is one that absolutely is crucial in writing and rewriting...

Tabitha said...

Marcia - these will most definitely take some study. I'll probably go through several books and pull apart the Voice, just to figure out how they do it. Then I'll come up with my own way. :)

Carrie - I haven't either. More books on my already teetering TBR pile. :)

Kelly - wasn't it fabulous! Such a concrete definition for something so...nebulous. :)

Mary - your students prove Meckler's point that all writing has Voice, and that some are more lively than others. :) My Voice is boring and flat, so this was extremely useful for me! :)

PJ - thanks!! :)

GWG - good advice. The thing to watch for, though, is that "you" are a complex being and you likely have many voices. Which, really, should make our jobs easier as writers. :)

Beth - definitely! :)

cleemckenzie said...

Voice as one aspect of tone is interesting. I've read that recognizing an author's voice is very much like recognizing the person you are talking to on the other end of the telephone. Hmmm.

Tabitha said...

I've heard so many things about voice that I can't keep them all straight. :) But this makes sense, too. :)

Gutsy Living said...

Thanks again for sharing your helpful comments. The only question I really have, is that as you grow as a writer, and learn more about the craft, this may change your voice from one that initially was so "real", so "you," to a less real and less you voice. What do you think?

Angela Ackerman said...

What a great summary! I think that's the first time I've ever seen it broken down into actualities we can grasp. Thank you for posting this!

Tabitha said...

Gutsywriter - that's a really good question. And, I think, that if you've already found a good, real, strong Voice, I think it's less likely you'll lose it. Or, rather, it may change as your focus changes. My Voice tends to get flat when I'm focusing on the technical aspect of writing. That's when my logical (and boring) side takes over. But if I listen to the characters, my more interesting Voice takes over again. Personally, I think we have many voices inside us, and it's just a matter of knowing which one to choose. :)

Angela - same here! I'd never seen it presented like this before, and I found it immensely helpful. I just couldn't keep that to myself. :)

cleemckenzie said...

And you tell when you're going "flat," can't you? When it happens to me it's as though I'm in a trench and can't climb out. I've found that making dull lists of how I want the characters to behave or the action to go, then walking away for a while helps. When I return I have a place to start. That makes it easier to shift into that wonderful compound low gear and pull myself up the side of the trench and into "real" writing again.

Tabitha said...

Voice is one of my handicaps, so I couldn't always tell when I was going flat. It wasn't until I'd finished about three chapters, then went back and read them...I don't like to admit to the string of obscenities that came out of my mouth when I realized how much I had to redo. :)

But I'm getting better at seeing the signs now, and your suggestion is a really good one! :)

donna said...

lame-o/easy question: When people say "imprint" of publishing house ABC, what does that mean? Offshoot? Or that publishing house ABC is the parent company?


Tabitha said...

I guess it's like the parent company. The imprint governs itself, but has the resources of the larger company. At least, that's how Arthur Levine described his imprint. :)

If I've got it wrong, someone please speak up! :)