Monday, January 25, 2010

Back on the Blog Chain: Whose Voice is It Anyway?

I'm back again with another installment of the Blog Chain. This time, Sarah asked the question:

How did you discover your particular voice as a writer?

Mandy answered this question before me, and Eric will post tomorrow.

I have what may be an unconventional take on voice. While there are some parts of my writing style that are constant -- I use semicolons and long sentences, and even semicolons in long sentences; I like beats, similes, and interior dialogue -- my voice changes with each project. My voice is flavored by the viewpoint characters who tell my stories. In the end, they are all products of me, filtered by my perceptions of how a noblewoman, seamstress, teenage male actor, embittered lab tech, or magician in exile might view the world. But I work hard to ensure that the words I choose fit the character. It's like the improv game of All in One Voice, where two people have to make up and sing the same lyrics at the same time:

Voice is especially important when writing a story told in the first person. My two most successful stories so far were written in first person. ("Move Over Ms. L.," the prequel to my current novel Across Two Universes, earned an Honorable Mention in an international competition for novellas. "A Reptile at the Reunion" was published in an anthology two years ago.) I think part of the reason they worked so well is because of the voice. It's interesting that both main characters had some things in common with me: both women worked in a lab, either scientific or veterinary. They were also both soured by events in their pasts, and this cynicism and hurt carried over into their voices. (I hope I don't come across this way in real life!) Jo, the heroine of "Move Over Ms. L.," is described by her husband in Across Two Universes has having more chip than shoulder. Jo reconciles with her past over the course of "Move Over Ms. L.," going from this:

I stopped myself from blurting out the rest of my private nickname for him – Uncle Jackass. He was the heir to the wishing well – not to mention the money well.

To this:

And you’ll be loved, Paul. No matter what happens, both George and I will always love you. I promise you that.

My current novel is told in third person, mostly from Paul's point of view. I find it harder to establish a voice in third person, though as I said before, I try to filter the narration through his perspective. The expressions he uses are a product of his upbringing. For instance, when he gets in trouble, he refers to himself as being "in heavy water" instead of hot water. Although heavy water isn't used in the fusion engines that power the spaceship where he lives, it still seems like something he would know about and know was dangerous. Paul is also much more free with swear words than I am in real life, and as an actor, he likes to quote Shakespeare. I don't think Shakespeare counts as part of my voice, though.

One final point I'd like to make about voice is that for me at least, it takes time to develop. My first draft of a scene tends to be sparse, mostly dialogue, beats, and action. Dialogue comes fairly easily to me, but setting doesn't. I'm an organic writer who tends to figure out the purpose of a scene as I create it, so this is part of the reason why my drafts are quite drafty. And frequently, especially if I'm tired, the words I choose tend to be ordinary. Once I have a better sense of the scene and what my viewpoint character's motives and emotions are, I can go back and punch up the scene with details and interesting phrases to give it some spark.

To sum up, the voice of a particular story isn't just mine; it's a fusion of my perspective and my character's. We improv and experiment together until we come up with the words that sing. And my readers are lucky in that they don't have to hear me actually sing my stories. I'd drive them all away!

What are your thoughts on voice?


Eric said...

Nice post, Sandra. Your perspective on this question is very different from everyone else so far, but I like the way you answered this. Good luck with the 3rd person viewpoint. I'm not a fan of first person myself, so if you can do it well, more power to you.

Christine Fonseca said...

You and I see voice in a very similar way. Great job Sandra!

Mandy said...

Great post Sandra! I have to say that my voice is stronger in first person as well. I find it much easier to write. My current WIP is thrid person too and I'm finding it tougher to infuse my voice. But it's a great challenge.

Emily Ann Benedict said...

All writers need to have their own voice!

If we all wrote the same life wouldn't be a any fun. :?

There are a lot of well known writers who violate laws put down by literary teachers. ;)

Nice post.:)

Sandra said...

Welcome to my blog, Emily!

Cole Gibsen said...

That's a great way of looking at it. Fantastic post!

B.J. Anderson said...

I love the way you answered this questions! Great post.

Anonymous said...

'kay, can I just say: I LUV Colin!!!!

Oh, voice is soooo important. Thank you for this helpful post.

Sandra said...

You're welcome, lbdiamond!

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