Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hearing Voices

First published March 12, 2010.

Writers often discuss development of their own writing "voices" but there is more to the idea than just this one aspect. Let's discuss some other voices in the writing process.

I once reviewed a young adult manuscript that had many characters, all of whom had different voices. In this case, the reader was dealing with teen slang and regional dialect, foreign and biblical characters, as well as talking fantasy animals. Few of them at this point in the writing had really well-developed voices, easily distinguishable from each other, and they often left me confused as to who was saying what. It’s an issue that’s very important to the readability of a story, especially with an audience of young people who have shorter attention spans than adults. Each of your characters must sound distinct, and this is where revising plays a major role in honing a well-crafted story.

The above scenario illustrates various kinds of character voices a writer might have to manage. Beyond that, vernacular challenges us because as time passes our language changes. Think how difficult it is to read Mark Twain. Not only are we dealing with heavy dialect, but also with an entirely different society, complete with standards and practices vastly different from the modern day. The Zeitgeist always creates dialogue challenges, and every time period will have its own peculiarities. I’ll write a complete post on the issues of language and appropriate voice in history because nothing can pull a reader out of a story faster than a modern word or phrase carelessly plopped into the wrong century.

Then there is the issue of virtual voice and how it translates onto the printed page. Just how much of your blog can you put into a book without some serious editing? That's another post, and one that's particularly pertinent today. WTF and OMG might be okay online, but how much of that will your reader tolerate in a cookbook?

What about the challenge of keeping your character “in voice” throughout the story? This is especially difficult if an author is not familiar enough with a language or dialect to stay naturally in its mental frame. It’s very easy for characters to start sounding like the author, and that’s part of what a good editor “listens” for when reading a manuscript. Does that hillbilly twang in the early pages carry through until the very end? Or does your protagonist sound like a Harvard graduate by the last few pages of the novel? If so, is the transition logical to the story or an oversight on the part of the writer?

In the first installment of the Hearing Voices series, I’ll talk about the simplest yet probably most difficult voice in all writing – the one used in children’s books. That sparest of voices presents the greatest challenge to writers precisely because it is so minimal. But a good children’s story touches the heart and mind of an adult as easily as a child because of its clarity and the strong voice that is essential to a good read. Stay tuned for more about that, and a review of a new series I really like coming up next Saturday.
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Dani Greer is founding member of the Blood-Red Pencil, and lately has spent much of her time as special projects coordinator for Little Pickle Press, a job that includes reading many children's book submissions. In her spare time, she critiques cozy and history mysteries for grown-ups, with particular attention to voice and detail. Contact her by email for manuscript critique costs. (Reduced rates for books with felines in the cast.) In 2012, she plans to spend many hours revising and preparing her own writing for publication.
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20 comments :

  1. Very good post, and so true. I've read some "big name" authors whose characters all sound exactly alike. Drives me nuts.

    My last book had a 4-year-old child, and while it was far from a children's book, it still required that her voice ring true.

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  2. Yay! Can't wait for more on teen voice. :)

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  3. Teen voice is always a challenge because slang changes so rapidly. Urban Dictionary is a must-read for YA authors, if you're writing in today's time period for today's teen.


    Dani

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  4. What a great topic! "Voice" sounds so simple, yet it is one of the most complex challenges we writers (and editors) face because of its multifaceted nature. I have to wonder whether the characters mentioned by Terry were cloned because the author didn't want to lose his/her voice . . . and, to prevent that, sacrificed the individuality of the characters. What a disservice this is the our readers, who expect so much more from us!

    Bottom line: We need to understand voice in all its glorious applications in order to grow as writers and to be effective as editors. I look forward to your future posts on this topic, Dani. I'll think we'll all learn from them.

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  5. Voice is a big issue for me, because as a ghostwriter it is my job to write in someone else's voice and not my own -- or at least in a combination of the two. I also wrote a book in my dog's voice (well, sort of) and am working on a sequel. So I am looking forward to more posts on this subject.

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  6. This is going to be a great series, Dani. Looking forward to more.

    I've read several young adult novels that have lots of voices and a different POV for each chapter. Done right, it can work well. Done poorly, and it can be too confusing. One of the best I read was Ringside 1925: Views From The Scopes Trial by Jen Bryant

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  7. Like that painting, the Scream by Edvard Munch, says it all.

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  8. This is so timely right now. I'm working on this very issue with my own writing. It's been pretty easy for me in short collaborative pieces at my fiction community, but now I'm writing a full-length novel the old fashioned way and I'm finding it far more challenging than I expected. Thanks for the reminder.

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  9. This post brought to mind Kevin Costner in his Robin Hood role. He never could get straight whether or not he was using a British accent. ;)

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  10. Thanks for the reminder about voices. It is so easy to fall into a pattern of having characters sound alike. Or going to the other extreme and making one voice so unique with fractured English that it is jarring.

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  11. Speaking of voices, Kathryn. Dick Van Dyke with his fake cockney accent in Mary Poppins. Heaven help us. :D

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  12. Yes, teen voice. Why do authors think they can say "none of your beeswax" in today's world? I see this all the time in kidlit and YA. It is an ancient expression!

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    ReplyDelete

The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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