Wednesday, November 21, 2012

If I Say "Voice," You Run Away Screaming, Right?

Today we have another installment of "RC attempts to sum up an AQC chat for those who couldn't make it."

The topic this week was Voice. When it was suggested, Mindy McGinnis (BBC) said, "That's pretty much impossible to discuss. Okay, let's go for it!" (I may be paraphrasing.) She also shared an experience that pretty well encapsulates why it's such a maddening topic for writers.

Mindy was watching an agent/editor panel at a conference. A writer asked for a definition of voice, and not to say you know it when you see it.

The agent grabbed the mic and said, "I know it when I see it."

So what is this elusive thing called Voice? Mindy did some leg-work and found this from agent Natalie Fischer:

Language is diction: the word choices, the literal language of nationality. Style is the form: short, choppy, flowing, poetic, lyrical. Voice is the personality, the person behind the words that makes the reader forget about the author, and dive into a life. It’s what you remember about the characters long after you’ve forgotten their names.

And then there's this from agent Rachelle Gardner:

It’s the unfettered, non-derivative, unique conglomeration of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes, coming through in every word you write.

Okay, that's all well and good. How do we do that? Again from Ms. Fischer, her thoughts on what not to do:

I think the biggest mistake is to try and show voice through style or language. Using heavy slang or methods like “Southern dialogue” are annoying, not effective. Voice is a point of view, a perspective that is unique to only one person. It has emotion, history, a sense of place, and senses. These things are shown in unison with style and language, but not reliant on them to be clear.

Those are some words from the experts we used as a launching point. As usual, we went in a lot of directions from there. I'll try to hit a few highlights.

Character Voice vs Authorial Voice
Characters each have their own voice (should, anyway). Here you're primarily talking about dialogue. Then there's your voice as an author. That shows throughout the whole work (and to varying degrees, across works). Narrative voice can be a combination of the two, particularly when you're writing in first person.

Good vs Bad
This is tricky. Personally, I think there's a somewhat objective level of has/doesn't have distinctive voice. Beyond that, there's the more subjective voice you do/don't find engaging/enjoyable/compelling. Several times in chat, someone said, "I read this bestseller, and it had NO voice." Or, "This book had no voice, but I still read because of the plot/characters/something else."

I haven't read the books they're referring to, but I strongly suspect those books have distinctive voice. That reader just didn't like the voice.

So is it possible to have a story without voice? Tricky, but I think so. I've seen it, primarily in some student writing. Nothing technically "wrong," but it reads dead. The words are getting in the way of the story's life. That's okay—they're still learning.

Should We Worry?
One AQCer posited that we don't need to worry about Voice. We need to worry about everything else—grammar, structure, plot, characterization, etc. If we do all that, the voice will be there.

Some of us had a hard time deciding whether we agreed or disagreed with that. Certainly all of those things play into establishing the voice of a piece. But personally, I believe voice is greater than the sum of its parts.

Worry isn't all that productive, though. So worry? Not so much. Be mindful of? Definitely.

Can We Learn It?
This is an argument that goes back to my Authonomy days. There are those who believe voice can be taught, and thus learned. Others (and I tend to fall in this camp) think voice is innate.

So you have it or you don't, and if you don't, too bad? Not exactly. I just think of it less as a taught/learned thing and more a matter of development. We all have "voice potential" inside us. We need to develop it, find out how to uncover it. How to get those pesky words out of the way and let the story live.

As usual, I probably missed several salient points, but that's the gist of the discussion. Do you have any further thoughts on voice?


Richard said...

My wife saw the title of your blog and asked what it meant. Crossing the helix. Helix is a spiral shape, so what does crossing it mean?

Richard said...

I think there's probably two kinds of voice: the writer's natural voice (Hemingway, all his stories have the same voice) and the voice the writer injects into the narrative (possibly, Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier [because I read another book of hers that did not have the same voice]). The vast majority of writers have little or no voice, I think. I suppose this still doesn't tell us what it is. It's like describing a color. How do you describe color to a blind person? How do you describe it to a sighted person? I don't know.

Jean Oram said...

Voice is that distinctive something that makes an author's work 'theirs.' For example, my daughter always gets compliments on her use of 'voice' in her writing assignments. If you read her work it is 'her.' Even without her name on the page, the teacher would be able to pull it out of the pile and know who wrote it. To me, that is voice. It is commanding. It is distinctive. It shows history, lifestyle, education, everything. It's like a fingerprint.

Except some writers haven't developed that fingerprint yet.

For example, the top three writers in my genre--I could tell you who wrote a page if you tore it out of a book and read it to me. It's just that something that makes them 'them.'