Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Jenny: Voice: The Right Words

I belong to a writer’s workshop, and I can’t tell you how much it’s helped me. Every week, I get to sit and listen and learn as other scribblers share their work. Often, I marvel at the power of another writer’s voice. The writing just grabs me and won’t let go.

At other times…not so much.

Sometimes, a workshop read just flops. (Dare I admit, sometimes the read is my own?) The dialogue and prose come off like a series of ‘and then this happened…and then this happened…and then the ninjas bust into the room.’

Ugh.

Usually, this happens when the writing lacks voice. I know. I know what you’re thinking. You’ve heard agents and editors crow about voice and you’ve read every book and blog post about the ‘rules’ of writing a good book.

But voice isn’t really about rules. It’s not about passive verbs and misplaced modifiers and too many descriptive clauses. Voice is so much deeper.

Voice is about letting the characters interpret the action, instead of reporting the events of a story.

She stepped closer and he noticed her pleasant perfume.

Vs.

She moved closer, her scent was a feel good drug.

It’s about precisely choosing the words and phrases a character would use, instead of counting ‘to be’ verbs and axing adverbs.

The sound made Joe sick. His stomach knotted and trembled.

Vs.

The sound made him want to puke.

It’s about tightening the lens on all the moments that matter, instead of focusing on the pattern of the exquisite Persian rug in chapter three.

Joe stood in Matt’s garage and stared at the peeling, blue gray paint on the water stained walls.

Vs.

It would be too easy to steal Matt’s car.

It’s about capturing the protagonist’s stream of consciousness as he or she experiences obstacles, instead of cataloguing clich├ęd physical responses.

The surface was five feet away. His eyes widened with anxiety. He held his breath.

Vs.

Almost there. The surface and a lungful of air were just beyond his reach.

It’s about slipping under the skin of the character and vividly recording their observations—their unique worries, dreams, fears, and recollections—as the plot thickens, instead of shuffling from one scene to the next.

The older Joe got, the more calloused his heart became. Each year, he showed less and less emotion. The foster care system toughened him up.

Vs.

At nine, you stopped thinking the tooth fairy had just missed your house. Another year and it you didn’t even cry about stuff anymore. You could look forward to ten, and know once you reached the double digits, you’d stop giving a crap altogether.

It’s about choosing the right words for the story, the words that make the wizard, the bully, the prom queen or the ballerina undeniably real to the reader.

It’s about the words that feel true.

20 comments:

  1. Nice article, thanks for the information.

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  2. Love this - and you're so right when you say, "It's about slipping under the skin of the character..."

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  3. I'm sure there's a more elegant way to express this, but wow, great examples!

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  4. Sewa: Thank you!

    Lisa: Yeah, voice is such a TOUGH thing to get a handle on. It's almost just as tough to explain!

    Jeff: Thank you. I made the examples up, sorta on the fly, but glad they suffice. :)

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  5. Hey, this is good stuff. Really helpful. Thanks!

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  6. Jenny, Great post! I love what you said about slipping into the skin of the character -- and letting the characters interpret the action. And a lot of times, voice doesn't come right away. It might take several chapters ... or several revisions. (at least for me it does)

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  7. Great post - I love how you use examples to show the strength of voice, even if you made them up "sorta on the fly."

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  8. Ben: Great. I really appreciate your comment!

    Dianne: Yeah, I think you're right. Nailing the character's voice can be a slow process. You're not alone in that. Me too.

    Janice: Hi! So glad they worked. Thanks for stopping by!

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  9. I've believed that voice cannot be taught—but you've started to convince me otherwise. Thanks for sharing your insight, Jenny.

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  10. T: Wow. I'm in fangirl(!) mode--thanks for your kind words. Glad the post sparked a thought.

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  11. Love this post. Examples are always a hundred times better than theory.

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  12. "It’s about slipping under the skin of the character and vividly recording their observations—their unique worries, dreams, fears, and recollections—as the plot thickens, instead of shuffling from one scene to the next."

    So true. Great post Jenny!

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  13. Just found your blog. I've never heard someone explain voice as well as you just did. Great post, thank you!

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  14. Girl Friday: Thank you. Sometimes, theory just doesn't cut it. I agree.

    Erin:

    Thank you, agent sister!! Glad it struck a chord for you!

    Candice: Wow, I appreciate that. It's always hard to articulate something like that.

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  15. Hi, Jenny. I think you pretty much summed it up. As elusive as voice is, it's really rather easy to spot when you read it and it makes you fall in love with one writer over another. Thanks!

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  16. And a lot of times, voice doesn't come right away. It might take several chapters ... or several revisions. (at least for me it does)
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  17. I'm struggling with this very issue right now and looking at having to rewrite most of my novel. Quite an intimidating task when this elusive "voice" seems to slip through my fingers like smoke most of the time. It not only seems difficult for me to tap into this voice, but a challenge to maintain it. Of course, a 20-year profession that reinforces narrative writing doesn't help, either ...
    Anyway, thanks for a succinct, informative post! I can use all the help I can get, and this was terrific! =)

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  18. I have been in several several literature shops when people read several stories in a dramatic way, depending of the story and it has helped me to improve the way I write

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