When last I posted, I talked a bit about chocolate—and voice (but mostly chocolate—I was hungry that day). I gave you homework to do. You were supposed to take down several of your favorite novels, read the first pages, and take some notes about the voice. You were to compare these different novels and see how the voice in each differed (hopefully it did)—then write down what made them different.
I also asked that you print out the first page of your novel/work in progress and compare your work to that of the published authors you chose. Upon comparing, you were to write down anything this exercise told you about your voice—was is something unique that would catch an editor’s or agent’s eye? Or was it too similar to everything out there?
If you’ve done your homework, make sure you have it with you as we proceed. Hopefully you learned something about your voice. When I did this exercise (yes, I did the homework too), I discovered the books I pulled off my shelves were all written in the first person point of view. I wanted to be fair so I put some of them back and pulled down books written in third person point of view. Still, it was interesting to note that many of my favorite books are in 1st person POV. Mostly interesting because I tend to write in third person.
In Les Edgerton’s Finding Your Voice, I found chapter six (Elements of Personality or “Voice”) particularly useful (the whole book is great and I highly recommend it). Here he tells the reader that “the most vital element in the writer’s voice is the tone you tell the story or write the article in.” He goes on to say that tone “echoes the emotional stance directed at the material by the author.” Tone gives a clue to the reader (whether they—or you—realize it or not). It helps them connect to the emotion they should be feeling. Look at your page again. Does your tone match the emotion you want the reader to feel? If not, why? My tone didn’t match what I was trying to convey at all. It was dark and serious and rather depressing.
Go back and pull one of the books you chose to evaluate—read that first page again and figure out the tone the author is conveying.
Edgerton says the next element of voice is the vocabulary we use in our writing. Even if the tone is true in our writing, the vocabulary can ruin our voice. You’ve heard someone say a particular author’s writing sounds “writerly,” right (possibly someone said this about your writing)? It’s those darn word choices.
But it’s not really our fault—blame it on the teachers who from the time we were in grade school hammered the “proper” way to write into us. Remember the adjectives and adverbs we were encouraged to put into our writing? The more “writerly” the better! If we strayed from the “proper” way we were penalized with bad grades.
But we’re adults now (or most of you reading this will be). Guess what? We don’t have to listen to our grade school teachers anymore. For our writing to be “unique” we need to use words that are organic to us—words we know and use, not words we’ve looked up in a thesaurus to replace the word we should have used in the first place (come on, you know you’ve done it)—otherwise we end up coming off as “writerly.”
Let me give you an example from my own work. In my manuscript, I had a character running her hand over a wooden chest’s “intricately” carved lid. Okay, so intricately is a word I feel comfortable using in everyday conversation—I didn’t use a thesaurus to get it—but I’m more likely to use “elaborately” (and so is my middle grade aged character)—so I changed it. The sentence reads much better and more “true” now.
It’s not all about you when you’re writing! You may be the most sophisticated, knowledgeable person out there—maybe you graduated top of your class from an ivy league school—but if you’re writing a middle grade character, you’re going to have to watch your word choices (unless your character is a prodigy or something). Use words familiar to yourself—AND your characters.
Pay attention to your vocabulary. Don’t use a word just to be “original” or “unique” because it may come off being “writerly” and no one wants that (okay, maybe someone does—but not most agents/editors)!
After tone and vocabulary, Edgerton discusses imagery. Did you know that’s part of your voice? In order to be consistent with our natural voice, we have to make sure we use images (metaphors, similes, description) that are consistent with what we know—but also with what our characters know. We may have been to a hot springs, but we can’t use that as a metaphor if our character is from a planet with no water and hasn’t ever seen one.
Look at your first page again. If you have any images in that first page (and I’d be shocked if you didn’t), are they consistent with what both you and your main character know? Mine weren’t!
I believe all this talk and the examples and the homework and everything can all be boiled down to one thing:
You’re probably more interesting than you think you are. And most of us have had so many experiences that we’re a gold mine of characteristics to use when creating our characters. Most if not all of us put a bit of ourselves into our characters anyway—so why do we try so hard to keep our personalities out of our writing? Stop it.
Let the words flow onto the page as they naturally would. If “depict” isn’t a word that you or your character would naturally use—find a synonym that is.
One caution here. I’m not saying write exactly how you speak. Your writing voice and your speaking voice should be similar, but not exact. Your writing voice needs to be better but still way below the “writerly” level (read pompous, arrogant, and not easy to relate to—using words to impress rather than convey detail).
My eyes were open by these exercises. I mentioned earlier that most of my favorite books are written in first person—but I write in third person. So guess what? I tried rewriting the first chapter of one of my novels in first person. What a difference! My character leaped onto the page. Seriously—things went onto the page that I would have NEVER considered putting in there—but they’re totally consistent and true to both my character and my own voice. And guess what? The tone is now exactly what I intended it to be. It’s amazing.
I’m not saying I’ve never written in first person before—I have—but this particular novel is a middle grade novel, and I read or heard somewhere (probably a long time ago) that third person past tense was the more “acceptable” middle grade point of view—so that’s how I approached this book. But I love the first person present tense for this novel—it works. So I’m redoing the whole thing.
Anyway, I’ve gone on way too long here, so let me close by saying this:
The thing that makes your manuscript the “unique” work the editors and agents all say they want is your own “unique” voice. Without it, you’ll sound just like every other writer out there. And none of us are like anyone else. That’s the point of this world. We’re all unique—and that special uniqueness that makes us US needs to make it into our writing.
Don’t be writerly, be a writer.