Saturday, October 11, 2008

Standing out in the crowd

At a Sisters in Crime meeting on Saturday, we talked about fictional "voice," that quality that's so hard to define, but which you know when you see it. When an editor finds a manuscript with a distinctive voice, she feels as someone might who is looking at that red tree above. She can't take her eyes off it, and all the other manuscripts on her desk blend together like so many identically-colored trees on a hillside.

Photof by Andif


FARfetched said...

There are some writers whose voice is so strong you recognize it immediately. And sometimes, you see the echo in other writers.

For example, Stephen King was heavily influenced by Ray Bradbury. Read one, then the other, and it's obvious.

Speaking of borrowing a voice, I captioned another pic this evening.

Maryb said...

I'm reading The Fountainhead. (Kelly already knows that from a thread at dKos). I just started. And this seems like a group that I could share some first impressions with.

I've never read anything by Ayn Rand and, in fact, don't know anything about her. But I'm about 60 pages into the novel and it feels for all the world like I'm reading the script of a Hollywood Movie circa 1939.

I never picture characters when I read but I hear the sound of their voices. As I read this I'm hearing that almost monotone staccato way they talked in old movies. Think Humphrey Bogart.

It was distracting me so much that I finally googled Ayn Rand and, sure enough, she was a Hollywood screenwriter.

I can't say that I dislike this style but it was not at all what I expected. (Nobody give away the storyline to me. I like to be surprised.)

Lisa M said...

I've been frustrated that my main character's voice isn't as strong as it needs to be. Being able to clearly hear her voice has been hard for me. Several of my other characters have quite distinctive voices that were much easier for me to hear. Yet it is this main character's struggles, fears, and dreams that that have become so clear in my mind and driven my story and me all this time.

Nancy, you're queen of the blog for good reason. Today's picture so perfectly illustrates what you talk about. Not sure I'll end up with a story so well put together but hope it will have enough color in the leaves to give an agent, then editor pause.

Edit Monster and I have a date today to put words on page that I charted out last weekend. This full time working thing has put a cramp in my writing time.
TEXAS won and hubby and I had couple time yesterday.
So today is all about the writing.

Andif thanks for making me want to be in that boat.

Farf--you be smart, I like hearing your thoughts.

MaryB--I haven't read Ayn Rand, but have heard much about her and seen the Fountainhead movie. She doesn't lack for words and her books are in such tiny print these eyes resist picking up her books. I think she was a woman ahead of her time.

Waves to all to come.

AndiF said...

Some writers have a very clearly discernible style that permeates every book. Some are more like chameleons -- changing their voice to fit the particular book. There are writers of both types I really like so I don't think one way is necessarily better than the other. I suspect the more "loved" writers tend to be those whose voice is more a constant because people feel at home with them.

Nice caption, Farf.

Well Mary, I won't spoil the Fountainhead for you. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, the less said about Ayn Rand the better. ;)

I've got company this weekend (and 5 dogs in the house, oy) and more coming today so I'll see you all on Monday.

Hope everybody has a fine day.

Kimberly Frost said...

I feel like the tone of my writing voice shifts so dramatically depending on what I'm working on that I'm not sure that people would recognize my "voice" from piece to piece. I feel like I've got a couple of voices.

On the other hand, I heard Jayne Ann Krentz say that voice has to do with how the author sees the world and that it comes through in the writing and is something the author should sharpen and highlight rather than dampen down.

I guess that I do always have characters who plunge into danger, keep their chins up despite the gloom, and wise-crack as soon as they're not about to be killed in the next thirty seconds. Is that voice?

Paul Lamb said...

Every story is "told" by someone. Whether the narration is first person or third person or some combination of multiple narrators, the story teller is the voice (which is different from the voice of the characters within). Your narrator has to be as much a character as your other characters (even if you're using 3rd person narration). This is essentially the definition Francine Prose gives for voice in Reading Like a Writer, which is an excellent book every writer should read.

Kimberly Frost said...

P.S. Mary, I know what you mean about recognizing something in a person's writing that evokes a certain time and place.

I've got a friend who's writing an after-the-vampire-apocalypse book, and everyone always thinks it's set in the past rather than the future. It bugs him, but the reason I think everyone gets that impression is that he uses A LOT of antiquated words. The prose smacks of the voices of the Sci Fi/Fantasy authors of the 50s and earlier. (Which was the group he read a lot of in his formative years, by the way.)

So definitely, I think many of us telegraph what our influences are and the time we live in through our writing voice.

Maria Lima said...

Bonjour, everyone! I decided to skip the final con day and came home early. As Bridget Jones would put it: v.tired.

Nancy - many hugs around to all given. Got to see Margaret M for a bit, but like all cons, too many people and not enough time.

I had a brilliant time and enjoyed catching up with my fellow writers and meeting new fans.

Now: nap time.

katiebird said...

I often love books for the writer's voice more than even the story. The most extreme example is Stephen King -- I love his voice but his stories scare the $&%*%* out of me! So his books often sit on the shelf for years while I sweat out my fear....

Nancy P said...

Yay, Texas beating OU, Lisa! My own team--Mizzou--had one of those ugh character-building nights.

One reason your heroine's voice may not feel so strong to you? If she's struggling, etc., then it may be that's she's growing into her voice right there on the page. You may be wanting her to sound stronger and more distinctive than she realistically can until she triumphs in whatever way she's going to. She may be growing into her voice, in other words, just as you may be growing into your fictional voice. At our meeting yesterday, there was consensus that developing a distinctive fictional voice, just like developing as a writer, *is* a developmental process.

It's also true that character's voice can be distinctive in failure and neurosis and weakness--not that those are the case in your book. Sometimes what's missing is a character's strength/intensity of desire, or difficulty/worthiness of the challenges she faces.

None of this may have the slightest to do with your book. I'm just extending the conversation about Voice.

Nancy P said...

Kb, I agree that SK has a really engaging Voice.

Yesterday, we were talking about how a book has a bunch of Voices in it: there are all the character's voices, plus that authorial voice that Paul mentioned, the ultimate voice under the voices, like the bass in a quartet. It can blend, or it can really stick out, depending on the book/style, but it is the foundation that supports the rest of the singers. I think it's *very* hard to work on consciously and can get *self*-conscious all too quickly.

Blahdy-di-blah. Give this woman a house to clean!!

katiebird said...

Nancy, You really want to clean a house? Come on over! I've got one waiting just for you....


Nancy P said...

Oh, I have one of my own, but thanks so much, kb. :D

Beth said...

Maryb, Ayn Rand is one of my favorites. Especially Atlas Shrugged.

Interesting discussion on voice...thanks for teaching us newbies as always, Nancy (and everyone else!).

Sunny Sunday to everyone - no snow yet in N Idaho, yay! I'm off to run more errands...but no house cleaning!

Lisa M said...

Nancy, your words soothe my rather fragile editor psyche.
I had a dream a couple of weeks ago I was deaf and felt that was because I couldn't hear my story. But one of my critique partners said no, it was my POV character being unable to make sense of the Chaos in her life that I was having trouble with. I couldn't make sense of/hear the story because she couldn't either.
So your talking about that character still finding her voice makes perfect sense.
And me struggling to find my writing voice is right on target.

I appreciate all the points of view about voice.

Nancy P said...

Jayne Ann Krentz say that voice has to do with how the author sees the world and that it comes through in the writing and is something the author should sharpen and highlight rather than dampen down.

I so agree with that, Kimber. It's why I think the writer's character is inextricably intwined with voice, and why I think becoming a stronger, wiser, more interesting human being cannot help but infuse writing with more of those qualities, too.

There's definitely skill involved, though, in letting that out on the page.

maryb said...

Great writerly discussion. I love when you guys do this. :)

Lisa, it is tiny print. Andi and Beth, you seem to balance each other out.

After thinking about it for a while (a couple of months) I decided to create a blog.


Who knows how long I'll keep it up. But, it's there while it lasts.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Ah, voice--one of my bugaboos--and you are so right, Nancy, "you know when you see it" as I learned as a judge of a contest.

Some entries were well written, with excellent elements of a good story and--flat.

The one thing they lacked was a strong voice.

Nancy P said...

Maryblogs! I just visited there and also added you to my list, Mb.

Nancy P said...

Conda, thank you for proving a point I made to my group yesterday! :) I told them that if they could judge a short story contest, they'd soon understand Voice better. Read 80 stories, and you Get It. Of course, you also find out that while voice is important, it isn't everything.

maryb said...

Thanks for the link N.

I'm watching the Dodgers v. Phillies. I can't believe this is the first post-season game I'm seeing.

Kelly McCullough said...

I'm just going to drop my take on voice in below. First however, hallooooo to everybody!

Just started treadblogging again today (3 miles this morning) and so I'm late to the discussion. I find it hard to type and tread--mainly because of static electricity issues.

Nice post, Nancy. Neil Gaiman was saying a while back that voice is what the author does by mistake--the stuff that is idiosyncratic and so ingrained they don't even know they're doing it.

And, now, my take:

Voice is the difference between fiction and a sort of journalism of events that never happened. Strong voice is "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this our sun of York," instead of "My brother's victory made me feel good." Strong voice is "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," instead of "things were mixed."

Most writers pass through a series of steps on the way:

1. Recognizing and understanding the idea of voice.

2. Writing with any voice at all (usually imitated).

3. Finding a voice of one's own.

4. Using that voice.

5. Doing so with consistency.

I think there is a 6th step as well, but it's essentially optional--creating voices that are distinctive and personal and that also suit the tone of the written piece perfectly, so that each story is both completely yours and completely its own. That last one is very difficult, and I don't know anyone who does it with real consistency.