Sunday, October 17, 2010

A little thing called voice. . .

Voice. When you're a "person who writes"
(I feel strange saying 'writer' like I'm an impostor so bear with me), it's all you hear about.

You have to have Voice. It's all about the Voice. You're grammar can suck but once you have Voice you're ok. You're plot is useless, I hate your characters but you've great Voice. Voice is learned. Voice is innate. Voice. Voice. Voice. Voice. Voice.


What the HELL is VOICE? (and where can I get some s'il vous plait?)

Well, I but this terminology up there with having an 'EAR' for languages or music. It seems to be this intangible mysterious thing that is the holy grail of writing.

So why am I having this rant? Well this 'voice' thing has been on my mind for a while, as it seems to be this fundamental ingredient to writing, that everyone talks about yet no one really can pin a definition on and like the 'talent vs. ability' debate - do you just have 'voice' or can you get it? (i.e. work?) This has come to the fore because recently I've been thinking of entering a competition hosted by the wonderful Inkwell for Irish writers, where you're first 3,000 words is reviewed by a Penguin editor and a literary agent for a prize.

I haven't written the first chapter yet (I'm writing rough draft in reverse) so I played around with it and posted the first 300 words or so on AW to get some feedback. Repeatedly I was told to cut the thing except for last two paragraphs. I was told these had voice. That these made people want to turn the page. Now, I keep staring at the page. Looking at the paragraphs with no voice and the ones that supposedly do. I completely agree with the feedback but I'm left pondering about this voice thing.

How do you know you have voice?

If I'm entirely honest with myself. I don't think I have 'it' - that voice, which makes people keep reading. Sometimes I might write the odd line and see maybe a glimpse of something, but then it goes. Is this voice? Something which is there, but needs to be worked at to be found? Or do you either have it or you don't? Am I fooling myself? Deluding myself? I know DarkShines will probably never see the light of day - mostly down to my lack of skill and experience. I'm ok with this. I believe in 'practice makes perfect' but I also believe that sometimes you need to have an innate ability to build on in the first place - is this what voice is?

I don't know. I feel I should know. I feel I should know that I have it, but I really don't. Does any writer do? Or is it something only an outsider can see and determine?

Amazing readers who are writers, do you know what voice is? And do you know if you have it?

(And can you get me some?)


Jenna said...

The problem with voice is that everybody has a different definition. As far as the dictionary of literary terms is concerned, voice is "a term used in literary criticism to identify the sense a written work conveys to a reader of its writer's attitude, personality, and character. As is the case with the closely related term tone, voice reflects the habit of thinking of writing as a mode of speech. Inexperienced writers are often instructed to 'get more of your own voice into your writing.' The concept of voice is sometimes compared to Aristotle's concept of ethos, the personal image projected by an orator."

Take from that what you will, I suppose. When I think of "voice" in writing, I think of a pattern that is distinct and unique to each writer. You have it if you (and/or others) can read your writing and tell that YOU wrote it. It sounds like you, it feels like you, and it's a representation of you. A great example is Kiersten White--her voice in Paranormalcy is pretty much exactly what you find on her blog.

Long comment, but bear with me.

As far as I'm concerned, voice is one of those things that, if you harp on about it and worry too much, you never get anywhere. It tends to show up when you're not thinking about it.

Hope you were able to pull something from that. Good thoughts, good luck, and happy writing.

Emily Cross said...

Thanks for that definition Jenna, it was actually your review that got me mulling over it more - I was meaning to leave a comment but someone interrupted me. I guess it's like a shadow, if you keep chasing it you'll never get it :)

Anne R. Allen said...

Jenna's comment helps, but I'm as baffled as you. I once had an agent phone me and say she loved my voice, but could I please change the plot and characters. I said no. Maybe I shouldn't have. I think my blog has a voice, but when I'm writing novels, my characters determine the tone and "ethos". I just tried writing a novel in my blog voice, but so far it's getting rejected too. Although the rejections have been personalized, if that means anything.

Rebecca said...

I feel like I was talking or writing something about this somewhere recently, but I can't for the life of me remember the circumstances. Either way, this is how I look at it. "Voice" is much more apparent when writing in first-person, because your writing should take on the "tone" of the character doing the speaking. An arrogant character and a meek character will have different word choices and will tend towards different kinds of sentences, all of which will be coloured by whatever individual world view they have. It's like your whole story is written through dialogue, and dialogue reveals character. When writing from a third-person point of view, though, the "narrator" is invisible, sometimes all-knowing, not a real character or part of the story or anything. This style can get away with less "voice," in my opinion, at least in an obvious sort of way. But there can still be some voice...maybe a Gothic horror story would be written with long, descriptive sentences, versus a science-fiction adventure written with short, choppy, explosive sentences---in that sense, the "tone" of the writing can be really unified with the subject matter of the book.

I don't know if that made any sense, but I hope maybe it offers another view for you to think about :)

Che Gilson said...

Well, I come from an art background and 'voice' is very much like 'style' in art. Everyone freaks out and tries to nail down a 'style' wether they have a good grasp of fuindamentals or not.

Early on after trying to make myself establish a style I gave up quit worrying and learned what I could about art. Took classes, went to college for it even. Style happened to me- after years of prcatice and work I fell into a style without trying.

Voice is just the same. The more you learn the more you learn what YOU like and voice eventually becomes the things that only you would think of. It becomes your style. Your turns of phrase, you idioms, the way you put things together. And the only way to arrive at that is to write a lot.

Emily Cross said...

@ Anne - but. . . but. . . you're my yoda/sensei, you're cant be baffled lol!!! I think you've a wonderful voice/tone etc. If you're getting rejected there isn't much hope for the rest of us!

@ Che - I think your comparison with art is really useful. Definitely something to mull over. Thanks again for your thoughts, I appreciate you dropping by

M. McGriff said...

When I think of the term "voice" I link it to my writing style. Everyone has a style that emerges through years of writing. It's ultimately, like Jenna said, letting yourself and personality come through. Your voice and your style is what you are inevitably comfortable with, the way you are comfortable writing. If I'm writing something that is totally "not me" it shows in my work. I think if you go to those scenes you really enjoyed writing, those paragraphs that seemed almost effortless to write, you may find your voice there!

I hope this helps! this is a tough one!

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