Mark Terry

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Writing 201: VOICE

December 9, 2009
A while back, I posted about a sort of Writing 201, that the nuts-and-bolts of writing was fairly straightforward and teachable, but the more advanced things like voice and hooks and pace were more difficult. I decided to string together a series of posts on these topics (yes, always thinking of you), and decided I needed someone smarter, more talented, more experienced, more successful, and you know, better looking and nicer, to help me out. So I called upon my good friend Erica Orloff, better known here as The Divine Miss O. We’ll be having a series of conversations on these topics over the next week or so.

Today’s topic is “voice.” How many times have you heard an editor or agent say, “I was immediately attracted to the voice of the book?” Never? You don’t get out much, do you? A lot. But for all that talk, it’s sort of tricky to figure out what exactly what “voice” is and how to develop it.

After Erica and I finished this conversation, I was thinking (in the shower this morning) that it reminds me of the movie “The Legend of Bagger Vance” with Matt Damon and Will Smith. That part of what Matt Damon’s character needed to find (or re-find, as the case may be) his “authentic golf swing.” I think this applies to writing and especially to “voice.” So think about it. Here we go.

Mark: Let's start with voice. I'm not completely sure how to define it. Or more accurately, how do you separate "voice" from "style"? In my head I think there are separations, but they clearly overlap. It comes down to word choice and a lot of subtleties related to mechanics--sentence length and complexity, do you use short declarative sentences or more complex sentence structure, sentence fragments. I think that can be defined as style, but style needs--in my opinion, anyway--to be appropriate for each type of story, while I think voice tends to be more individual to the writer.

Erica: VOICE to me is where style meets character.

One VERY SIMPLE sentence, but to me it speaks volumes. As writers develop, they eventually grow into a natural style. Read my blogs for a while, and you notice I am tangential. I use ellipses a lot . . . as I move and wend my way through my own thought processes. I used all caps and italics to emphasize FEELING because that's who I am in real life. I'll start sentences with "and." I will start like a stand up comic, in essence beginning a post with something like, "So I walked into a bar and . . ." You get the idea. So when I write fiction, my natural voice comes out, often in dialogue. My characters will have the same sort of emotionally pithy, punchy "feel" to them.

But the other half is the style of the AUTHOR has to meet the character. Not all my characters are me. In fact, there are usually just twinges of me here and there. So it's taking my natural style and the way I OBSERVE the world and communicate it, and pouring that into the soul of my character to see how they then will observe their circumstances, be in their circumstances, and then communicate it.

Simple, right?

Mark: I think so, too. I'm a fan of ellipses because I think it's better than "um" and I think that it reflects either that the character is thinking or, perhaps, debating what and how to say something, which can suggest prevarication (okay, lying). I like that, though, where style meets character. But you're also suggesting it's where style meets characters meets the author's personality, too, right?

I was thinking about this, because we both like Mike Lawson, and I just finished reading HOUSE RULES by him. Mike and I pretty much play on the same tennis court: political thrillers with an element of espionage and terrorism and politics. But he's much lighter than I am and his voice is very different, which also has to do with what we're each trying to do. For example:


"If Mahoney called later in the day to see if he was back in D.C., DeMarco planned to lie to the inconsiderate shit. He'd tell him he'd been on his way but a massive accident on the bridge from Key West to the mainland had caused him to miss his plane, or that all the flights out of Miami had been delayed because security was so tight, or that...

"Aw, screw it. He'd make up something when the time came."


"He sat in the Explorer in the 7-Eleven parking lot, watching what looked like three gang members shoulder through the front door. Baggy jeans hanging off their asses, Baltimore Ravens jerseys, red doo-rags on their heads. He hoped they weren't knocking the place off. He didn't have time for crap like that. He made his next call on his cell phone."

What we're doing, we're both writing in the 3rd person from the point of view of the main character, and I think we use some similar techniques. But, to me, anyway, the voices are different. The attitude is similar, the approach is similar... but I think the voice is different. At least I think so.

If you buy that, how do you develop "voice?" I think it's tough to do consciously. I think you have to read and read and read and write and write and write. And it eventually develops. Like you say, where the style meets the character (and the author).

Erica: What I get from your two selections is Mike's character's sardonic wit, and your character's instant assessment style . . . and weariness, perhaps, though they are both essentially analyzing situations and using language to give the same sort of "can handle any situation" feel. I would expect BOTH characters to be able to think on their feet. I would trust both to save the day.

I don't know if an author's personality necessarily fits in (though sometimes, definitely). Look at books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. The narrator is autistic. Mark Haddon is not. He had to sustain the mask of this narrator for the length of the novel--tricky no doubt. But I think most authors end up finding their groove of a voice where they hit their sweet spot.

How to develop it? I think you see its development over time. I think you write that first book that feels like you hit your sweet spot--and then when it's time to write the second, third, fourth (manuscript or published novel) and you have to come up with a new character. You know it can't be the same character over and over . . . and yet you have to find that sweet spot again. So I think you start to find it. I have a comedic voice--Freudian Slip could not be any more different from Spanish Disco--but I know when I slip into the patter between characters that I find my rhythm. I'm not overly descriptive. I rely on the characters to tell the tale. I have a darker voice that has a a deep, almost depressive quality to it, and the darker books (Invisible Girl, The Roofer) have narrators who see nothing but destruction around them and continue to push on, accepting that "it is what it is"--and very much are observers. They can walk into a room, hear what someone has to say, and intuit (perhaps in a decidedly female sense) the underlying lies or, more accurately, the untruths we tell ourselves.

Both those voices developed over time, but I can say my darker voice was there at 16 and 17 in my short stories. The truth detector is part of who I am--or like to think I am anyway.

Mark: The only thing I think I would add for now is that I have a couple different voices and it's related to character. My nonfiction voice is very straightforward, journalistic, but authoritative. It has to be (and confidence may be an element to voice that all editors and agents and readers respond to, whether consciously or not). But I wrote a novel called HOT MONEY and the character is not just confident, he's self-consciously arrogant, funny, charming, wry. Sometimes I think the most accurate way to describe voice is the voice used in a book is the voice of the author if the author was that character. So if I were Derek Stillwater, there's his voice; if I were Austin Davis, that's his voice; if I were Megan Malloy, that's the voice. But there's an element of acting and make-believe to it, too. But it's tricky to write about a character that has nothing in common with you at all. Not impossible, just harder.

Thanks, Erica. The floor is now open for discussion!

P.S. I have shut off comment moderation temporarily. If I get a lot of spam it'll go back on.


Blogger Heather Lane said...

Nice discussion. Mark--nice blog.

I love picking up a book from an author I love and meeting a completely new character. Not an echo of the voice of an older character from an earlier book.

Voice to me, is what I hear in my head when the character speaks to me and begs me to write their story.

Although, sometimes it takes me a couple of chapters to really understand their voice.

5:02 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

In my new wip, I threw out about 20 pages, give or take, as I had to grow into the voice . . . It's like taking a jacket to a tailor. You know you like the jacket, but you have to get the fit just right.

5:09 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I think there's an innate voice for each writer, and that just comes from the various techniques we use to approach our problem. Like Erica said, use of ellipses, caps; I'd add sentence length, whether we shift to dialogue over description, the extent to what we use it, certain words and phrases and such that we fall back on.

But then, each work requires we find our unique voice that suits that works and I think the foundation of that "unique voice" is built out from our "innate voice." And boy, you can tell I just read a section from Zen Guitar, can't you, grasshopper?

5:20 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I think of literary "voice" more as an author's stylistic signature. I can recognize Stephen King's voice, for example, regardless of the character he's writing about. Hemingway. Steinbeck. John D. MacDonald. Scores of others. All very distinctive. First-person or third, doesn't matter. To me, it's the way an author thinks in language, developed over time, and once you have it you have it.

That's not to say you can't imitate another author's voice, the same way you might forge a signature. But authenticity and originality is unique only to you, and is developed over time.

5:35 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

That's why I kept adding the author's personality to the equation. It reminds me of "Primary Colors" by Anonymous, who turned out to be Joe Klein. A professor did an analysis of various writers using a computer algorithm and proved it was Joe Klein, who then came clean. Part of that equation was probably what writers actually had that kind of backstage access to the political process, which narrowed the field a bit, but in the end, it was his style and technique that gave him up, which were part of "voice."

5:50 AM  
Blogger Heather Lane said...

I think that's interesting about recognizing an author's voice. I had been focusing on character voice, instead of author voice.

I like the idea that the character's voice is filtered through the literary mannerisms of the writer's voice.

5:52 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...


Yeah. To me, recognizing a writer's voice is no different than recognizing a singer's voice. You can turn on the radio and instantly know whether you're listening to Randy Travis or Elton John. They might sing different styles of music at different times, but the voice itself doesn't change.

6:06 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

Hey guys. Good discussion. I'm writing a four POV novel right now and it's interesting that the main character probably has the least voice. It took me awhile to realize why - he's not letting himself be himself. As the story progresses, I'm trying to let more of him shine through.

But the hardest bit is making them all sound different! Right now I'm very focused on what they're focusing on, but I want to do more to differentiate them. Any ideas would be helpful, beyond just the basic word choices based on education, slang, and culture.

7:34 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I have four POVs in my new wip. An angel of death, a documentary filmmaker, a scientist from the Ukraine, and a 100-year-old cloistered nun. By their disparity, I am keeping them all very different, but I do think that when I strive to differentiate, for me as a writer, it falls to emotionality. The angel of death is detached, the filmmaker is compassionate, the scientist is determined, and the nun is practical and pragmatic. I find their emotional core and somehow channel that in the writing.

7:56 AM  
Blogger Melanie Avila said...

Great discussion. I'm currently weeding through my draft for voice so this is very helpful.

9:05 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

Interesting, Erica. I think I might be doing that too, not in so many words. I was just reading over some passages. I think putting a label on each one's emotionality would be helpful.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I got an e-mail from Mike Lawson. He doesn't have a Google account, etc., but he e-mailed me to say thanks for the mention and say:

Mark, I just wanted to say thanks for mentioning my book House Rules on your blog. I don't have anything intelligent to say on the subject of voice. I don't really think a whole lot about the "craft" of writing - I just write, most of the time not having a clue what I'm doing or where I'm going. I almost always write from the perspective of the individual characters in the book - switching view points as I go along - and, I guess, the voice of the character is just whatever he or she sounds like in my head. DeMarco's voice probably rmost often reflects the way I personally think or would react to a situation. Anyway, like I said, my main reason for writing was just to say thanks for mentioning the book. Also, a bit of self promotion, my fourth book House Secrets has been listed as a best thriller of the year by Library Journal, Deadly Pleasures Magazine, and the St. Louis paper. Take care and best wishes, Mike Lawson.

Hmmm, say I. House Secrets would make a great Christmas gift for moi.

And I think Mike's weighing in on the Mark-You-Think-Too-Much category, of which I am often guilty. But hell, he's got a very distinctive voice!

9:41 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Oddly enough, I don't think much about the voice--I know when it's NOT working, and I know enough to keep noodling around and tweaking until I find it, but I can't say I set out to write in a certain voice style.


10:35 AM  
Blogger Merry Monteleone said...

I love this:

VOICE to me is where style meets character.

I don't really have a lot to add to that, either. There are writers who are distinctive, no matter what they write, and we often call it voice, but I think it has as much to do with style.

For me, the trick is getting into the character's head and letting everything else filter through him or her. Weeding out where I've added descriptions that I would notice, but my character wouldn't bother with, pinpointing where I've used my words instead of theirs.

10:38 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

Style, voice, semantics, semantics. LOL, just kidding. :-)

I really like Jude's analogy. :-)

I think you can develop voice consciously. Or, at least, I do. I work really hard at it. Except when I'm lazy and don't. It depends on the piece and what for and whatnot. I play with it a lot. I'm a little like how we used to have to play Twinkle in the style of Chopin, or Mozart, or Bach, etc. Or like Zadie Smith, who in an article recently talked about how she'd dose herself with certain writers when her prose got too thin, or too thick, or whatever.

The harder I work at it, the less any particular voice comes easily. It's fun, though.

2:12 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Although I ultimately think that since editors and agents (and readers) are clearly interested and attuned to "voice" I think we run the risk of being too self-conscious about voice. Like Mike Lawson says, he just focuses on telling the story from the POV of whoever's head he's in.

But I do think we need to at least give some thought to what agents and editors mean when they say, "I didn't respond to the voice." Not necessarily much you can do about except write some more.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I like this Mike Lawson guy. I think I'll buy his book.

3:50 AM  
Blogger Mark Pennington said...

Constructivists tend to adopt a narrow definition that voice is what makes one’s writing unique and personal; the intangibles that demonstrate an honest commitment to its writing. Constructivists would argue that the only clues provided to developing writers should be widespread reading and unencumbered writing practice. After a journey of self-discovery, the squishy concept of voice may emerge some day for some writers.

I take a different view. I define voice a bit more globally, encompassing what old-time Strunkers called style, as well as point of view, tone, and diction (word choice). I think that discovering voice should be the result of a guided journey.

5:43 PM  

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