Monday, April 11, 2011

Mentor Monday: Voice, part 3

In the two previous installments of this series we looked at the voice of our characters and the voice of the narrator. The final and perhaps most difficult “voice” to analyze is the author’s voice.

Just as each of us has our own unique “voiceprint,” such that those who know us recognize our voices whether we are talking in our stern mother voice, our cooing over the kittens voice, or our ever-so-serious –and-staid conversation with the principal voice, so too our author’s voices will eventually have a consistency that will be recognizable in all our work. I say “eventually” because it’s not uncommon to hear an editor (or even a critic) say that the author “hasn’t found her voice yet,” by which they mean that they somehow don’t find anything distinctive or distinguishing in the author’s work.

 One interesting exercise for studying an author’s voice is to choose a much-published author: Jane Yolen, say, or Margaret Wise Brown, and compare books from the early and middle parts of their career with their more recent works. Keeping in mind that most authors work for many years developing and polishing their voice before they ever sell the first book, it is still possible to see changes in the author’s voice as the years go by – maybe a shift to shorter sentences or simpler words, maybe a familiar rhythm in the later books that is absent in the earlier ones, possibly just a hint of confidence early on that becomes more solid over time, or, as with someone like Dr. Seuss, a hint of silliness that became increasingly bizarre. Another interesting exercise is to compare books by the same writer under different noms de plume and see if you can find places where the “real” voice shines through, while noting how the writer has deliberately chosen one voice or another depending on the “author.”

The author’s voice is part style: complex or simple sentences, fast-paced or leisurely prose. Compare Dickens and Hemingway; you could never mistake the work of one for that of the other. It’s part vocabulary; not simply whether you tend to esoteric words or prefer plain ones, but the frequency of particular words and phrases which you use, unconsciously, probably in your conversation as well as your writing.

More importantly, the author’s voice grows out of her worldview. Some of us are congenitally optimistic. Others take a darker view. Some of us are intensely influenced by our environments. Some have an intuitive connection with animals. Others are acute observers of character. Some see magic in the everyday, some are stolidly convinced that even the most mysterious phenomena must have a natural cause. A quirky sense of humor, a deep abiding faith, a cynical eye: all these traits will shape our writing, no matter the subject matter, or even if the work is fiction or non-fiction.

A mature authorial voice is authoritative and consistent. It is steady and even, humming along below the melody and harmony of the work, like the drone of a bagpipe. It resonates with a reader (or not: just as some readers will devour everything by a particular author, others will avoid certain writers no matter the subject of a work).

Because the author’s voice is the expression of his personality, it is difficult, perhaps even dangerous, to try to intentionally develop your “voice.” It is too easy to imitate the voice of authors you admire, and too likely that if you concentrate on your author’s voice you will wind up sounded affected and artificial, instead of letting your natural voice shine through. So the “exercise” for this third meaning of “voice” in writing is simply: keep writing. Write passionately, write obsessively, write consistently, and over time, over thousands of words chosen, placed and polished, your voice will emerge.


Diane Mayr said...

The best advice ever--keep writing! Thanks!

Mur said...

< A mature authorial voice is authoritative and consistent...It resonates with a reader (or not: just as some readers will devour everything by a particular author, others will avoid certain writers no matter the subject of a work).>

Great reminder of why we become attached to our favorites.

I'm Jet . . . said...

Well done!

Andy said...


Barbara said...

There are so many things that contribute to an author's voice, and sometimes I think that the only way to achieve your true voice is by not trying at all. Acquiring a voice, I think, is something that just happens.