Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Voices In My Head

Writers talk a lot about voice. VOICE - if I could do big sparkly letters that jump off the screen and slap you in the face, I would. That’s how important voice is. Writers know this. It’s the one thing you can’t just learn. It’s outside of craft. I’ve seen writers with natural voices, ones that pull you in the second you read the first sentence – voices that make you smell and see and feel every nuance of where you are and who you’re with in their story. A lot of people call this, ‘natural talent’, but I think it has more to do with trust. They trust their voice. They don’t make any apologies for their voice. They don’t try to change it for the market or hide it from people who are more intelligent or poetic or whatever. They trust. Those people still have to work on craft. They have to tackle plot, and pacing, and all of the variables that mean you need to put your ass in the chair and do the work, but they’re a few steps ahead of the game, because they already trust their voice.

Voice. Everyone has one. Notice I didn’t say every writer has one. That’s not accurate, it’s like saying that anyone not pursuing writing doesn’t have a voice, and they do. Choosing not to use it doesn’t mean it’s absent.

So, what happens if you can’t find your voice? I think it’s a little different for everyone. Some writers will tell you to keep writing and eventually you’ll get to where you know it, hear it. But some of us miss it completely for a long, long time. Again, I think it has something to do with trust.

Now, here’s something that they don’t talk about often – every character has a voice. Erica Orloff just wrote this post about the character’s voice. If you’re a writer, you’ll definitely want to stop there. Your writing should reflect your character’s world, not necessarily your own. Does this mean you have a different voice for different novels? Yeah, kind of. The meat of who you are is still there – writers have tells in their wording here and there, but if you’re switching from urban commercial fiction over to middle grade, well, there better be a pretty significant change in the way you approach it. Your characters have to be whole, and they have to have their own voice. And that voice, your character’s voice, should permeate the novel.

For me, voice was a hard thing to find. What I realized, rather belatedly, was that my best voice, the most authentic voice I have, is guttural. Yeah, you read that right. I kind of knew this, knew that I’m at my most powerful when I’m bringing where I come from to the table – but it hit home more completely for me when I did the My Town Monday posts for Travis, especially this one. I wasn’t trying, it’s not edited – my blog posts often aren’t. Besides all of the wonderful comments, I had emails on this one; it was even linked in a message board for people from my neighborhood. I get visits weekly on that post, from people looking up Cicero on search engines. I’ve had people message me on facebook to tell me that they liked it. So it speaks, it speaks louder than some of the things I’ve agonized over in revision. Not because it’s polished, but because it’s authentic. Because I wasn’t thinking about the audience, I was just being, without worrying about being judged. Trust.

So why the hell did it take me that long? First, I read voraciously. I know, this is actually a good thing for writers, stick with me here. I like novels where the writing disappears and it’s all about story. I like novels where the language wraps itself around you and infuses your senses. I love classics, commercial fiction, fantasy... I love literature and language, and voice... all sorts of voice. So the first part of this is easy to answer. When I started writing, I was mimicking a lot of what I loved in reading... you can see where that might get confusing as I didn’t stick with any one thing as far as what I liked.

I also had an easy grasp of advanced literature from an early age. What got me noticed by teachers was not going to be the same thing that would get me noticed in fiction... Lots of heavy concepts and over-large words... I understood it and loved the flow of that academic voice, but it’s not my fiction voice. And then a lot of the fiction that really resonates with me is on the heavy side. It’s poetic or layered, even the more mainstream fiction that sticks with me for ages, has some bit of something – this spark of brilliance in thought, or concept, or theme.

So there’s the first thing. I adore other authors, but I had to learn to admire their work without squelching my own voice. Instead of forcing poetic prose, I had to get comfortable with what I am, and realize that lyrical is not the only kind of poetry... sometimes blunt and gritty can be beautiful, too. And sometimes pretty words don’t speak nearly as loud as authentic truth.

The second thing is a little deeper. That voice I told you about – I hide it. In my real life, I hide it. I learned fairly early that if you’re outside the neighborhood and can’t speak in a more intelligent way, people think you’re an idiot... actually, worse, they think you’re low class. My accent jumps out when I’m angry, or annoyed. It thickens when I’m around other people who have one. Okay, I’m around a few ‘suburban moms’ and will occasionally let it slip out because I know it’ll make them uncomfortable... I never said I wasn’t a ball buster. But from high school on, I learned to adopt a professional voice to be taken seriously. So that’s in there. There’s an automatic fear in using that voice that I’m opening myself up to judgment... but hell, I’m going to be judged anyway. I just got to the point where I figured, just because they’re judging me, that doesn’t make them right.

So, will I always write in that voice? No. It works for this wip - these characters, this story and most of all, this place. And maybe it’ll be a setting I revisit in future works, but for now I’m keeping my horizons open. There are other worlds and stories I’d like to capture, too. Other things to be said and voices that need to roam.

How about you? If you’re a writer, does your voice change in different novels and settings? If you’re a reader, do you notice a voice change from novel to novel in your favorite authors? And I’m thinking that this might be a good premise for a writing contest. Anyone interested? I think I can even muster up a few prizes.


sex scenes at starbucks said...

I don't have much to say on Voice. I sometimes wonder if I even have one. Stephen says I do, but I'm not sure it translates to fiction very well.

Hi!! ((waves))

jjdebenedictis said...

Great post, Merry, and I hadn't read your Cicero post before, but I did now, and I agree with the consensus: It's really good.

I had a bit fun with voice in my last novel. My main characters were mostly upper crust, but they did interact with a few working class people. I gave those secondary characters a distinct way of speaking that had its own rhythm and poetry, and I'm quite proud of how it all worked together. It was a way to "show" rather than "tell" what my characters' backgrounds were.

In my current WIP, I'm worried I have several characters with interchangeable voices. I'm trying not to be paranoid about it. :/

Merry Monteleone said...


Hi!!! Nice to 'see' you! And I have to say, Stephen's right. You have a definite voice. Your fiction is very clean, but there's still a rhythm and movement that's distinctly you.

Hi JJ,

I love playing with dialect or even just the dialogue itself to show what's going on and give better insights to the characters.

Sometimes side characters can be difficult to differentiate, even in published fiction. For me, when I'm not sure there's enough of a difference in the way they talk or move, it's a pretty good bet that I haven't fleshed them out enough.

Gary Corby said...

That's a great topic Merry.

I certainly agree that if you write for long enough, your voice will eventually come to you in a way that you can consistently reproduce.

I pretty much write the way I speak, and then I go back and clean it up.

Of course characters must have their own voice, or else you'd have a one-character book. Personally, I find I have to write a character in a silent room for a little while before I can "hear" them. Rhythm matters a lot to me; everyone speaks in their own rhythm. That and word choice. Everyone tends to have their own favored words and they will even form their sentences around favored expressions. For me at least rhythm and favored expressions together go a long way towards unique character voice.

I'd be interested to know how other people handle it.

Chris Eldin said...

Hey there!

Nice to see ya! Thanks for popping over!
Voice. I got voice, but not much in the area of structure.

Demon Hunter said...

Thanks for sharing this Merry! And I'm glad you're back! I'm trying to find my voice as we speak.

But I read somewhere that Herman Melville's voice changed from his first novel until the time he wrote MOBY DICK. So, voice can and does change. :-D

Demon Hunter said...

Oh, and I want a signed copy of your book WHEN it sells. ;-)

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Gary,

I often re-read dialogue outloud, myself... though the quiet room thing is hard to find. I write through the noise and read it back when the kids are at school :-)

Was it difficult for you to find the characters' voices, because you're dealing with an ancient world? Or did you add a little dialect or phrases here and there to give the flavor and then use modern English for most of the dialect... I'm guessing it's mostly modern English from what I've read so far, but I just find it fascinating how you would add the time and place to something like that. By the way, if you can't tell, I'm really looking forward to the book's release, I can't wait to read it.

Hi Chris,

Voice, you definitely have! I haven't read any of your fulls though so I can't say anything about structure... but you've got marketing savvy in spades so I think between the voice and the savvy and the temerity, we'll be seeing your books on the shelves sometime soon.

Hi Demon Hunter!

Thanks, good to be back. I do think voice changes a bit as we go... I haven't read Herman's earlier work, but I've definitely seen changes in other writers from book to book. Off the top of my head, I loved The Outsiders, but Rumblefish and That was then This is Now were much better written - than again, SE Hinton was sixteen when she wrote The Outsiders, so maybe that doesn't count :-)

Mary Witzl said...

My voice changes from WiP to WiP. It's one of those things I don't even think about; I like to think I'm channeling it, however silly that sounds.

(Personally, I'd rather be low class than an idiot. In my family we drank out of jelly jars and thought going to a smorgasbord was fine dining, but there were few idiots among us and we were quietly proud of that.)

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Mary,

I don't think channeling them sounds silly at all! Not at all! I think that means you've got a firm grasp of character.

As for low class, pish tosh Mary, your class is measured in character. People who think otherwise are often the most poor among us, only they think the money and possessions they have make a difference in that.

You, by the way, are definitely high class in my book.

Laurel said...


It's funny to read this post right now because this is something I'm working on. I read Erica's post and totally get what she is saying about the "Afghan voice."

Mine is very regional and weirdly punctuated with SAT words. That's how my family talks. My dad says things like:

"Fine as frog hair split three ways" or "Don't amount to a fart in a whirlwind" and turns around in the next sentence and uses a word like "quixotic."

So yeah, I have a voice, I think. I would describe it as hyperbolic vernacular of the educated redneck variety. I'm a walking oxymoron.

Merry Monteleone said...

So yeah, I have a voice, I think. I would describe it as hyperbolic vernacular of the educated redneck variety. I'm a walking oxymoron.

Okay, that's awesome - and definitely unique.