What is Voice and How Do You Find Yours?

Susan Books, On Writing, Scribbles

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Outside, the wind howled, the thermometer dropping to a bracing negative nine degrees as I waited for Sally to arrive for our Monday Morning conversation. I had hoped she’d found a story question as she thought about the themes of her story. Ironically, I’d been thinking about printing services orange county and my new book, and had to return to the story question of that book to create the right marketing and PR campaign.

I blew on my hot cocoa, glad I’d opted for a large as Sally came in, wrapped in a scarf and hat, the icy blast dragging in behind her.

Anne already had her coffee ready. Sally set a stack of books on the table as she retrieved her coffee. I looked at her choices – Jane Eyre, the movies Pearl Harbor and Casablanca, and one of my favorites – Redeeming Love. An interesting collection and I searched to find the connection as she sat down and unwound her scarf, her cheeks rosy. “You said you wanted my favorite books.”

“Tell me why you love these,” I said.

“I love Pearl Harbor because of the mix of historical fact and the fact that the story is romantic and personal.”

I nodded. “That’s what makes a story set against an epic backdrop so fascinating – how it affects individuals. James Cameron did it in Titanic too.”

“I want to weave in the details, while still keeping the story focused on the character.” She picked up Redeeming Love. “I love the theme of this one, the unconditional love of God. And the hero is so…heroic.”

“So, you love the characters and the story question – does God love us even when are sins seem unforgiveable.”

“And the way she tells it. No fancy language, just a great story.” She picked up Jane Eyre. “And yet, I love the style of writing. Poetic and rich.”

“And this one?” I held up Casablanca.

“The romantic angst and tragedy. “

“You are a romantic,” I said. “And I’ll bet a fan of Benny Goodman and Mary Jane shoes.”

She grinned.

“I’m going to save my Casablanca discussion next week when I talk about the four things that every book has to have. But for now I want to gather these elements to talk to you about Voice.”

Outside, the wind shook the panes of the windows, a film of ice building along the sash.

“Voice is about the way you tell your story. An agent friend of mine, Sandra Bishop, calls voice the author’s ‘Personality on the Page’.”

“But I thought an author isn’t supposed to intrude into a story.”

“You’re correct. Author intrusion is annoying. It pulls you out of the story. It’s like an “aside” in a play, where the character walks to the front of the stage and addresses the audience directly, giving them an explanation, or begins to tell us some nifty information about the history of windmills or something the author feels we need to know, even if your character doesn’t know it. It can sometimes also happen when an author wants to get on their soapbox about something, often unrelated to the plot. They just want to use their fiction, now that their reader is trapped in the story, to make a point. As an author, you want to be invisible on the page. Only the characters should speak.”

“Then how do you put your “personality on the page,” if you’re not supposed to be visible on the page.”

“Have you ever been in a play?”

“Actually, yes. I was a church lady in the Worst Christmas Pageant Ever.”

“So, you know that you are given a set of lines, and you have to make them come to life. Your job is to add the life and breath to the lines. And every actor takes those lines and does something different with them. As a novelist, your voice in the story is the particular way you tell the story through your characters, your syntax, your grammar, the rhythm of sentences, even your choice of words. Think if it as your style.”

“How do I know what my style is?”

“Do you watch HGTV?”

“Of course.”

“Why?”

“To get ideas of what I want to do.”

“What you like, right? So you’ll find your style.”

She nodded.

“You do the same thing with books. You gravitate towards these authors and stories because there is something about their writing and storycrafting that sings in your soul. Your job this week is to find out why. I want you to go through these books with a highlighter, and note every sentence, every character nuance, every plot device that you love. Even better – take a notebook and write these elements down so you can see it all at once. It’s a collection of your favorite examples of Voice, and it will help you recognize the style you like.”

“But I don’t want to write like them.”

“Really?”

“Okay, I guess I do. But my way.”

“Of course. And you will. Because after you collect these examples, I want you to take a look at them and figure out why you like them. Is it the words, the turns of phrase, the rhythm, the characterization techniques? These are the things you will incorporate into your writing – in your own way.”

She was looking at me like I might have lobsters growing out of my ears.

“I promise, it will make sense when you do it. But here’s your truth for the week. Your voice won’t matter if you haven’t nailed your grammar. When you’re writing, you have to know the fundamentals of grammar to allow your voice to emerge. The better you can write, the more your voice is freed. Sort of like how when you know the steps of a dance, you can add embellishments.”

“I have a copy of Strunk and White’s, Elements of Style at home,” she said.

“Perfect. Because that’s part of your homework this week. I dare you to read through Elements of Style, and really review the foundation of proper written language. Then take a highlighter to your favorite books. It’s okay, it’s not a sin, I promise.”

She laughed. “Okay, I’ll do it.”

“And in the meantime, I have a test for you. Watch Pearl Harbor and Casablanca and see if you can figure out the four elements they have in common, besides the war theme. I’ll give you a hint – the four things are what make a film, or a book, a best-seller.”

“Popcorn, a blankie, romance and tears?” She winked as she gathered up her bag.

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