The Writer’s Voice: Listen

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by Darcy Pattison

On Friday’s, I’ll be posting on the topic of “The Writer’s Voice.” We all know how important it is; but discussions of voice are too often, well, vague. I’ll be exploring how we can consciously create a voice that brings a particular story to life. Today–just listen to some unique voices.

Listen

For best results, read these aloud. Listen: Once upon a time there was a pair of pants. They were an essential kind of pants?jeans, naturally, blue but not that stiff, new blue that you see so often on the first day of school. They were a soft changeable blue with a little extra fading at the knees and the seat and white wavelets at the cuffs. (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants / Second Summer of the Sisterhood / Girls in Pants (3 Book Set) The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, by Ann Brashares)

Today was a terrible day. It started when I dropped my pencil. Miss Tyler asked, ?Ronald Morgan, why are you crawling under the table like a snake?? Now all the children call me Snakey ( Today was a Terrible Day Today Was a Terrible Day (Picture Puffin Books)by Patricia Reilly Giff)

March 20 Mom says there are three things I should always remember:

1. The earth gives us everything we need.

2. When we dig tunnels, we help take care of the earth.

3. Never bother Daddy when he?s eating the newspaper.

( Diary of a Worm Diary of a Wormby Doreen Cronin)

The sea, the sea, the sea. It rolled and rolled and called to me. Come in, it said, come in. And in I went, floating, rolling, splashing, swimming and the sea called, Come out, come out, and further I went but always it swept me back to shore. And still the sea called, Come out, come out, and in boats I went?in rowboats and dinghies and motorboats, and after I learned to sail, I flew over the water, with only the sounds of the wind and the water and the birds, all of them calling, Sail on, sail on. ( The Wanderer by Sharon Creech)The Wanderer

Do you hear the voice of each of these pieces? Does it draw you into the story? In your story, how do you create a distinctive voice?

Renni Browne and Dave King, authors of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers have this advice about voice:

Conscious work on your writer?s voice is often self-defeating. For one thing, it tends to create prose that’s stylistically” self-conscious. For another, when you spend your creative energy in the service of the way your sentences read as prose, it?s likely to be at the expense of your characters or story. Concentrate on your characters, concentrate on your story, and let your voice take care of itself.”

Nonsense.

A writer can and should pay attention to voice. In this uncertain business, nothing should be left to take care of itself. Not characters, not plot, and certainly not voice, which is what many editors say is the key to their decision to acquire.(Note: I often recommend Browne and King?s book! This is one of the few points where I disagree with them!)

Even the Federal government acknowledges the importance of voice: you can’t copyright an idea, but the particular expression of that idea. What you copyright is your presentation, your style, your voice. Of course, having a particular style doesn’t necessarily mean an appealing voice.

It may be a flat, utilitarian voice, say, of a cell phone user?s guide:

“About the Antennas

Your phone is equipped with three antennas. The internal antenna is always active. The whip antenna is activated when the whip antenna is fully extended. The GPS antenna is also internal and is activated when placing emergency calls or when the Location sharing feature is activated. For more information on Location sharing, see ?GPS (location sharing)” on page 110. (Nokia 3585i User?s Guide)

That piece of writing has voice just as surely as the examples above. And it’s an appropriate voice, one that fits the needs of the User’s Guide. Every piece of writing you do has a voice–for better or worse. What we’ll consider is how to create an appealing voice, one that helps tell your story better.

Voice: A Conscious Choice

I do not approach voice as mysticism: dig deep and let your true inner self come out.

Instead, I think it?s something that can be learned. Look. As writers we have words, sentences, punctuation, passages and stories. That’s it. There are no secrets, no hidden tools. We can look at each of the components and consider how each contributes to voice. Browne and King warned us against concentrating on voice alone. But too often, we are self-educated writers and we’ve never learned to approach voice with any sort of craft. I firmly believe that you need to study vocabulary, sentences, sentence patterns, intonation patterns, rhythm?in short, the choices we have available?to understand our options. Otherwise, the path to a distinctive voice is a haphazard gamble. Voice is important; voice sells; and voice can be consciously created. Do you have a short example of a voice that you love?

Next Friday: Defining Voice how to add a hit counter to a website

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