Wednesday, October 27, 2010

VOICE: the elusive beast

It adds vibrant vitality to writing…it makes people stop what they're doing and READ.
Agents and editors are on the lookout for it; they can't always define it, but they "know it when they see it."

Voice is intricately linked with good writing, paired up like peanut butter and jelly--or perhaps more accurately, like pasta and ravioli, where one is actually a part of the other. I've also noticed voice is often accompanied by humor, either blatant or subtle. There is a freshness to the words and the sentences that makes people relate, take note, and be absolutely entranced.

In many cases, voice seems almost inherent to some people and their writing. They have it in abundance, and it appears to be their natural way of expressing themselves. In any artistic or creative endeavor--singing, playing a musical instrument, drawing/painting, dancing--there is the indisputable fact that some people have more of a natural talent and predisposition to these things than other people.

Does that mean you should give up because you weren't born with stunning writing talent or an entrancing writing voice? Not at all. I think voice can be fostered and developed just like a singer's voice or an artist's skill at painting. Sure, it's a lot easier if natural talent exists to begin with, but don't despair if you don't seem to be one of those natural-born Voicers. Writers who work hard to improve at what they do often surpass naturally talented individuals--simply by sheer effort. Hard-working writers are extremely motivated, sometimes more so than the innately gifted, who can sometimes take their talent for granted and not learn to develop their skills.

Voice, to me, also seems symbiotic with writers' personalities…their specific thoughts, emotions, phrasings. Their unique perspectives on life. They are able to express these distinctive things by the use of WORDS.

The middle-grade novel, Savvy, by Ingrid Law, has voice aplenty. Consider this first-page excerpt:

When my brother Fish turned thirteen, we moved to the deepest part of inland because of the hurricane and, of course, the fact that he'd caused it. I had liked living down south on the edge of land, next to the pushing-pulling waves. I had liked it with a mighty kind of liking, so moving had been hard--hard like the pavement the first time I fell off my pink two-wheeler and my palms burned like fire from all of the hurt just under the skin. But it was plain that Fish could live nowhere near or nearby or next to or close to or on or around any largish bodies of water. Water had a way of triggering my brother and making ordinary, everyday weather take a frightening turn for the worse.

Part of the reason this passage oozes voice is due to the free, organic, and almost stream-of-consciousness style of writing. (Strong voice does NOT have to include these things, however.) Ingrid Law is not afraid to string together phrases like "near or nearby or next to or close to or on or around," or make up phrases like "pushing-pulling waves." She looks at the world in a unique way, and shares that perspective with her readers.

VOICE and TELLING: breaking the rules
This week on the Adventures to Children's Publishing blogsite, an important point was made about voice and how it relates to Showing Versus Telling (click to visit). Bottom line: if you're really good and have a strong voice, you can break the rules. In my Savvy excerpt above, in fact, it's nearly all Telling, rather than Showing. The point is, the passage is INTERESTING TELLING. Most writers go all boring and stale when they start Telling. Telling also usually introduces an unnecessary distance between the writing and the reader. The reader starts off feeling detached, which is not what you're aiming for as a writer.

A good writer--one with a strong voice--can bridge or eliminate any feeling of distance, make backflashing and explanation intriguingly vibrant, and make the story's spirit shine through and push past the "violation" of traditional writing rules. The same goes for beginning a story with dialogue. Don't do it unless you're really good at writing and have a strong enough voice to overcome the disadvantages of doing it. While you're learning, you may want to stick with the tried-and-true rules.

Whether it's inherent to you or not, go forth and develop your voice!
Good luck!


  1. First, I'm new here. *waves* Nice to meet you. :)

    Okay, now that I've said a semi-proper hello, I must add that this is a terrific post. And that passage from Savvy sure does have a lot of voice. Nice choice for this example.


  2. Welcome, Lola! Nice to meet you too, and have you stop by. Glad you enjoyed the Savvy quote; it's a fun book! Another good book with a strong, interesting voice is Suzanne Supplee's Artichoke's Heart.

  3. Savvy is fantastic! Her follow-up is on my shelf.

  4. Oh yeah, I'd almost forgotten Ingrid Law wrote a companion novel to Savvy! Thanks for the reminder. It follows another character who comes into his savvy powers when he turns 13, and must learn to "scumble" or tame that power. It's called SCUMBLE, for anyone who wishes to check it out.

  5. great explanation and example of voice.


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