Thursday, April 25, 2013

Writing A Novel - Voice

Regardless of the point of view you choose to write your novel in - whether it is first person, second person or third person narration - behind every piece of writing you do, there is a voice. The voice you choose can either make or break your novel. It can also, make or break you as a writer.

For every piece I have ever written I have written in a voice that flowed naturally from that story, or situation. If writing in first person, this can sometimes be easier because voice is a direct connection to the character themselves. As you develop the character, their voice becomes clearer and clearer. I find third person to be a little more difficult.

Voice Failure

When I first began writing fiction I wrote in third person and the voice that imposed itself upon my writing was false. I seemed to be summoning up some ancient storyteller of the past, who never "spoke" with contractions and filled her speech with the most flowery language. I realize now that writing in that way was a tool for me, not my reader. At that time I needed to cue up my brain to "transport itself" to another realm, where fictional things happen and the world isn't the one I live in. I don't remember who saw it first, but I remember the comment: "You should use contractions." I thought, But I always use contractions! And then I read over my work. In my lap, that story which had lived forever in my mind, crumbled to pieces. I had taken all the verisimilitude (forgive me, I love this word!) out of my writing! 

The Voice of Rivera Runs Through It
Over the last month I have been thinking a lot about voice while writing my current novel, but I have also been thinking about my voice here on my blog, where I write mostly in second person. I have been wondering if I could pull off a second person novel without sounding exactly like myself. What words or punctuation would I have to change in order to make a clear voice distinction from my own? Then I have been wondering if I have a clear voice hear on Rivera Runs Through It, and then that ultimately leads to the biggest question of all: how different is my writing voice from my spoken one?

The Working Voice 

When I was working, I became sort of (in)famous for my e-mails. From the moment we were all connected by e-mail, I was sending them out - and they were never short.
At the time I didn't realize it, but I was essentially blogging to my colleagues about my teaching thoughts of the day. Was there something new in the curriculum I think we needed to look over as a group? Was there a brand new website everyone needed to check out? Were there conferences or learning opportunities I was excited about? All of these things made it into e-mails. At the time, I developed a helpful, perky, math coach voice. Of course, I didn't realize it at the time, but that's what it was. My boss and I had a snarky-type relationship, so emails just to him were filled with an edge I knew he would appreciate and reciprocate. Any e-mails or letters written to parents of students or to the staff as a whole dripped of professionalism, and communication with my students, well, I think that was always my most authentic voice, closest to how I write here on my blog. Again, none of this was evident to me at the time, but reflecting upon those days with a new education on voice makes it all abundantly clear.

First Lessons on Voice 

If you stop to think of it, we all have different voices we use every single day. My brother and I used to make fun of our mom's "phone voice" - no matter what mood she was in when the phone rang, as soon as she picked it up, she would compose herself and greet the caller with a melodic, "Hello." Within seconds of the phone call we were able to determine who was on the other end simply by the way she changed her voice. When she relaxed her tone, it was a friend or family, then based on the particular language she used we could peel away the clues to discern who it was exactly within a minute. If, on the other hand, she pulled up a more professional demeanor, we knew it was a doctor or another business of sorts. And if she started splurting expletives or dolling out pity (this all depended on her mood), then it was a telemarketer. My mother's voice told the entire story. Voice is that important and that powerful. Reread whatever you are writing right now - what story is your voice telling?

A Final, Funny Voice Reflection

You may or may not realize at this point that I am a HUGE John Green fan. About a year and a half ago, I had no idea who he was. His book, Looking for Alaska was recommended to me on Reddit. I found it cheap in a store, so I picked it up. As soon as I started reading it, I hated it. There was this high school kid narrating using language that was far beyond anything any of my students ever would have been able to grasp. After one paragraph I was put off. I read it aloud to my husband and said, "Come ON! Am I supposed to take this seriously?" My husband, fresh home from a long day of work in front of his high school English classes realized that his teaching wasn't done for the day, "Perhaps the author is trying to tell you something about the protagonist. The kid is smart." Wow... did I feel dumb... and overwhelmed. How much did I just learn about this character in one paragraph? All the information came flooding back to me. I doubted the authenticity of this writing because I could see this kid so clearly and he was so unlike any real life kid I knew. He wasn't unreal, he was unique. That is the power of voice. (Here's my review of Looking for Alaska.)

What books have you read with a strong voice?
Do you have a "phone voice" like my mother did, or do you know someone who did?
How does your POV influence your writing voice?

Thanks for reading!


  1. I LOVED Looking for Alaska.

    An YA editor once told me that the first thing she looks for when she reviews the first page of a story is voice. So that's something I try to pay attention to in my reading and writing too.

  2. The one-two punch from John Green and my husband taught me that lesson well. I hadn't realized how much I had taken VOICE for granted!

  3. I've been writing exclusively third-person, overwhelmingly third-person omniscient, for the last 20 years. Prior, I did first-person sometimes, though it's been so long that I wouldn't even know how to write anything first-person these days. I can only think of one occasion where I wrote fiction first-person after making the full-time switch, and that was a book in journal format.

    To me, third-person omniscient is the most personal, intimate, deep voice, because I get to know all of the characters equally and can be in anyone's head throughout the book. I'm not removed from anyone's perspective or voice. To be honest, since first-person has become so common in recent years, it's become harder for me to read it. Certainly there are some awesome exceptions, but a lot of times, it feels like all these first-person narrators start to run together and sound all the same after awhile. The voice just isn't distinctive enough to merit first-person treatment. So many books would've been better reads for me if they'd been third-person. It feels like false intimacy to me. Even worse for me is when a book insists on having multiple first-person alternating narrators, instead of just doing third-person omniscient so we don't keep bopping around between narrators, one at a time.

  4. We could have used you in our #StoryDam twitter chat last night, the topic of conversation was POV preferences! I can't say that I have a preference for either - in my writing or in my reading, but many people in the group leaned toward 1st person POV.

    I see your point about the lack of uniqueness in the world of first person. That is a very difficult thing to accomplish. However, I also find it difficult to bring in the intimacy of third person that you are writing about. I still struggle with the "ancient storyteller" in my mind that wants third person to be a detached informant of the story as it unfolds. I know I just have to keep at it, keep practicing.