Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Writing voice...

I have been working on a commissioned project. The lazy part of me will tell you that commissioned projects are jolly hard because someone else comes up with the rules and the inspiration and you must then work within these constraints to find and create the story. While this does not sound that difficult, I come from the school of organic inspiration. You know: the one where you start with all sorts of seeds, and you have sunshine, and rain, and warm soil, and some good fertilizer, and time, and eventually something grows. I have no clues which way the wind will blow, but it does, and this helps decide which seed germinates. In fact my whole writing career owes a lot to the whole 'organic' concept. Not just in terms of finding and turning ideas into stories, but also growing my profile and promoting my books. It all sounds rather 'soft' and undirected and haphazard, but there is an underlying drive and philosophy that keeps me true to my purpose, and mostly focused on the writing and the stories which in the end are what it is all about for me. Anyways, I digress. Commissioned project. A bit like a university assignment. Totally impossible to do and why did I ever enroll and I will tear my hair out before I ever get this finished, until you have actually done it and then you can look back and say that was a jolly good challenge and I'm so glad I took it on.

However, when I was in the midst of all my angsting about finding a commissioned project difficult, the voice of a character popped into my mind. And before I knew it, my mind grew the story and I'd written it down. And it underlined something important in my writing. I write best when I have found the voice.

Voice is a somewhat elusive concept. It isn't just the way your central protagonist talks and behaves and carries themselves. It's the words you choose to tell your story with, and the style of your writing. It is also the personality of the story as a whole. Is it jaunty, hilarious, sombre, confused, desperate? Or a combination of some, or all of these things, or a collection of other qualities entirely? Having these qualities signals what kind of story it is to the reader, and gives them a sense of whether it is their kind of thing. It is a means of connection, and provides the reader with a sense of the personal. This isn't generic or formulaic.  Reading a good story with a strong voice becomes a conversation with a friend, a journey the reader and the story take together. I try to make 'voice' the heart of my writing and I am lost without it, but by the same token it is not the 'whole' story either. You still need plot and character and setting etc... Identifying 'voice' during a university assignment for a creative writing paper many years ago was my aha moment. That's what I was missing in my own writing until that point. Suddenly I was 'seeing' it when I read and knew what I needed to do. It began to creep out of my mind and in to my writing.

We don't all want to see the same 'voice' when we read. Different readers are attracted by different things. I don't think you want to aim to create a one voice fits all - it dilutes the magic. But working on developing voice may be one of the most important things you do. If you are not sure how to do this, a way in is to look at what sets the writing of your favourite authors apart from that of other writers. What underpins their style and what qualities permeate their stories. How does their 'voice' make the story more than just the sum of its parts. There is a reason we often like everything a particular author has written.

I think voice is evident in the opening paragraph of my story Crocodile Dreaming:

The teacher took Joseph Miller to the zoo. In fact she took the whole class, including Joe, who was the second smallest student. It would have been better to be the smallest, but that position was filled by Martha Eggleton, who was not only short, but also blond and dimpled. Everyone felt protective towards Martha. Joe had red hair, and more freckles than ‘you could shake a stick at’ as Granny Miller liked to say. Joe didn’t get how a shaking stick was a way to measure anything but Granny used it quite a lot. He also had teeth that refused to sit neatly in a straight row, and wore glasses because otherwise the words on the board looked like wet weetbix. His classmates found all these things impossible to ignore. Maybe if Joe played sports, things would be different. But he didn’t, and they weren’t. He wasn’t really the right shape for sports.

And you can also see it in this paragraph I think:

Albert Bertal hated the museum. “I don’t want to go, Mum,” he said. He rolled his eyes to show her how much he didn’t want to go. “Museums’ are boring. Tell them I’ve got a pain. Tell them it might be suspected appendicitis. Tell them I might need surgery. And I’ll be back at school tomorrow.”

There are similarities in the voices of these two excerpts but they are not identical. Joseph and Albert are very different people and this becomes clear as the two stories progress. But the stories themselves are also already showing their own natures. Part of this is creating questions in the readers mind that invites them to read on for the answers, and the shape of these questions is already taking on its own personality...  

And this one from further along in The Half Life of Ryan Davis (pp. 83-84):

We came to a stop outside Kim's. I patted the pocket of my shirt to check the tickets were there. I put my hand on the door handle again but Dad put his hand on my shoulder.
"I've got a girlfriend too, mate," he said.
I didn't know what to say. My stomach kind of flopped over. I figured he and Mum were never getting back together but this news punched that message home - right in the guts. I didn't want another mum. Girlfriends were what people my age have. Not old dudes like Dad. He had a bald patch on the back of his head and his stomach hung over his trousers.
I turned back in my seat. Took my hand off the door handle. "How old is she?"
"She's younger than me," Dad said. "Not by a lot though. She works at my office. Her name's Annabel. She's really nice, you'll like her."
I don't even want to meet her, I thought.
"She's got two kids too, although they're younger than you and Gemma. This is her car."
A surge of anger drove through my body. I wished I had that coin in my hand to run along the paintwork. Two kids? He already had two kids. His own kids. My eyes stung with tears. I didn't want to be hearing about this now.
"Does Mum know? Or Gemma?" I forced the words out. He shook his head in reply, this gumpy expression on his face.
"So why tell me?"
He shrugged and shook his head again. "I don't know. You were going to have to find out sometime."
"Not if it doesn't last."
"Don't ask me to babysit," I shot at him as I yanked open the door as roughly as I could and got out, slamming it behind me.

Point of view changes voice. As do our choices over dialogue and action, pacing and description. Like other aspects of my writing, creating 'voice' is organic. And if it doesn't come, the story is a struggle to write, and doesn't feel right. Sometimes I feel like I am casting around, fishing inside my mind for the right tone, the right feel, a voice that tells the story the way it should be told. And when it steps up and moves in to the story, the writing transforms. And flows. It's what makes readers, and publishers sit up and keep reading. As agent Janet Reid said 'Voice is one of those ephemeral "musts" that drive querying authors mad because there is no objective answer.  Unlike spelling, format and word count, there's no way to measure voice...but I know it when I see it.'

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