Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Writing Wednesday: What is Voice?

First off, let me start by saying I'm no expert in this field. I am just passing across what I have gathered and processed about this industry and the craft of writing over my career.

So, with that out of the way (before someone comes claiming I'm no expert and 'stealing' their lessons) - what is voice?

One of the first comments I heard in critiques I received was that I had a distinctive voice that flowed well. Could you have painted ?!?!?!?!? in the quip bubble above my head right that instant? Yeah, you could. :) I had no idea what they meant. That's how I went looking for articles about voice. One of the best I found was on Holly Lisle's website (btw, she's got tons of amazing writing advice! She was a forming cornerstone of my writing persona when I started this journey). I won't get into her article here (again, so no one can say I'm 'stealing' from Ms. Lisle now *grin* - just go to her site and read her stuff. Warning - you may lose more than a few hours because her resources are addictive reading!).

Instead I'll try to tell you what I have gathered about voice.

Basically, it's the way you speak on paper. Voice is at the heart of it (be it in writing and any other creative medium) the specific manner and way and style, all combined, that YOU use to put across your material.

Let's try to use some examples.

Sophie Kinsella - chick-lit author, very funny tone, irreverent, hilarious, tongue-in-cheek, modern-sounding prose, in the head of modern-day heroines.
That's how I would describe her voice. She's a chick-lit author, and this light, airy and freedom feel of chick-lit carries through her words and on each page of her writing. She is escapist, laugh-out-loud and be afraid you'll pee in your pants humor and feel-good reading.
Marian Keyes - another chick-lit author. Funny and modern too, but Ms. Keyes has a deeper emotional thread in her stories. Hers are women fiction (young women in their twenties or so) with an irreverent and funny slant. Her novels, while funny, are not the hilarious, laugh-out-loud (and everyone looks at you on the bus like you're an alien!) feel of Ms. Kinsella' books. Ms. Keyes draws more on the internals of the character, on the quirky entourage and backstory. Both authors write in 1st person, but Ms. Kinsella's words are more surface - she recounts what is happening from the main heroine's perspective. Ms. Keyes, however, is the character with all facets and recesses of the mind and heart and soul exposed as if you, the reader, were this heroine. Not just the one experiencing it all via the 5 senses as in Ms. Kinsella's words.

Other examples:

Martina Cole - her speciality is London's East End gangland and the gritty world of these gangs. Main protagonist is always a woman in the heart of this gang and crime story.
Women's fiction too most of the time, with a 20-30 years old heroine too. But her voice is dark, deep, emotionally profound. She deals with tough issues (in Dangerous Lady, the heroine Maura comes from an Irish Mafia family, is forced to have a backstreet abortion at 16, and her uterus is butchered so much she is barely saved and can never have children again. That's her catalyst to become the Queen of the East End underworld. In Goodnight Lady, the heroine Briony is 'sold' as a child mistress to a wealthy man. She never even gets her first period, because she falls pregnant and gives birth to a child at barely 10).
Consequently, Ms. Cole's works always have this edge of darkness, this hint that at any moment, you might fall into the abyss of desperation at your feet. Her words paint a dreadful, realistic, striking picture full of hardships and drudgery, yet there is always emotion and a certain hope carrying through. You won't find soap-opera worthy glamour and decors in her work - she is gritty and simple to the basics.

In my own work (whether my novels or my blog), I am heavy on description. I love to string words to paint a picture in such a way that the people reading my words see the very picture (or as close as it can get given people's different frames of reference) I am seeing in my head.

For example, the first time my characters meet, whoever's POV I'm in will describe the other character physically so the reader can form this visual of the person in their mind. From there on, I'll give hints that refer to this initial description.
I'll show you this using a description and subsequent referring coming from Jane, my heroine in Storms in a Shot Glass (written as Nolwynn Ardennes, a contemporary romantic comedy), about how she literally sees Michael, the hero.

"... The metal doors slid open and a man stepped into the room as soon as the opening was wide enough for him to pass through. Her pen slipped from her grasp as she contemplated him.
He was dressed in an expertly tailored dark grey suit, the slacks hinting at long legs while the coat hugged his massive chest. He had broad shoulders and was tall, around six-three she’d bet.
Her gaze travelled to his face and she sucked in a breath. He was very handsome, his skin a light golden tone and hair dark as the mahogany wood in the room. His wide jaw was clamped shut, reducing his mouth to a thin slash.
He was also very angry; she could almost sense the heated vibes radiating off him, and this impression was confirmed when she saw his eyes. Deep set and dark, the fire in them was emphasized by the way his thick eyebrows met due to his frown.
He wasn’t someone to cross; this she knew as her mouth opened and she exhaled a small puff of air.
In a few strides, he crossed the room and came to stand before her desk. Jane had to crane her neck to gaze at his face. The walls seemed to close in on her as she took in the powerful shape of him, reducing her world to an airtight bubble where only she and this man existed.
“May I help you?” she croaked, running the tip of her tongue over her dry lips.
He watched her for long seconds. His eyes darted to the nameplate on her desk before he trained the full force of his midnight gaze on her face again.
“You sure will, Jane.”
His voice was low and the husky sound strummed in her whole body. ..."

This bit comes up a couple chapters later:

"... Reaching the end of the passage, she encountered a gaping doorway. Peeking in, she came across a well-appointed sitting room. It appeared to connect to a bedroom on the other side.
Michael’s chambers. Of course he occupied the main suite. Her legs tingled, desperate to go in and discover this very private sanctum of his. The place where he slept could shed so much light on the man he was. The image of Michael in bed, his big body sprawled on a crisp white sheet, buck naked, assailed her mind.
Jane gasped and jumped back. All her blood went to her knees and she propped a hand against the wall to steady herself, closing her eyes to regain her balance.
The image in her head refused to disappear, becoming even sharper. She saw him move his legs, languid, sensual strokes crumpling the sheet underneath him. Jane suddenly wished she could trade places with the bed linen. What would it be like to experience his hair-roughened limbs caressing her thighs as he threw one leg over her from behind and pulled her back to his chest...?
Stop it!
Her libido failed to hear the rebuke, instead making her think of his strong arms closing around her while he dipped his head and the tip of his tongue traced the contours of her collarbone. ..."

Now this is how Michael sees Jane:

"... Jane Smithers wasn’t what most people would call beautiful. Her features were too sharp and angular for that. The cheekbones slashed across her face and her chin was pointed, her nose aquiline. She was also an unusually tall woman and had a big-boned frame. The long, straight black hair softened her features a little, but she wore a no-nonsense expression on her face that would deter anyone who didn’t have serious business to undertake with her.
Still, she was... different. There was something about her he couldn’t quite shrug off. ..."

I'm also big on giving physical description where my scene location is concerned - I like to plant my setting, ground my reader into the place too, so she/he has a sense of place and location.
This is the description of the office of Jane's boss:

"... After fishing her keys from her purse, she dropped the leather tote next to her chair and opened the drawer containing the suede folder with all the confidential requests neatly arranged in it.
With the file clutched tightly in her hand, she closed the drawer with her hip and walked to the large, double-paneled doors leading to the most private sanctum of the bank after the vaults.
Her gaze scanned the wide, richly appointed room as she stepped in after a sharp knock. Tiny dust motes drifted in lethargic motions where the rays of the March sun slanted through the windows edged in heavy, tied-back red velvet curtains. Heavy books bound in green and gold were displayed on mahogany library shelves that ran along one whole wall, and dark wood furniture was strategically displayed around the office, making one think of the posh setting of a elegant country club.
Amidst all this Old World splendor, Jane couldn’t find a living soul. She groaned. He wasn’t here. Again. How many times would she have to tell him he was expected to physically be in the office during working hours?
A small sound caught her attention then, a little beep, followed by the swish of fabric moving against leather. Jane’s gaze landed on the executive chair. It was turned so that the back faced the door.
The sod. With quick but silent steps, she went around the chair and faced the distinguished-looking gentleman who sat there. ..."

I also describe emotion deeply and try as much as possible to get into my character's head an psyche - the same descriptive, almost lyrical angle, gets applied to the emotional thread too.

My voice goes deep. Yes, I'm long-winded too *grins* but in my stories, I turn this into a strength, using it to my advantage, to make my characters stand out as 3D and not cardboard cutouts.

I'm also gonna use a visual to explain voice - this one pertains to the movies but you might get the drift of what I'm trying to show here.
Imagine Quentin Tarantino v/s Ridley Scott. 2 very different directors with very different and unique ways and methods of presenting you with a movie.

Tarantino is more in-your-face. A movie I was watching recently, can't recall the title as I only caught a bit in between channel-surfing on the TV, had this line that made me chuckle - people were being killed faster than in a Tarantino movie!
Yes - lots of killing and violence in his movies (Kill Bill, Grindhouse). Lots of blood and gore too. He also has a certain way of panning the camera onto a still shot, with a crazy, quirky, anachronistic sound in the background (he does that a lot in Inglorious Basterds, esp when presenting the basterds and the Nazis these guys go after). Tarantino, in his 'dark atmosphere' films, also loves to play with a monochrome palette and having one single element stand out with a burst of colour (usually a blood red).

Now take Ridley Scott. Epic is what comes to my mind when I think of his movies. I'm thinking GladiatorRobin Hood, and Kingdom of Heaven here. Lots and lots of detail, accurate reconstruction, battles with hundreds of soldiers, realism and grittiness pertinent to the age in question. Violence too, but it's not as blood-and-gore-in-your-face as Tarantino. Tarantino is visual, while Scott is visual in details but lets emotion and plot carry the movie through.
Yet, in his contemporaries too (think Body of Lies and A Good Year), he has this attention to detail and the plot has this characteristic feature that you don't know what's gonna happen - Ridley Scott's movies are never predictable.

So in the end, what is voice? It is that special something that makes you unique, that special spark that belongs only to you and that makes you float above the rest of works that might have similarities with yours.

How do you find it? It takes practice. When I first started writing, I knew what and how I wrote but I could not analyze my voice. It took 2-3 more mss to figure out that there was a singular, unique pattern to my words and the way I put them on the page/screen. In my non-fiction, aka my blogging, I discovered I'm big on pop culture references, especially when I'm trying to explain a concept or get a point across.
Whether you pick up my work as Aasiyah Qamar, Nolwynn Ardennes, and in the future Zee Monodee (hopefully *Smile*), you'll find my voice in there. You may have to take out the culture stuff in some works, but otherwise - that's definitely me writing an 'talking' to you on the page/screen.

I hope my insight helped.

What do you think of voice? And how would you describe yours?

From Mauritius with love,



Unknown said...

Zee, this must be one of my favorite (never before published :-)) blogs to date! I love all of your informative writing but this one is special. It took me a long time to figure out what "voice" meant and how mine was different from the voices of other authors. Once that clue becomes clear, however, is when a happy journey starts with writer and pen (or keyboard) :-). I feel you couldn't have described it better.

Greta Gunselman said...

This is a great blog Zee. I'm currently struggling, trying to see the patterns in my writing and pull out my strengths. It's not as easy for a writer to analyze their own writing and style...:D


Penelope said...

Great post Z. I'm not yet able to describe my voice, but I am learning to recognize it. I'm starting to see where it goes flat when I read over my work. It isn't the easiest writing concept I've grappled. Thanks for sharing!


J Hali Steele said...

Zee, I'm still finding my voice and you've helped me tremendously along the way with fun and insightful blogs like this one. Big Big (((HUGS!))) Thanks for another great post.

JC Deacons said...

Awesome post!


Anonymous said...

Good information. Unfortunately, just like I have a hard time describing myself to people, my own personality, the way I look (or the way I think I look), I also have a hard time identifying my voice. It's there, but not always. I guess it also explains why I don't always find errors in my own work.

Thanks for the great examples.


Zee Monodee said...

Thanks Angela! Lol, now that's incentive to pen not-posted-before blog posts, :)

I think reading a lot makes you see patterns too. I recently read my first book by Lisa Scottoline (Daddy's Girl) and I found her scene descriptions reminded me of the way I too pause to introduce the setting in the ms (like the above example with Jane and her boss' office).

Still, voice is not an easy concept to grasp. It took me a few years and botched attempts to change genres to find what 'worked' for me. Once you do find it, it does get smoother!


Zee Monodee said...

Hi Greta

Thanks for coming over! No, it's not easy, but it is doable. It took me some instances of writing other genres to 'see' how I actually wrote. I attempted a thriller, and found myself pausing to insert setting in there. Lol, yes, setting is necessary in a thriller too, but not like in romance. That's how I figured the 'descriptive' part of my voice. I reworked it so it fit into the rom-suspense genre.

Try going out of your comfort zone, and then let yourself go to see how you write' normally'.


Zee Monodee said...

Hey Penny

Once you start seeing some similarities, you're on the right track! Lol, no - it's not the easiest concept out there. Might even be the most ambiguous actually.

You're most welcome - glad you dropped by.


Zee Monodee said...

Hey J!!

Thanks girl! You've been very helpful too, with those crits that pointed out all my repetitive stuff, :)

I'd say your voice is strong and hot. I don't know many authors who can flame up Page 1 after barely a few lines into the story!

Big hugs

Zee Monodee said...

Thanks JC. Glad if it could help!


Zee Monodee said...

Hey Ambrielle

It's true that we often don't see our own stuff clearly. The mind glosses over some aspects and we turn a true blind eye to it. But like I told Penny, for me it took an instance of writing outside my comfort zone to find where I went and how I did things.

My rom-suspense has the descriptive emotional thread, but less of the laid-back pace of my women's fiction contemporaries. The way I write is the same, but it adapts itself to the genre.

I think you can do this too - just hop over the lines and try something new! :)


Anonymous said...

Nice post, Z.
Voice is a tough one. We all have one, but it's hard to find. I think I'm becoming more familar with my very own. It's taken me a long time to bring it out.

Zee Monodee said...

Thanks Brenda! Glad you could drop by.

Yup, voice is a very elusive concept. Once you find it, then it's half of the journey's safe cruising assured. I found I could write much easier once I found my voice and embraced it.