Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Writerly Wednesday: Hearing voices

Agents and editors often talk about finding writers with a fresh, unique voice.

What does this mean?

Well, I could give you the pared-down Wiki explanation: "Writer's voice is a literary term used to describe the individual writing style of an author. Voice is a combination of a writer's use of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works). Voice can also be referred to as the specific fingerprint of an author, as every author has a different writing style."

But what does it mean?

I spent a lot of time trying to answer that question for myself. Heck, I didn't even realize I had a voice until someone told me they liked it after reading this:

"I don't know why they call this place Mount Hope. The nearest mountains from these Kansas plains are 489.16 miles away, and hope, well, it left with Joey before I could tell him how I felt. Stupid parents – his for taking him so far away, mine for telling me I’m too young to know what real love is. 'You’ll see each other again if it’s meant to be' doesn’t give much comfort when I’m stuck in this podunk town with no one who understands me the way Joey did. I hope his parents don’t mind a permanent guest."

After that, something clicked inside my head, and I understood what everyone meant by "voice." Suddenly, I was able to define what it was about Patty Callahan-Henry that I liked or what it was about John Grisham that I didn't.

Trying to explain this to other people (especially non-writers who get irritated when I tell them why I'm not a Grisham fan), however, is another animal. But I ran across something this morning -- well, actually, something sparked a memory, that sparked a thought, that triggered an "Oh, yeah" -- that might help.

Oddly enough, I can use my second passion (music) to explain this important facet about my first passion (writing).

Scanning through youtube videos this morning I found this:

Yep, Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana. If you watch MTV or VH-1 long enough, eventually someone will go on and on about how Kurt Cobain was a grunge god, how his music changed a the face of music as we knew it, how he became the pissed-off voice of a generation of malcontents. Meh, meh, meh... Whoa, wait a minute? Did I say voice? I did, I did!

When adoring fans and media talk about how Kurt Cobain became that "voice," they weren't talking about his raspy, cig-scarred pipes. They were talking about what he was saying and how he said it. It made an impact, an impression.

But around about the same time, another musician was making an impact on the world with her own voice (that's voice, as in pipes). Songstress Tori Amos took the same song that put Nirvana on the map -- Smells Like Teen Spirit -- and gave it to the audience in her own voice. With the exception of the lyrics and hook, the two songs are barely recognizable as children born from the same parent.

That's because their voices -- the statements theses artists wanted to make and the method of delivering those statements -- are unique.

How do you develop a voice?

Chances are you already have one, you just need to tune it. I tuned mine by reading books by a variety of authors, staying true to my heart and roots and writing, writing and writing some more. (Although, I really didn't start having fun with it until I started telling stories in first person.)

So, what do you think? Have you found your voice? If so, how? If not, does my analogy (for lack of a better word) help?


Cole Gibsen said...

What an excellent post:) I don't know where I find my voices - I think they already exist in my head :D

KM Wilsher said...

Whew, this is great, Kat. I loved the Mount Hope passage :)
I'm starting to "get" voice. I'm starting to pick out ones I like and ones I don't.
The only way I can find my voice is write, write, write :)

Eva Gallant said...

Once again, excellent information for an aspiring writer. Love your blog.

ElanaJ said...

I find my voice through writing. I know that it's not there in the beginning and that's okay. Once I find it, I can fix the stuff that came before. :)

ali said...

Wow. I've heard both those songs before but I never put it together that they were the SAME. Huh. Feeling kinda dumb now but ... there it is.

Great post. I just found your blog through Elanaj (thanks Elana!) and I'm glad I did. I'll be back!

As for my voice . . . I think my best writing is when I'm truest to myself, and my voice is truly my own, my internal dialogue, the voice I listen to when I'm being true to who I am. And how many times can I get the word true into one sentence?

When I try to write like someone else, or to be like someone else, it all falls apart. My voice is just me. That's all there is to it.

Gwen Stewart--Singer-Scribe said...

Great post, Kat.

I think I have a's just the paring of it for fiction that is tricky. The eye should never stumble, so much of the "flowery" stuff I would normally include I must pare, pare, pare.

There are two words I think stick with my voice though: "plaintive" and "wistful". Even my characters are a bit frosted glass, I guess you'd say.

Writer's voice is a very hard thing to understand and conquer. Thanks for tackling this tricky but vital aspect of writing!

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

Oooh, I love the way you used the two songs to illustrate your point. I am actually a huge fan of artist covers of famous songs, and maybe it is the whole voice thing that draws me in - and seeing how differently the same words and melody can be interpreted.

Anonymous said...

Nice post, Kat. Voice, hmmm, that was a tricky one, for sure.

Someone had read something of mine and said to me, "I like your voice."

I smiled and said, "thanks" then went home and googled it like crazy and started researching it.

So, like KM said, find your voice by writing, writing, writing. :-) I stumbled upon mine--Kinda like this whole writing thing I think. LOL.

Thanks for this. Oh, and nice song choices.

Annie Louden said...

OMG, I love Tori Amos! And I always love her covers. She did a whole album of them.

I think voice is definitely something hard to attain, and it takes a lot of writing to find it. I've seen mine in parts of stories.

I think your blog definitely has a voice. I like it more the more I read it.