Friday, June 11, 2010

For the Love of Voice

About a month ago, I read a fabulous piece on "how to craft a great voice" written by literary agent Nathan Bransford on his blog. Writers, if you haven't seen this, you'll want to check it out. Really. It's one of the best explanations I've ever read, and I think it addresses the complexity of the subject very well.

He wrote, "Voice, at its most basic level, is the sensibility with which an author writes. It's a perspective, an outlook on the world, a personality and style that is recognizable even out of context. You could drop randomly into a David Sedaris story or an Ernest Hemingway novel and probably guess the author within a few paragraphs because they have strong, unique voices. An author's voice is often imitated (think: Tolkien), but a truly original voice can never be duplicated."

LOVE that.

He also describes some of what he considers "the essential elements" of voice. These are abbreviated from his post (so, please, read the full version...), but they'll give you a sense of what he suggests:

Style--the flow, rhythm, cadence of the writing; vocabulary, lexicon, slang and whether the author is wordy or spare

Personality--the unique way of seeing the world and choosing which details to focus on and highlight

Consistency--while it may get darker or lighter or funnier or sadder, it doesn't suddenly shift wildly in tone

Moderation--even the strongest voices don't over-do it, and they're not just made up of repeated verbal tics

Transportation--a good voice envelops the reader within the world of a book

Authority--quoting from Ink: "For me, one of the absolutely key elements of voice is authority. With a great voice you know the writer is in control, so in control that the writer vanishes and you see only the story... A great voice carries you through the story, compels you through the story. I think all great voices have that... There's a sureness to a great voice. The words are simply right and the rhythms of the prose are buoyant. You won't sink, not with these voices."

Originality--above all, a good voice is unique and can't be duplicated, and it is also extremely contagious

Authenticity--this is the key to finding the voice: your voice is in you; it's not you per se, but it's made up of bits and pieces of you

Thank you, Nathan.

I also think there are certain themes that we and our favorite authors tend to focus on. It's part of our unique perspective--those subjects that are so relevant to us that we MUST write about them. Personally, I love exploring a woman's journey of self-discovery as she tries to sift through the elements of her past and the relationships that shaped her worldview to come to a new understanding of her life in the present. I'm really hung up on characters learning to be honest with themselves, facing their fears and their fantasies, seeing and hearing each other more clearly. And I don't think there's a problem in the great universe that can't be improved with the support of true friends, a little humor and the occasional piece of chocolate. So, while I truly love reading across genres, I'm always pleased when I find authors who write stories like these...

But what about you? What kinds of themes do you love to write about and/or love to read? Who are some authors whose writing voice you really enjoy? Please share!


Pamela Cayne said...

I missed Nathan's post of this, so loved both the recap and the link--thanks, Marilyn!

I can't say a particular favorite theme for reading--it depends on my mood. And for writing, while I'm currenly doing historical with dark and twisty leads, I also have ideas going for books all across the fiction realm, so I'm looking forward to seeing how my voice adapts or changes to each.

And no, I can't pick a favorite food, song, movie or anything else. Too many fabulous choices!!!

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Marilyn,

This is a really good post. Thanks for sharing the overview and link. I think the most amazing thing about you- besides your stories- is that you have a vision of what you love and want to say about the lives of women.
I'm still trying to figure out my "mission" as a writer- right now I know I like to entertain. It's a start. right? :D

Edie Ramer said...

I read the post, but I think I skimmed through it. This second time, it sunk in. It's very good!

Though the problems in my books are different, I write about strong women who are going through a rough time, and it makes them stronger. I have men in my story with their own conflicts, but the biggest character are is usually the woman's.

Maria Geraci said...

I read Nathan's blog when he posted it and like you, I thought it was a terrific way to "explain" voice. Before I was ever published, or got an agent, I took an online voice class with NYTimes best seller Barbara Samuels (also writes as Barbara O'Neal). It was terrific. Although I'd already written a full manuscript at that point, it was the beginning of discovering my voice. I realized that up to then, I'd been imitating other people's voices and styles. Voices I loved, yes, but it wasn't my own voice.

Like you, Marilyn, I love a woman's journey to self-discovery. All my heroines are their own worst nemesis, the antagonist to their own happiness. Until they discover that, they can't fully realize their hea :)

Marilyn Brant said...

Pamela~I don't blame you for not being able to pick one favorite... It's a lot easier for me to narrow down what I like to write than what I like to read ;).

Nancy~Oh, thank you! I wasn't always so certain of my "vision" (I tried writing in a bunch of different genres...), but contemporary women's fiction was where I'd started. Those types of family/relationship dramadies were what inspired me to begin my first novel, so I wasn't really at home with my writing until I returned to those stories. I'm sure you'll find the "mission" that speaks best to you, too, and I KNOW the stories that result will be wonderfully entertaining!

Marilyn Brant said...

Edie~I really enjoy your blogging voice and am SO looking forward to the day I'll get to pick one of your novels off the shelf and read about your strong heroines!

Maria~I loved the way you described your stories--that your heroines are their own antagonists and can't get their happily ever after until they realize that...yes! Reminds me of a great line from one of my favorite Eagles songs, "Already Gone": "So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains and we never even know we have the key..." BTW, at my first RWA National (NYC, 2003), I went to one of Barbara's "voice" workshops and loved it!!

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone :).

tonya kappes said...

Of course I love your voice! AND the Stephanie Plum series for mystery. If I don't like the author's voice in the first three chapters, I don't finish the book!

Marilyn Brant said...

Aw, Tonya, hugs to you!! You made my night ;). And *I* love Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, too!! Hope you're having a great weekend!

Vesper said...

What a great post, Marilyn! And thank you for the link. I'll check out the whole article.

I particularly liked:
Transportation--a good voice envelops the reader within the world of a book

It's interesting that the 'voice' can be crafted...

Robin said...

I don't get to Nathan's blog often enough so thank you for this!

I'm a sucker for the whole boy-girl thing. I enjoy reading different genres, but my favorite part of any book isn't the setting, or the mystery, or the unique plot. It's the love story - no matter how big or small a role it plays - between two characters that I love the most.

And there are too many authors voices - yours included! - that I so enjoy reading that I couldn't list them all. :)

Rick said...

I've got to hang out more often on Nathan's blog! Thanks so much for making us aware of this, Marilyn. My editor was just bemoaning how weak so many writers are in this very category.

Marilyn Brant said...

Vesper~I'm so impressed with the way Nathan defined these terms, too! Also, it's lovely to see you here ;).

Robin~I know *just* what you mean! I love watching the development of the love story, too!! xo

Rick~Thanks!! I'm glad you found it as helpful as I did. I think Nathan did us all a great service by breaking down "voice" in a way that's so understandable and comprehensive.