Wednesday, February 16, 2011

That elusive voice

I've decided for the next month or two to go back into some of these posts and revise and expand them with some of the things I've been learning over the last year from writing and teaching, starting with expanding the Story Elements Checklist.

But even before that, I wanted to post about VOICE, especially because of the last couple of articles I've posted on rewriting a screenplay into a novel.

For Screenwriters Who Might Be Wondering

How To Turn Your Screenplay Into A Novel

Voice is definitely an element of screenwriting as well, but it's much, much more prominent in novels.

I accidentally agreed to read some first chapter submissions for an upcoming conference (or the conference organizer figured out I’m a Pisces and just pretended I agreed to it so I’d have to do it, which actually would work like a charm. Hmm… and that would be just like him, too.)

This is not something I ordinarily do because I’m so much more comfortable teaching plotting and structure – and rewriting! – than I am teaching more basic writing writing, which I tend to believe can only be self-taught. I know how to write because I spent however many dozens of years journaling, starting at age four (my mother was a teacher and insisted that my siblings and I write every day. First a sentence, then a paragraph, then a page. Let me tell you – it worked.). That’s not something you can recreate in a workshop, any more than you can teach someone to play the piano in a workshop or teach someone to dance or paint in a workshop. The authors I know ARE writers; they may just have gotten around to writing a first book, but inevitably, in whatever way, they have been writers for dozens of years.

So I am reading these first chapters, and realizing that I am absolutely right – I cannot teach these people to write. Some of them can write already, and some of them can’t. I can make suggestions to all of them to improve what they have handed in to me. And actually the suggestions would pretty much be along the same lines to all of them. But the ones who can write will take my suggestions and end up with better first chapters – or they’ll ignore me completely and their chapters will still be good, possibly better than they would be if they tried to rewrite them.

And the ones who can’t write can take those suggestions and incorporate them until the cows come home and – I’m afraid – they are still never going to have chapters that would be of any interest to any editor.

These are not terrible writers I’m talking about, either. The writing is not uneducated, or laughable. That’s sort of what makes this kind of thing so painful to see.

And it occurs to me that this is mainly what editors are talking about when they talk about VOICE. I think there’s some confusion on this issue because a lot of times when people talk about voice they’re talking about how a character narrates a story – especially those first-person narrations. If they’re clever and witty and self-deprecating or use a lot of hip words, then a lot of people call that “voice”. I also hear “voice” used to describe an author’s unique storytelling –I mean the author’s character, or persona, as it comes through the story.

But there’s a more important voice that makes a book – and I mean literally MAKES a book. And that is the way an author puts a bunch of images, actions, thoughts, emotions and sensations into an order, in words, that puts a reader into the action and makes a reader have the exact experience that the characters are having – just like being inside a dream or a movie.

That is the real and completely elusive magic of storytelling – that an author can make all those disparate elements play as an engaging, unbroken whole – that literally becomes more important to the reader than their own consciousness. Because it’s true, isn’t it? When we read, we give up our own consciousness, our ego awareness, to the book, to the story.

I don’t know if this makes any sense at all, but voice is like the unspoken narrative that makes a dream seem to make sense at the time that you dream it. It gives the action cohesion.

Okay, here's another analogy. I was a theater director, mostly musical theater, and I've sat through many an audition. This is always an excruciatingly tense thing in the first couple of seconds of a song, because you do not know if the person in front of you is actually going to be able to sing or not. You are bracing yourself - physically bracing yourself, for the very real possibility that this person will not be able to pull off a song at all, which is actually very sad and painful.

Most of us now get to have this special experience with televised American Idol tryouts, right?

And when that person starts the song, and they really can sing, there is first a relief, and then a relaxation, a giving over into that person's hands, because you know they're not going to drop you. You can commit to that song, that performance, because of the singer's confidence. They're going to do the work and make it not seem like work, and carry you along.

Same with writing. The first page, the first chapter, has to convey that confidence in storytelling that will make the reader relax and give herself or himself over to you. They are putting themselves in your hands. But the thing that makes them have that trust is VOICE.

I would not exactly say that ALL published authors have this skill, or gift… not as far as I’m concerned. But they obviously have that gift enough to make other people (agents, editors, readers) give their consciousness up to their stories. And most of the time, annoying as I find these authors, I would have to reluctantly concede that they have at least that much skill – compared to unpublished authors.

I’ve taught enough now to know that some things about writing CAN be taught successfully, so I find this question of voice very interesting, and, like most unknowns - scary.

Is there a way to teach it, I wonder? Or is it like perfect pitch – you can fine-tune it, but if you don’t have it, you don’t?

Now, there are obvious, easily definable problems with some of these first chapters I'm reading. I think a first chapter carries the whole weight of the book with it. It has to convey mood, tone, genre, foreshadowing, stakes, urgency main character need and desire, setting, theme (especially, especially, ESPECIALLY theme) – and a dozen other things I’m not awake enough to list - and the absolute sense that this is a journey that we want to take. (Note I didn't mention "a great first line". I am not one of the cult of the first line).

And a first chapter doesn’t have to be explosive or perfect to convey those things, either. If an author has written a book worth reading, the first chapter will communicate that (partly because if it hasn’t, the author will have rewritten the chapter or started over with a new chapter that introduces the book convincingly.)

So I can tell these writers that they need to be conveying mood, tone, genre, foreshadowing, stakes, urgency, main character need and desire, setting, THEME, etc., in their first chapters. And I can make very concrete suggestions about how to bring those things out.

The problem is, I don’t think that’s going to do a thing to improve the voice of a book.

And – I’m not sure if I’ve ranted about this before, here, but I think contests put far, far, far too much emphasis on endlessly rewriting the first three chapters when there’s no book there to begin with.

Maybe the only advice to give people who haven’t discovered voice is – keep writing. Write whole books. And find a critique group that will let you read your work aloud, where it becomes immediately evident if voice is there or not.

Except that even in that situation, if a writer doesn’t have voice, it doesn’t seem evident to them at all.


So here’s my question. Authors, can you actually tell us how you learned voice? Have you ever encountered a teacher who was able to teach voice (or even adequately explain it)? How do you define voice? Readers, do you read for voice, and how would you define or explain it?

If you're in So Cal, I'm doing some Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workshops and signing at the Southern California Writers Conference in San Diego this weekend.

Info and Schedule


Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

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- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

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- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE


Gayle Carline said...

I think of 'voice' the way you described the singing audition process. You open the book and hope the first page gives you enough confidence in the author that you continue turning the pages. They're in tune, they've got the right nuances for the work, they haven't burdened the piece with (to use my music-major son's words) too much articulation or ornamentation. You know you are going on a journey and you can put hand safely in the author's.

I credit my grandmother with the development of my voice, altho I can't pinpoint the moment I "got it." She was equal parts funny and smart and vain and stubborn, and she had a steady stream of friends and family who liked to visit. I would sit at her feet, and she'd stroke my hair and shoulders while she told stories. They were of her childhood, her kids, anything that had happened to her at any time, and she'd make it either funny or amazing or sometimes even macabre. Over the years, I guess her art infused me with the knack for storytelling.

G.R. Yeates said...

Hi Alex,

I know I've already contributed to this discussion over on Murderati but I've had a few more thoughts that I thought I would add here.

I think voice is an expression of the writer's personality or, perhaps, a certain alignment of the aspects of that personality.

When the voice is fully developed, it becomes something that is distinct yet also undefinable. It's when all of the inspirations blend together into something that is new yet recognisable.

I hope I'm not waxing too poetic here but I have identified a few author's stories in the past even when I've not explicitly known it was them that wrote it until a later date.

I think this comes down to the uniqueness of voice because you pick up on certain key elements when you read that you might not be able to put into words afterwards but you know them when they crop up and think "Hey, this is such-and-such."

Going further, in the horror genre, I would say that one of my favourite themes is that of the cosmic so I would say that I do find myself drawn to writers who have a voice and sensibility that expresses this such as Lovecraft, Ligotti and T.E.D. Klein.


Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Alex, I think of "voice" as having a ring of authenticity. It only happens when you dig deep and find out who you are. There's a sense of truthfulness to a good voice. As an author, I feel something akin to the clicking of tumblers in a lock when I hit on the right voice, and yes, I think that most of us have more than one voice within us. A seasoned writer will pick and choose that voice that best conveys the right emotional attitude.

I remember once when my son was young, and his English teacher asked him to write a personal essay. Then she scolded him for including dialog where he was smart-alecky.

That was a shame. He had found his voice, and she was trying to dilute it. It occurred to me that over the years most of us have our voice drummed out of us in the name of being "civilized." We lose sight of our authentic selves in our desire to please others.

Unknown said...

I think of "voice" as a thing we're born with. It's an expression of our unconsciousness. I think each and every person has the potential to put on display their own unique "voice." And I think it's possible that a teacher or mentor can help a person identify, encourage, and develop their voice. B U T not every human being is meant to express their creative voice through writing. Some people build houses. Some people sing. Some cook. Some manage the day to day running of an office. Some raise money for social causes. Monet painted. Hemingway wrote prose. I guess what I think is that "voice" isn't something that only writers get to have. And conversely, writing is not the best way for some people to express their "voice." Sorry to get all philosophical.

Unknown said...

I'm pretty sure I found my "voice" in writing by first emulating those authors whose own "voices" worked best for me.

hendrik said...

VOICE is the writer's ability to fully inhabit the story and its characters. It reflects the quality and power of the writer's imagination.

This is a raw talent that benefits from being groomed and buttressed by practice and reading.

Reading and practice enhance the myriad facets of craft -- word choice, rhythm, etc. -- that refines the voice and seduces the reader.

Douglas Dorow said...

I think the biggest input into my voice has come from what I've read. By reading lots of different authors I think my subconscious digested their voices and I took those to create my own.

Probably a lot like a singer being influenced by artists they like to listen to. What they like sticks in their head and influences them.

Constance Burris said...

You are so talkinga about me right now. I am editing my work and I know that I don't have a voice and I'm so fustrated about it. But I'm gonna keep writing and writing and writig and I'm hoping that around that 6th novel, I'll able to develop it.

Wish me Luck, Connie

Unknown said...

I agree that 'voice' is one of those elusive words that seem to be tossed about when no one really knows what it means. Personally, I don't think you can 'teach' voice, but I do believe that you can hone it.

To me, voice is the writer's personality, their own personal way of seeing the world. That can't be taught but it can be nurtured (in my opinion).

I'm still experimenting with my voice, some pieces I know I have it, others I know I don't. But I do know that the only way to find it is to keep writing and writing and reading and reading. The more I absorb, the more I learn about who I am and what I think and feel, and how I want to say things. That, to me, is voice.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gayle, great description of that feeling (you hope!) you get on the first page. And then you forget all about voice, really, because you're committed. But you don't get to commitment if the voice isn't there.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Greg, you know, I pretty much hate reading short stories, but you've reminded me of the one thing that I do like about them - when I can hear a favorite author's voice in an unexpected little short.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

George, I think you're dead on. You've expressed why it is a very painful thing for me to see someone struggling with an art form that they don't seem suited to, when I am absolutely positive that we are all meant for the unique and passionate expression of SOMETHING.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Chris, for that note of practicality, there!

It's true - I think early voice is imitative, and there's nothing at all wrong with that, it's how we learn.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, and Douglas, too! Yes, I think you guys are on to something, and it's an optimistic take.

Rachel Walsh said...

Excellent post, Alex.

FWIW I really do think it's not so much a matter of "learning" voice as "finding" your voice. By reading widely, and writing and writing and writing some more, those unique word patterns and rhythms, that essence that is your voice, will slowly but surely begin to appear.

So yeah, not something that anyone can teach you but yourself.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hendrick, you're right - this may be the most important thing of all:

"VOICE is the writer's ability to fully inhabit the story and its characters."

That to me is the thing that's most painfully apparent about the writing of writers who have not accessed voice.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Bethany, you put it very well - you can't teach voice but you can hone it.

And as a dancer I should know that practice and the honing of technique makes the free flow of creative voice possible, no matter what the art form.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Connie, I hope some of the comments posted here are encouraging for you. Clearly everyone here has WORKED on their voice, and it's worked.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Another great comment from Rachel, thank you.

I swear it's easier to teach dance than writing!

Melisa Williams said...

Alex, I read your blog, and then what other people post after reading your thoughts/insight. But, what always touches me is how you come back, read the post and respond.

All I have to say is--I really like you.

Greg Gountanis said...

Voice is seemingly that catch-22--so many of the powers that be (agents, editors, publishers, distributors) want you to have it, yet chide you when you have too much of it. Take writing a spec screenplay. If one were to start writing long action blocks and asides (a la most Tarantino scripts), the script would be chalked up as being too dense, and not having enough white space. Likewise, a novel with first-person narrration is often criticized for too much voice, too much of a tendency to show humor or personality, while third-person narration is considered too distant, with an almost invisible voice.

So then how to attain this elusive voice? As with anything in this writing journey, the way is seemingly through dedication to the craft. One's voice will come through at some point or other through writing and rewriting and tinkering as much as possible.

For some reason though, I find this notion of voice more accessible when reading screenplays--especially of the comedy variety. Since action and exposition has to be suppressed and maximized by the same token in the medium, maybe more of the voice is coming through? Regardless, I try not to take much stock in voice. I write, and eventually that voice will find itself through my characters and the story they have to tell. Because it's their story and their motivation that readers will hopefully remember, instead of a writer who penned another bad one.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Melisa, thanks - I do try to get back to all the posts, although because of the erratic spam filter and notification sometimes I miss them.

But often the discussion is far more valuable than the post - I really appreciate everyone's thoughtful takes on voice, and I feel like I'M getting a better grasp on it from what people are saying.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Greg, I know what you mean about voice in screenplays. It comes through perfectly in a good script.

I have to say - I was a story analyst before I sold my first script and I would never have passed on a good script because of too many asides or action chunks - or length! While I always groaned at an overlength script, if it was well-written that didn't matter a bit. Maybe not everyone is like that, but I have to think a lot of people are. Really, you read so much garbage that ANY good script gets rapt attention.

James said...

Funny. Actually found your site because I'm stuck 2/3s of the way through a project I'm working on. Why is it ALWAYS this place?! Doesn't even matter how short or long the project is -- always 2/3s.


One of those things that punitive books about elements of style pay no heed to. Sometimes even condemn.

And one of those things that really draws a reader into a story.

I can't tell you what it is. I can tell you when I discovered it.

I was reading a Lawrence Kasdan spec script. It was pretty bad. He wanted to do some interesting things, but never pulled it together and the end just fell apart. I'm still a huge fan.

The thing is -- despite a faulty premise and characters I didn't care for at all -- there was something else. There was a tone to the story and description, the way the potential journey was being setup that made me aware of this new thing called voice.

I had confidence in the writer. The way in which the writer wrote with conviction on the page, allowed me, as a reader, to lose myself in the story.

To not be worried about the poetry of the words, or the construction of the sentences. But to simply envelope myself in the world.

Even when that world was faulty and ultimately unfulfilling.

I read many new authors and budding screenwriters (not by choice usually) and notice a common problem. They don't convince me that the story they are trying to tell is actually happening.

Good writers are able to do this. Even with a half baked idea. Maybe that's why Hollywood puts out so many bad films? A good writer is convincing.

The irony is that the bad ones all have the same voice. The stories read like they are the literary equivalent of a paint by numbers. The read often feels like the writer is somewhat distanced from his own material. That he doesn't believe in his own story. That's a huge problem.

While I'm sure others have a more specific definition, my definition of voice is: that thing that gives readers confidence that the story is worth reading in the first place.