Voice is hard to define. Most definitions treat it as equivalent to style or to mean the voice of a first person narrator. These are fine, and both style and first person POV are tools we might use in creating voice, but neither captures what we’re being asked for. Publishing professionals are asking for something bigger. They want VOICE.
SCBWI-MI fall conference. I can’t recommend him enough.
Every decision we make as a writer shapes the VOICE of our novel. I’ve been fortunate to study VOICE at Highlights Foundation Workshops taught by Patricia Lee Gauch, who has written many books for young people and who had an illustrious career as an editor at Philomel. She has helped me build my own toolbox for VOICE, and with her permission, I am sharing some of her insights.
Intimacy: As writers we have to know and convey who are characters are intimately and specifically. Whether we are writing in first person or third person personal, we must be right up close, revealing our character’s innermost thoughts and feelings in words only they would use. I love the frank intimacy of the opening pages of Sherman Alexie’s THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN. In an instant, we know many things about him, including that he has a brain condition, thinks of himself as a weirdo, and moves between cultures and classes.
Surprise: If we are writing fresh stories or old stories in fresh ways, our readers should hear and see things they don’t expect and yet accept and believe them because they belong in the world of the story. Neil Gaiman’s THE GRAVEYARD BOOK is based on a surprising and unlikely idea, and he integrates the unexpected everywhere, including plot, characters, setting. Surprise helps define the world of this novel, in whimsical and scary ways.
Concrete Nouns: Ordinary objects ground a story. When we choose the details that make up a scene, nouns make the world of our novel more real, immediate and visible. We can wind ordinary objects through our story, so that they occur again and again. Kate DiCamillo does this well in DESPEREAUX, where ordinary things—soup, spoons, bowls, kettles—recur. This is unremarkable stuff, except that in the world of the book, soup is outlawed, so that these ordinary objects, things the reader sees and touches every day, become filled with meaning.
Repetition: Words, ideas, details, phrases that repeat throughout our story reinforce whatever they are connected to. In OK FOR NOW Gary Schmidt’s main character loves the Yankees. Details about the Yankees show up over and over. Better yet, in his eleven word, three sentence third paragraph, the words “to me,” show up three times. After that repetition, I know that Doug Swietek, the boy who repeats those words three times, struggles to know who he is. Kelly Barnhill in THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, uses repetition to drive plot and theme and to simply create her magical world.
Break the Rules: In order to create VOICE, we need, to quote Patti Gauch, “to write in the distinct way our characters or narrators speak and think and react. If they speak in aberrant ways, ways that break grammatical rules, so be it. Communication doesn’t always follow the rules.”
* The SCBWI-MI Illustrator Mentorship submission window is now open! Learn more here.
Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Behind the scenes with our co-RA's, our Grammar Guru tackles common mistakes, and more MI KidLit Advocates. Plus, another round of Hugs and Hurrahs! We want to trumpet your success. Do you have an upcoming book release? Did you sign with an agent? Did you publish a children's story or poem in a magazine? Did you win a contest? We want to know! Please send your good news to Patti Richards by June 27th to be included.
* The Mitten blog is always looking for contributors. See our Submissions page for content ideas and guidelines.