Sunday, May 1, 2011

Voice- Everyone Has One, but is Yours Teen Enough?

Read to the bottom for Contest Details! 

I've heard a lot of questions about voice over the years...What is it? How do you recognize it? Is it something you can learn? Can you change your voice? In this blog post I'm going to try to answer those four questions, while adding four self-assessment questions for YA authors;
  • 1. Is it Natural?
  • 2. Is it Consistent?
  • 3. Is it Youthful?
  • 4. Is it Engaging?

1. What is it? Voice is the way a character's personality comes through via the writing on the page. There are many elements that constitute voice, and it overlaps with style. Length and rhythm of sentences, figures of speech, dialect, use of slang...voice reflects the way a character views the world and how they relate that world to the reader. 

2. How do you recognize it? All characters (hopefully) have it, just some seem "voicier" than others. For third person narration try reading The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, contrast with a less intrusive narrator in The Giver by Lois Lowry. (both MG books, but great examples) In first person, try Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L.Going. For contrast, you might want to try Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

3. Is it something you can learn? Is writing a craft or an art? I believe it is both. We all have a certain amount of talent for whatever way we want to create (music, art, literature). But there's also a learning curve. Most people with the drive to improve their writing will improve. As a creative writing teacher, voice is difficult to teach...that doesn't mean you can't learn it, but I don't think it's a teacher-taught skill. You have to find a way to learn it on your own. Hopefully my four self assessment questions will help, at least a little. My best advice? Read a lot. In my experience the students who read a lot tend to have the best natural voices.

4. Can you change your voice? I'm going to rely on personal experience for this one. When I wrote HANDCUFFS, my one and only published excursion into realistic fiction, I poured a lot of myself into it. I can open the book to any random page, and when I read it aloud, it feels exceptionally natural. The first few manuscript chapters I sent my former agent after Handcuffs sounded like Parker's voice in Handcuffs. Oh no! For awhile I was quite worried that Handcuffs was written in MY voice, and I'd never produce anything as authentic, or quite honestly, authentic at all, in a different voice. (Writers and their insecurities, right?) 

A few years/manuscripts later, I feel like there are some identifying characteristics to my writing, but that my voice can and does change with the main characters I create. 
Examples? Why yes, I can provide some! 

From Handcuffs
  We’ve done Christmas morning the exact same way, forever and ever. The week before Christmas, we put our gifts to Mom and Dad and for each other under the tree. I wasn’t truly expecting much from the sibs. Little brother shopped at the grocery store with a ten-dollar bill Dad gave him. That made my share of the loot two dollars and fifty cents worth of grocery store bought lip-gloss or Cheetos or whatever seems like a good present to him. Now my sister, well, let’s just say my birthday present still hasn’t been delivered. She thinks I’m dumb enough to wait patiently for my box from, and I have, but so far, nothing

Christmas morning is supposed to be about wonder. After we go to sleep, my parents put out all of the big presents, piles and piles of them in every shape and size. Even though we are all too big to believe in Santa, and have been for years, my heart still missed a few beats when I went downstairs and saw the tree and all the glittering gifts underneath.

From Masque of the Red Death (or whatever it shall be titled) 

     My anger runs deep enough that I cannot reach out to her. But there is nothing I can do when Father reaches out to her. No matter what they think, no matter my tantrums when I was younger, I’ve never wanted to stand in the way of whatever happiness they can rediscover together. She’s here now. We’re the remnants of a family.
     I collapse onto the couch between my parents, and we sit in miserable silence until the sun comes up. Mother gasps each time the floor shakes. I keep my feet flat on the ground and my hands flat against the sofa cushions. My medication can make me anxious, even when there aren’t explosions and fire.
     “What would our lives have been like if the plague hadn’t happened?” As soon as I say the words, I wish I could take them back. I have never said anything like this out loud.

I picked two family scenes to try to make two very different books seem at least a little more comparable. Is there a difference in the two excerpts in terms of voice? Or is the difference stylistic? I'll let you the educated and intelligent blog reader decide. It's the best I can do!

Okay, now for the helpful stuff! Here are four questions you can use to assess your use of voice as a fiction writer or reader (particularly YA, but that goes without saying...the world revolves around YA, right?)

1. Is it Natural? Try reading your work out loud. Does it trip you up? Does it sound like real observations from a real person? Does your character live and breathe on the page. The reader should suspend disbelief that this is a character and feel like (or want them to) live and breathe someplace in the universe. 

2. Is it consistent? Does the voice stay the same from page to page? If your character uses the most offensive words in the English language on page 3 and then switches to cute euphemisms on page 5, there better be a darn good reason, like Grandma is visiting, or they've had a lobotomy. And if we're talking internal dialogue, then the offensive words should still be there, in their head. Distinctive phrases should only be used by one character. In real life, we pick up on the words our friends use and start to sound alike. In fiction that comes off as lazy writing. If your character walks around saying "groovy" all the time, give him or her a reason to use a superlatively anachronistic phrase, and don't have other characters use it. As your character arc plays out, the way your character views the world may change, but the way they report those observations should stay relatively consistent

3. Is it youthful? Okay, here is where some adults trying to write YA get weird and start lurking around mall food-courts. Does the writing have a youthful feeling? I don't think that feeling comes from use of slang (and slang dates your writing, so I think it should mostly be avoided). Youth pervades writing in many ways...people who are young are experiencing things for the first time. How they report that may change (cynicism, bewilderment, wide-eyed wonder at the awesomeness of the world!) whatever, they are navigating new roles and new experiences. Teens also tend to exaggerate experiences, things are a big deal because they don't have the life experience that adds perspective. As a writer you have to help the reader see that their angst is drama rather than melodrama. While melodrama is, in many ways, the defining characteristic of the teen years (and ironically teens refer to melodrama as drama, totally confounding my definitions). As an adult, it's easy to write off a high school break up as relatively unimportant. But to a high schooler it can feel like the end of the world. Showing the experience to the reader as important rather than overblown is a big part of portraying youth accurately. I strongly believe that all teens are different, but there are experiences and reactions that are common to the majority of adolescents. Grab a Developmental Psych book and read up on the world of the teen!

4. Is it engaging? This is subjective. I, am a huge fan of Holden Caulfield.  Some readers think he's a huge phony. (that was a Catcher in the Rye joke, laugh, and we'll get along just fine). Some readers like a less in-your-face sort of voice, some readers enjoy over-the-top quirky narrators. I think you have to develop your own style and make it fit your story...In Hunger Games, Katniss' voice is utilitarian. She notes what needs to be noted. I would place Freak Show by James St. James, (a book about a cross-dresser sent  to reform school) on the opposite end of the spectrum. The main character has so much voice that reading him can be exhausting. As a reader, I'd interpret the voice as a coping device. A character who is not accepted by the world at large, commenting upon that world...both books are essentially about survival. Both voices are engaging, in wildly different ways.

This is me...I added this character to the bottom and top of this entry for a reason. The single best strategy for voice is knowing your character. Know everything about them. Write scenes that don't go in the book. Write blog or diary entries in their voice. Know what motivates them, what drives them, what makes them get up in the morning...when you have all of that, you have your character, and voice and character should coalesce (yes, I did use the thesaurus for that word!) during the writing process. 

I LOVE all the different voices in YA fiction. So get out there and write a character whose voice enthralls, entertains, enrages, and or engages (no thesaurus needed. those came from my brain!). 

CONTEST- Any blog subscribers who give me a recommendation for books with great voice, or a hint for improving voice in YA fiction, will be put into a drawing for a copy of any book I've mentioned in this post. (except Masque of the Red Death which is not out until next summer, and in the process of being re-titled) If you've read everything I've mentioned, then I will be very impressed, and we can pick a different book! 

Happy Writing! 


Kristen Simmons said...

Great tips for developing voice - thanks Bethany! My favorite original voice is Todd Hewitt from The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. He's the best!!

Erin said...

Great post, and great giveaway!

My hint for improving voice in YA fiction is to be around teens. Listen to what they say and how they say it.

(I also have a post with another tip at my blog:

GFC Follower: fletch8502

fletch8502 at yahoo dot com

bethany griffin said...

Oh, Kristen I love the Knife of Letting Go. Yay Manchee!

Good idea, Erin, just don't wear night vision goggles while you do it! (I know you mean interact with teens, it's just that I was at a conference workshop once where people were giving teen-watching tips, and it was a little weird.

Elissa J. Hoole said...

ew, foodcourt teen stalking. If someone asked me, without me reading your post, how best to figure out the voice of my character, I would say exactly what you did. You just have to get inside that character's head--know his or her thoughts and reactions and speech patterns. Know what she finds funny and what hurts her the most. Know what his reaction is to being embarrassed or snubbed by a friend.

Aside from being creepy, though, I think that when you're in public, simply listen to people. Not creepily, not like a stalker eavesdropper, but just notice the way people speak to each other. Notice the interaction between the teen cashier and the teen who bags your groceries. The mom and the daughter talking over the door of the stall in the fitting room next to you. Voice is partly a matter of simply being familiar with how people sound. :)

bethany griffin said...

You mean...I shouldn't walk around with my earbuds in and ignore everyone?

People are pretty fascinating, aren't they? Thanks Elissa! Good points all around.

Tracy Bilen said...

Good tips! It was helpful how you shared the same type of scenes in your examples. For voice, I think I would pick "Story of a Girl" by Sara Zarr.

Gemma Cooper said...

Great post, especially the reminder of 'Is it consistent' which is something I struggle with the further I get into a manuscript.

For voice reccs, I always suggest 'How I Live Now' by Meg Rosoff and 'When You Reach Me' by Rebecca Stead. And 'Will Grayson, Will Grayson' is an interesting one to look at as the two voices are so distinctive.

Kristin Lenz said...

Great post Bethany! Some of the same books came to mind for me too, but I also thought of books with multiple voices, each real and engaging, like The Book Thief with "death" as a character narrating some of the chapters. More recently, I read Please Ignore Vera Dietz which won a Printz honor. The author has a few chapters from the dad's perspective - usually not done in YA - but it's authentic and heartbreaking.

I like your graphics too!

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

I would suggest Patrick Ness' THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO as a YA voice that kind of blew me away. I also liked HIGH BEFORE HOMEROOM for many reasons, including the "voice."

Katie McGarry said...

Fantastic post Bethany!!! Looking for Alaska is my favorite in YA voice!

Kurt Hampe said...

Well said in every way. I look back on my teen years and wonder how I kept from exploding--followed quickly by, why did I care and could I please have my hair back? Recreating teen energy is a challenge and Voice is what gives it an identifiable shape.

And since we're mentioning books... You put me on to Ship Breaker, which has multiple identifiable voices. The style hints of William Gibson, who is one of the masters of voice(he doesn't write YA, but Spook Country and Count Zero are all time favorites).

Again, well done.

Unknown said...

There are so many YA books with great voice, for example, those by Courtney Summer. I also love the voice in books my Simone Elkeles (especially the Leaving Paradise series).

Great post, Bethany.

Kimberly said...

I agree with Stina about Simone Elkeles, but my favorite of her voices would be the How to Ruin...series.
My very favorite voice, though, would have to be Jessica Darling's in Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts, Second Helpings books. I realized how much I loved that voice in the series, when--all of a sudden--the fifth book in the series was written in the third person. I didn't like that one.
Kim MacCarron

Jo Ramsey said...

Great post, Bethany. So many authors who want to write YA ask about how to develop their voice (and unfortunately, some don't ask, and just assume that a YA character is just like an adult character only younger...). This is great advice.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for saying you can learn voice because I am doing a revision of my MG manuscript for voice. I read all the books in #2 except for Fat Kid Rules and loved the voice in all of them.

One thing that's been helping me lately is audio books. Lately I've been hearing the different voices in The House of Night series by P.C. Cast. Somehow it's starting to click a bit more.

Heather Bitzer said...

I think a good tip is looking back at "classic" YA like The Outsiders or Judy Bloom and appreciating what makes them timeless. They’re a good study when I don't get sucked into Tiger Eyes and forget what I was supposed to be doing!

bethany griffin said...

Oh, great comments and advice and book suggestions from everyone. Makes me want to go read a bunch of books instead of doing revisions!

Donna Maloy said...

This was a super post. I have three completely different "voices" to recommend. First is "Catherine, Called Birdy" - for a historical voice that doesn't feel old or outdated. Then there is "Feed" for the ultimate in self-centered, distracted, and alienated narrators. And I think "Pride and Prejudice" tops a list of breezy-banter voices.

bethany griffin said...

Thanks Donna, I used Catherine years ago when I taught middle school (like a decade!) I used Feed with my YA Lit class this year, but I have to admit they had a serious hard time connecting. Still a great example!

Sarah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah said...

I just read Across the Universe by Beth Revis and she uses alternating characters to tell the story and their voices are completely different and riveting.
Great topic, great post. :)

bethany griffin said...

I've heard Across the Universe was fantastic. I loaned my unread copy to a student since I'm bogged down in revisions. Thanks for the comment, Sarah!

Colette Ballard said...

Great post Bethany! i share your love for the voice in Speak, but my all time favorite is Ponyboy's voice in The Outsiders-so authentic.

Manly said...

Trying to teach voice to excited,motivated and committed 6th grade blossoming writers, and I'm having a hard time explaining it. This helps so much! Thanks for all the suggestions-

Nicole Mann