Tuesday, March 30, 2010

In voice we trust

--It's diffi
cult to define, but I know it when I see it.

Isn't that one of the most frustrating explanations to a
straightforward question like, "what is voice?"

While I am dissatisfied with such an explanation, I do understand why the answer is so
elusive. Some of what makes up voice can be (somewhat) quantified and objectively stated-- choice of words, length and style of sentences, quirks, a unique way of seeing things, a clever way of describing observations, and here is one way--a voice worksheet devised by Barbara Samuel O'Neal--for writers to start considering the factors that go into their voice, but a lot of it is in the realm of the hard-to-define.

Recently I read two books, one of them women's fiction, the other YA, because I was drawn to the strong voice in each. The experience of reading them was like being in the company of the
wittiest, most observant, and coolest dude/dudette, on a ride through their lives. Great fun.

Until about half way in. Then The Voice became too much. And I realized how much each book had been dependent on The Voice because plot, pacing, and other important story elements had been relegated to the background. I became hyper-aware of the recurrent phrases and speech patterns ("I kid you not" over and over again in one,) that became grating.

I finished both books, hoping that what I was experiencing was nothing more than the common Middle Flab that plague many novels, and that maybe the ending would be better. The endings were...okay.

Often, agents and editors say voice is the most important thing in writing. I think I understand. A strong voice can draw a reader in, entertain, and present life in a new light, all great reasons for readers to pick up a book.

But when is too much too much? When do we stop being enthralled with the charismatic guest with his hilarious anecdotes and witty remarks and move away to seek out the more thoughtful, less flashy people?

I say: when the voice overpowers all other considerations and when keeping up the voice becomes an end to itself.

I know, I know. This answer is as vague as the one that started off this post. So why don't you tell me. Have you read books in which the voice drew too much attention to itself? Do you have examples of a book whose voice is perfectly matched to the story? And here is a more personal question: if you are a writer, do you think you have a voice?

[On a side note: I realize distinctive voices don't all have to be humorous and flamboyant, but I focus on these qualities because, well, (1) I had to finish two book in this type of voice long after I'd gotten tired of it and so I need to vent, and (2) quieter voices don't tend to call attention to themselves, and so they do their jobs of conveying a story, an emotion, an experience without intruding and causing their readers to mutter threats of "If I have to read one more phrase that begins with..."]

Oh and, the
always sage Scott G. F. Bailey over at The Literary Lab discussed voice in relation to story last week, touching on the question of the phenomenon known as a writer discovering his voice.

[Edited to add on 3/31. Davin Malasarn at the Literary Lab has another post on voice, to answer Scott's. Go check it out.]


laurel said...

I've had the same experience with about three library books in a row! Because voice seems to be such a huge part of a story's appeal--and can be the key to breaking in to the business--it can easily overwhelm other story elements. Thanks for the great reminder to not be a "one trick pony."

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

This a thoughtful, interesting post, Yat-Yee. I have been overwhelmed by voice a few times in books I've read and other times fallen in love with the voice. I suppose when the voice elements take over that's when trouble occurs. A little bit of whatever goes a long way.

Lady Glamis said...

Great post! I don't any of the answers here. Voice has long eluded me in definition, as well as literary fiction. They seem to be two things that we keep hovering over our heads, thinking if we get one right we'll be a great writer. I think the most we can do is just be honest and write the best we can. Our voice will happen naturally, I am sure of it! Hopefully mine won't ever end up being annoying. :)

Yat-Yee said...

Laurel: Three in a row! Did you finish them all? So true: voice as appeal and key to breaking in.

Tricia: You've brought up an interesting point, about how individual a reader's response is to a particular voice.

Michelle: Absolutely. Just be honest and write the best we can. I suspect some of these flamboyant voices were actively cultivated instead of being a natural part of a writer's way of expressing him/herself. Chasing after a voice seems like such a shadow when we want to chase a truth, a story.

Davin Malasarn said...

I always really admire writers who develop a loud voice, one that's really funny or charming, for example. I've never been able to do that well. I'm one of the quiet voices. I think I try to get out of the way with my voice. I don't think I've ever encountered a book where I felt like the voice drew too much attention to itself. Lolita is the example that comes to mind. The voice was so strong in that, and I was jealous and admiring at the same time. Honestly, I wish I had the ability to write like that. Whether or not I would choose to is a different matter.

Yat-Yee said...

Davin: in life as in writing, no matter how intriguing or attractive a loud, charming voice is, I find that I end up seeking the thoughtful. I think quiet voices are so often overlooked because they don't wave their hands about, shouting, "Me! Me! Me!" but theirs can have as big, if not bigger, impact, because they stay out of the way of the story.

Still waters run deep, and all that.