Tuesday, March 30, 2010
In voice we trust
--It's difficult 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.]