I’m 1/2 way through my scene outline for Iron Mountain and I have to admit that I’m getting jazzed. I really want to get started writing this book! But I’m going to have to do some work to recapture the voice.
I started another draft of this novel something over a year ago. I had the perfect voice going. It’s a bit like my own voice but not entirely. My son lovingly tells me that I sound like a well educated pirate. When cornered, almost literally, he explained that I have a tendency to combine grand-dad’s earthy commentary with the vocabulary that comes with a masters.
I don’t want the novel to sound entirely like me. After all, each book should have its own voice. So like me but not quite. I think of it as how a poem sounds when recited by different readers or, as Lee Wind explained in his post, a song sounds when performed by different artists. The example that Wind gives is “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” He encourages readers to listen to various versions of the song and note how each artist makes it distinct. He provides links to Marvin Gaye, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Slits and more. What is it that makes each performance unique? Figure that out and you’ve got a grip on voice.
The tricky thing is that I know the voice of this book when I hear it. It is in the tones and sentence structure of the people I know in southern Missouri. I heard it in the pages of Winter’s Bone. I wanted to find it in a TED talk by JD Vance but he’s gone polished and loss that homey edge. I know it when I hear it. So as I get ready step into this world, I’ve got to hear it again. I seem to remember the music in O Brother Where Art Thou nodding in the right direction.
Sounds like I’ve got some listening to do.
Last night we watched an old episode of Bones. They were trying to solve the murder of a body builder who had been partying on the Jersey shore.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show, the main character, Bones, is a forensic anthropologist who is brilliant but beyond literal. Because of this, she and the real world often don’t see eye-to-eye.
To solve this particular mystery she and her partner had to question “Guidos” and she had been watching a documentary to learn about their vernacular and customs. Fascinated by the Guido tribe, she dove right in to participant observation mode, interacting with them as one of their own. She used their phrases, “Yo, bro!” and “Oh, no!” in particular complete with the correct body language.
The problem was that back in the lab she would sometimes pop off with one of these phrases. It may have been a perfect fit on the Shore but back in the high-tech world of the Jeffersonian, it was a bad fit with a comedic result.
The lesson? Be careful when you create the voice for your character. You don’t want your Union soldier to sound like a pirate — unless your end goal is to have my teen son imitating your character for all to see and hear. You don’t want your teen age boy to sound like his mother.
The exceptions? When you are using it for effect. Maybe you are showing us what your character loves or is interested in. Maybe this is a clue about their early origins and they’ve carelessly slipped back into an earlier speech mode. Maybe you’re pirate longs to attend Oxford.
Yes, you can do it for a laugh, but you have to create a reason for your character to be speaking like this. Otherwise, it just seems off.
Not long ago, I pointed out to my critique group that since I’m writing an early middle grade novel, I shouldn’t read middle grade fiction. “What do you mean that you’re writing middle grade but you never read middle grade?”
Sigh. No. Right now. Right this moment. For the next month or so, I probably shouldn’t read midde grade. Why because I’m drafting an early middle grade novel. I have discovered the hard way that if I read a novel written at more or less the same level with amazing voice, it hijacks my voice.
This time around, I made the mistake of picking up Forest of Wonders by Linda Sue Park. WOW. Wow. wow. Every now and again I pick up a book and think “I wish I had written this.” For me, this is one of those books. That’s the good news. I’ve found a book to go all fan-girl over.
But the bad news is that I’ve lost my character’s voice. Not entirely. Every once in a while Clem once again sounds like Clem.
She never sounds like Park’s character. That would be another problem altogether. When I lose her voice, she sounds all Midwest neutral. She has no accent. She could be announcing the news. Pbbt.
So how am I going to rediscover Clem’s voice? First things first, because I am Fan-Girl, I’m going to finish reading Forest of Wonders. Then I’m going to reread the begining of the book. That’s where I heard Clem’s voice loud and clear.
I’m not going to find where I lost it. I can fix that later. And I know there will be plenty of things to fix. But I am going to read it and reread it where her voice comes through. Hopefully it will allow me to reclaim it as I move forward. If not, I know what speech patterns inspired this voice. Push comes to shove, I’ll take a road trip down to the Bootheel. Otherwise I’ll see if I can find a radio show or something that will allow me to hear what I’ve lost.
Until then, I have a boy and a bat and a girl and a bear and some other critters and kids to read out of trouble. Excuse me, won’t you?
One of my writing buddies and I have been comparing notes. When she writes, she reads things that are similar in tone, theme or subject to her work-in-progress.
Because I do a lot of research when I write, I read things that match my subject before I begin. I need to have a certain amount of information before I begin. As I draft, I leave blanks with notes to myself. WHAT WOULD THEY HAVE EATEN FOR BREAKFAST? TRAIN OR BUS? After I finish one draft, I’ll do the reading necessary to fill in these blanks.
But things that are similar in tone or voice? Nope. I avoid anything like that while I’m writing a particular project. This means that when I’m writing middle grade fantasy, I don’t read middle grade fantasy. Sometimes I avoid young adult and adult fantasy as well if the individual piece is too similar to what I’m writing. If I don’t, my voice skews towards what I’m reading or at least away from how it should sound.
When I’m writing picture books or nonfiction, I’m much less cautious about what I read. A picture book is much less likely to skew my picture book voice than is a middle grade novel. A piece of nonfiction isn’t going to effect my own nonfiction voice?
Why the difference? A picture book is short and easy to hold in my head. I’m not having to hold on to that voice day after day, week after week. I can throw down a draft in an afternoon and then walk away from it for a few days.
Nonfiction, I think, is simply my comfort zone. I’ve written so much non-fiction that I’m secure in my voice and can find it without too much trouble. That’s not to say that I never lose it but it is much easier for me than fiction.
Reading does fuel my writing but I never know what will inspire me. Because of this I like to read diversely. That said, it is easy to fall into habits. To find out how I’m stepping outside my reading comfort zone in 2016, check out yesterday’s post on the Muffin.
I’ll be one of the first people to admit it — I love snarky children’s books. Those lines that are a bit cheeky that make the adult reader cringe? Yep. Those are the ones. Not sure what I mean? Think of any Kevin Henkes book with Lily in it. Yes, Lily often ends up in the uncooperative chair but she makes me laugh while she does it. I get why kids love these books.
So why does my own work have so few moments like this? The writers in my critique group have actually asked me this question. “You’re so funny. Why don’t you write funny?”
First things first, writing funny is really hard. I’m not sure why, but it is. It takes a great deal more effort than letting fly with a snarky one liner in conversation.
But I have to admit, that that isn’t the only reason.
More often than not, I’ll include something snarky, hilarious and, admittedly, immature. But then I hit backspace, backspace, backspace until its gone.
The reality is that I have the sense of humor of a teen boy. I know this because I laugh at 90% of the things that my son and his friends laugh at. In fact, I laugh so hard I snort. Then I turn around and one of the other moms or, worse yet, my husband is giving me that tight lipped look. You know the one. Grow up already.
But when I don’t edit away these bits of snark, my writing is that much better. It has voice. No, my work will never appeal to certain readers but that’s okay. They wouldn’t get the real me anyway. To read about my search to “write what I know,” see yesterday’s post at the Muffin.