Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Voice


I remember reading the Miss Snark archives, and coming across that repeatedly.

I, being the corporate hack writer, had no idea what people were talking about when talking about voicing as it pertains to writing.

So when the going got tough, the tough went to Google! Thereupon I stumbled on this little gem:

“Voice can be defined as the writer’s awareness and effective use of such elements as diction, tone, syntax, unity, coherence and audience to create a clear and distinct “personality of the writer,” which emerges as a reader interacts with the text.”

Woo woo! That was perfect. In fact, that entire page drips awesomesauce.

Now that I know what it is, do I have it?

That is not for me to judge. But I did start recognizing that, just like Miss Snark, I am a sucker for good voicing.

I am a reader of books sometimes for reading sake. I will, on occasion, read a novel simply because of its escapism. The non-thought-process, if you will. The voices of these novels are generic. I could not tell you who wrote them, because the voice was just there. These books have nothing memorable in them other than a lazy summer of drinking chilled wine and petting the cat while reading. The book is just a prop to my relaxation, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with such a book at such a time.

When I come across a story with a voice, wow, I am hooked. Fascinated. It’s a page-turner.

Since I am a Graduate of the Miss Snark archives, let’s show rather than tell! Take this excerpt from a recent outstanding YA novel by Carrie Ryan, The Forest of Hands and Teeth:

My mother used to tell me about the ocean. She said there was a place where there was nothing but water as far as you could see and that it was always moving, rushing toward you and then away. She once showed me a picture that she said was my great-great-great-grandmother standing in the ocean as a child. It has been years since, and the picture was lost to fire long ago, but I remember it, faded and worn. A little girl surrounded by nothingness.

In my mother's stories, passed down from her many-greats-grandmother, the ocean sounded like the wind through the trees and men used to ride the water. Once, when I was older and our village was suffering through a drought, I asked my mother why, if so much water existed, were there years when our own streams ran almost dry? She told me that the ocean was not for drinking—that the water was filled with salt.

That is when I stopped believing her about the ocean.

Let’s just move past the sheer awesomeness of all the questions that pops up in a reader's mind about this opening passage. Let’s focus on the voice. Even if YA is not your cup of tea, you have to admit, as a writer or reader, Carrie Ryan has an amazing writer voice.

That opening page is dripping with style. It’s literary crack, storytelling goodness.

Another great voicing example is Gary Colby, a client of the infamous literary agent Janet Reid. You can’t read his book yet, because it’s not out (2010!). But his blog contains many good nuggets, and his voice is distinctive and compelling. He recently posted this except from his novel, The Ephialtes Affair:

A dead man fell from the sky, landing at my feet with a thud. I stopped and stood there like a fool, astonished to see him lying where I was about to step. He lay face down in the dirt, arms spread wide, with an arrow protruding out his back. He’d been shot through the heart.

It was obvious he was dead, but I knelt down and touched him anyway, perhaps because I needed to assure myself that he was real. The body was warm to my touch. The blood that stained my fingertips, from where I had touched his wound, was slippery and wet but already beginning to dry in the heat, and the small cloud of dust his fall had raised made my nose itch as it settled.

It doesn’t normally rain corpses, so where had this one come from? I looked up. There was a ledge above me, and another to the left. The one directly above was the Rock of the Areopagus, home to the council chambers of our elder statesmen. The other to the left but much further away was the Acropolis. There was no doubt about it; this man had fallen from the political heights.

Murder is always interesting, but I picked this example, not only because it’s great voicing, but because it is also in first person, just like the example above it.

Yet each is as different as night and day. Both passages have a rhythm going beyond cadences of words. It’s a unique style.

I point these out because I will never forget these two books, even when I haven’t read Gary’s yet! If you have a good story and a generic voice, I’ll read your book and feel I’ve gotten my money’s worth.

But if you have a that distinctive voice, I will never forget the book. Or the author’s name. I will talk about it with my friends. It is the building block to word-of-mouth. The book that makes me think. The book, at some point, I will read again, simply because it’s so damn good.


  1. 'My mother used to tell me about the ocean.'

    You didn't even have to put anything further in your post (thought is was very lovely). The voice is so clear from just this one line. Amazing. And, something to strive toward.

  2. Great post . . . and voices in the passages you presented.

    For me, Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana is the voice that sticks with me throughout the years. As many books as I read before Tigana, and as many after, the voice of that book remains with me. One of the joys in my life, and there are many, is the opportunity to reread that book, even though I know every sentence, passage, page, and chapter by heart, every couple of years.

    I also think voice is one of the hardest things for a writer to capture. I know I struggle with that aspect of writing, though I've succeeded a time or two. The big hurdle is how to change the voice from novel to novel.



  3. Great excerpts to post. The voices in both are strong.
    Voice is hard and I struggle with it, thanks for this post.

  4. Oooh must read the Ephiliates affair! Thanks for the great hooks.

  5. This is such a great post, and really got me thinking about my own writer-voice. I want my book to be coated in Awesomesauce, too!

    I loved THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH, so the example really rang true. The voice in that book and THE HUNGER GAMES made me start reading YA because I couldn't get enough.

    Excellent food for thought! :)

  6. Lots to think about here. Thanks, Anthony. I'd never seen a definition of voice; that's awesome and I love the examples you gave. Somehow I think this has to do with a solid grounding in good writing technique combined with a grasp of and connection with the character.

  7. I just discovered this post, to my slight shock, via Anthony's blog.

    I am deeply flattered! Thank you for the kind words.

    That is one outstanding opening from Carrie Ryan. My girls aren't quite YA age yet, but it won't stop me getting a copy of The Forest of Hands and Teeth. I want to read it myself.

  8. oh indeed. and, you know, it's the hardest writing trait to teach in the classroom. *le sigh*

    not that it's the end-all-be-all, mind you. We've all read books that had kick-butt voice but zero plot.

    on the other hand, I finished Dragon in Chains because of the Voice, even tho the plot irritated me. hmmmm...

    great post, btw :)

  9. Thanks everyone for your comments!

    If voicing is new to you be sure to stop by and give it a serious study.

  10. Cool post.

    Interesting examples.

    Voice. It is perhaps the most important topic, once you get the basics down.


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