As one of the many residents of “Writer Twitter”, I participate in a fair number of writer-centric hashtag games. Some are great ways to introduce yourself to fellow authors, some provide an opportunity to dig into what makes your manuscript work (or not work), and others are just there for silly fun.
Last week, #TheMerryWriter wanted to know one thing that would turn us off a book.
To be honest, there are a lot of things that will cause me to give up on a book, and I suspect that’s true for everyone. But the question got me thinking about the inverse situation… what’s one thing that will often KEEP me reading a book I would otherwise have already dropped?
The answer is voice. It’s also the subject of this week’s blog post.
Funny how that works out, isn’t it?
Warning: it’s time for a cake metaphor1
So what is voice? Well, it’s a tv show, a google phone service2, and a half dozen other things and/or products, but in terms of writing, it’s defined as ‘the distinctive tone or style of a literary work or author‘.
Strong plots and captivating characters are important. We all know that. The value of voice is a little bit more nebulous. Maybe part of that is because it’s a harder thing to teach. As writers, we have to develop our own voices. We have to find a style that is both comfortable for us to work in and appealing to the reader. To me, it’s more art than science: if writing a story is like baking a cake, with some mix of ordered steps and instructions (the outline) and spontaneity (the ability to creatively change course as needed), then voice is the cake’s decoration and icing. Unless you’re copying someone else’s style–and let’s be honest, derivative cakes never look as good as the ones they’re imitating–that decoration is going to be something entirely unique to you.
It’s also what makes a cake look appealing. Even a terribly made cake can look (if not taste) great with the right decoration and icing… and even a well made cake can look plain and unappealing without it.
Voice works the same way. It’s the first thing your reader is going to notice. Characters take time to introduce. Plots take time to develop. Voice should be there from the very first word. To me, a strong voice can make or break a book long before its narrative elements come into play. If a book has a strong voice and distinctive style, I’ll stick with it through typos, grammatical misfires, and even the occasionally meandering plot. It’s that important.
Good luck saying anything when you’ve lost your voice
I’ve spent the last few months–in between moving and assorted query-related shenigans–working on Red Right Hand and getting nowhere. The book’s overarching plot has been hashed out for months and it features a familiar cast. So why was I struggling so much?
The answer, again, is voice.
Both The Murder of Crows and The Many Travails of John Smith feature 1st person perspectives, which means the voice is the character. Damian is a very different character than John Smith, and their voices reflect that.
John is a social creature; he’s lazy and wilfully obtuse, but the friendships he forges allow him to overcome some fairly disastrous situations. The voice I use for those books is casual and light-hearted; introspection is largely jettisoned in favor of dialogue. He’s telling the story but there is no defined audience, so he never addresses the reader directly.
Damian, on the other hands, has grown up only being able to rely on himself. He’s focused as all hell3, angry, and blind to a lot of the good around him. He also spends significant time in his own head, and has a specific audience that he’s actively telling his story to; ghosts that he has for some reason gathered to hear his story. The reader is just one of those ghosts, addressed–and occasionally berated–by Damian. He’s a different kind of character, and I think his voice the biggest piece of why See These Bones works.
Some things change… voice usually shouldn’t
Which brings me back to my troubles with Red Right Hand. I’ve had a hell of a time re-finding Damian’s voice. Part of it is that RRH is a sequel. Things happen in See These Bones4, and I wanted to convey how they had impacted Damian’s frame of mind. But doing so was killing the pace. The first few pages of a book are not the time to ruminate on how someone’s perspective might have changed due to another book that the reader may not have even read5. Even worse, by drastically modifying Damian’s voice, I was robbing it of what made it interesting.
People are who they are. The epiphanies and revelations Damian had didn’t change who he was… they just reoriented his focus. He’s not less angry now6, he’s just angry about different things. That ended up being the key for me. I went back to the basics of what made Damian tick. This is a nineteen year old whose whole life has been a war. He knows–more than anyone–that he’s not making it out alive. Where John has the luxury of sitting back and wallowing7 when things don’t go as expected, Damian just rolls with the punches and keeps on coming. That, more than anything, is what drives him as a character and it absolutely needs to be reflected in his voice.
The new intro to Red Right Hand
So here’s a snip of the intro I ended up with on the eleventh try8. It’s short and sharp, and not at all pretty–kind of like Damian himself–and it’s exactly what I needed to get the new book started.
My father murdered my mom when I was five.
Thirteen years later, I quit superhero school to return the favor.
I’d say that’s when it all went to hell, but that’s a lie. Hell is seeing your mom’s lifeblood spread across the kitchen floor. Everything that comes after is just life. You either survive it or you don’t.
I’m a survivor.
Survived mom’s murder. Survived more than a decade at Mama Rawlins’ House for Unwanted Brats. Survived a year at the Academy as the school’s only necromancer student. Even survived that mess out in the Mojave, where a lot of other people—better people, mostly—died. If life’s taught me anything, it’s that you scrap and claw for every moment you can get. And if you’re a Crow like me, you don’t let a little thing like dying stop all that.
My name is Damian, but most people call me Walker.
I’ll be back early in June with another poem, and will round out the month with a post about my upcoming self-publishing plans. Until then, have a great summer!
- The above cake was made by my older brother, who is all kinds of talented.
- Who knew?
- Often to his detriment
- So many things.
- Which is not to say perspectives can’t change… but if they do, it should be handled more organically.
- In fact, he’s probably more angry…
- John is still very likeable, I promise! A doofus, but very likeable.
- As this is a work in progress, it may still change a few dozen times, but I’m finally happy enough with it to move on.