I’ve read well over a hundred unpublished manuscripts and self-published novels in the past two years. Most of them have problems. Some of these problems are big, some are small, some can be solved by deleting a character or expanding on a sequence; others require a page-one rewrite. But almost all of these problems have solutions, except one: Voice.
What is voice, and why is it an unsolvable problem? Simply put, voice is the tone, style and word choice that the writer uses to tell the story. Every writer has her own voice, and the really, really good ones can write in different voices in different books. Voice cannot be divorced from story; it’s the way in which the story is told. Even in novels that are written from the third person point of view, voice is considered a reflection of the protagonist’s thought process.
Compare and contrast the voices in these three paragraphs:
Two new friend requests. I click the icon and accept the first one, a girl I know from the gym. I freeze over the second. No way. I bring the phone closer, staring at the tiny photo icon. My chest constricts. It can’t be. Oh my God. It is.
In one hand she had the hammer from her little box of widow’s tools. As she turned the knob and pushed the bathroom door open, she raised it. The bathroom was empty, of course, but the ring of the toilet seat was down. She never left it that way before going to bed, because she knew if Danny wandered in, only ten percent awake, he was apt to forget to put it up and piss all over it. Also, there was a smell. A bad one. As if a rat had died in the walls.
So here’s how it went in God’s heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at the decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable life story – how he had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to die but he didn’t die and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meager living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way toward a master’s degree that will not improve his career prospects, waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life.
Things to look at: Sentence length and variety. Word choice. Point of view. Verb tense. Examine how they all come together to communicate story genre and narrator type. What inference do you make about the genre and age level of these novels, based on these passages?
The first passage is clearly from a romantic comedy. While age here can’t really be determined – it could be adult, new adult or YA – it’s obvious from the sentence structure and word choice – not to mention the actual content of the paragraph – that this is from a funny story. (Love Like the Movies, Victoria Van Tiem).
What images do “piss,” “widow,” “smell” and “rat” prompt in your mind? Clearly, these are unpleasant words, and they set up the reader to know that this story will be unpleasant. The sentence structure is relatively unsophisticated, but there’s a term here that tells the reader that this book is for adults: “apt to.” Young protagonists are not “apt to” use this term in their mental musings. (Doctor Sleep, Stephen King)
Ever since The Catcher in the Rye, readers are prone to expect narrators in literary YA fiction to be cynical, descriptive and just a bit long-winded at times. And some of their word choices scream YA. They exaggerate in numbers, coin slang like “cancertastic,” and use more adjectives and adverbs than adults might. (The Fault in Our Stars, John Green)
Imagine, for a second, that the paragraph from Love Like the Movies wasn’t from a romantic comedy at all, but from a Stephen King-like horror novel. Would those sentences help build tension and fear? Or would they be funny in an unintentional way?
Most writers don’t consciously think about voice. They have an idea; they sit down at the computer and start typing. Eighty thousand words or so later, there’s their book. In most cases, they’ve written the book in the same voice that runs through their heads when they’re ruminating about the world. Their favorite words show up over and over again. They use adverbs if they like adverbs. Some writers like “said;” others will substitute another action.
This is why voice is an unsolvable problem. There’s nothing wrong – there’s never anything wrong – with a writer’s voice. It’s natural and in many cases unchangeable. A writer can’t change his natural voice any easier than he can change his dominant hand. But some voices are simply not suited for the age level or genre in which their story takes place. A writer with a natural YA voice just won’t be able to come up with a sophisticated war thriller. A writer with a light, breezy voice probably shouldn’t tackle a heavy story about death. And someone who naturally uses complex, sophisticated sentence structure and ideas probably isn’t the best writer for that romantic comedy idea.
This scenario may seem unusual, but it’s a problem I’ve run across several times in the past few months – enough that it prompted me to write this post. Is it something a writer can self-diagnose? I’m not sure. But it’s not something that can be edited away. Perhaps rewritten – in a page one rewrite that restructures the story around the voice, rather than the other way around. Take a hard look at your own writing, and make sure that the voice is hand-in-hand with the story you’re telling. Does the level of sophistication of your story match the level of sophistication of your voice? If not, there’s some hard thinking in your future.