Friday, January 7, 2011

Authorial Voice and its Myriad Uses

I have a bit of a reputation at work. It's the Insta-Switch-Ice-Queen. See, I am generally, at work, a cheerful and friendly person, smiling and sanguine. (Yes, really--I find it aids in Keeping One's Sanity.) However, when the situation calls for it, I can compose an email that immediately tells its recipient that You Have Crossed a Line. The cheerful demeanor switches off, my eyebrow cocks a quarter inch up, and I gain the ability to rattle off a missive of frigid distance and sparkling clarity with remarkable speed and agility.

It's a talent I reserve for only very, very particular occasions.

And it's an excellent lesson, I think, in authorial voice.

Voice is, I think after reading friends' posts and experts' blogs, the most elusive quality of good writing. Agents and editors say they're looking for voice when they read, but even the most eloquent expert has a hard time putting into words precisely what they mean by voice. I won't pretend to attempt to do so, myself, but after re-reading a particular icy email with a very particular purpose, I think I have perhaps ferretted out two identifying details to voice.

One is that voice is not an accident. Now, it may not be concsious. I don't mean to say that one sits down, defines the voice, and begins to knack away at it. No, it may not be deliberate, but it is not accidental, either--it is not random. It matches the book's genre, its intended audience, and its intended purpose. Can you imagine the plot of a lighthearted caper paired with the dour tone of a gothic novel? Or a self-examining memoir grappling with addiction and abuse with the light-hearted, lackadaisical voice of a frothy romance? Certainly some irony in voice can be a useful tool--but again, it's not an accident. I can't precisely help Ice Queen voice when my eyebrow goes up that quarter-inch and I start to type--but it is no mistake that that's the tone I get.

And why is it not an accident? Because, I think, voice is intended, perhaps more than any other device in a book, to make a reader feel something. For better or worse, when Ice Queen takes over my keyboard, she wants to spark a certain reaction in her reader. Plot dips and turns elicit a response, but that response has been set by the voice behind the action. The way in which words are not only chosen but arranged, how they are used, colors the descriptions a writer includes. They affect how we see the place, people, and story elements--how we respond to a character's circumstance has been predetermined for us by the writer's voice. No wonder it's such an important, if enigmatic, element of good writing.

What do you think? Do you find voice natural, an extension of the writing itself? Or something you have to imbue each piece with deliberately? What about as a reader--is voice something you read for, or is it a side interest to a good plot?


Anonymous said...

What an interesting post! The ability to email like an ice queen is rather great :) Ice-less emails that need ice tend to not get responses, after all. Um. Haha but onto your question-

Voice is not always natural to me, but when it does feel like an 'extension of my writing' I know I'm onto a good thing. I think voice is that kind of feeling or mood you get right at the beginning when you think of the story/idea. You can go back and rework and remake a thousand times, but I think if you stick to that fleeting feeling, it's easier to stay on track. Then there is the issue of the voice being all wrong for the type of story you want to write, and having to go through A LOT (which was the case for my current WIP). It is elusive, isn't it? I think I may have just confused the issue further, haha.

Ax said...

Before writing, a voice usually starts speaking in my head (I know, voices = insanity, but so does farming, so bear with me) and that voice usually starts telling the story. So its usually the character telling me what voice the story will be written in, formal, informal, diction, that kind of thing. I try not to impose my voice on it, but as the "filter" the story's working through, that's hard sometimes. Especially if its third person and the antagonist is really creepy!

Keep it real, Ice Queen. Great post! ;)

Rowenna said...

Notes--great points, it's often the first inklings that capture voice the best! Great thoughts, thanks for visiting :)

Ax--yes, well, we've always known we were both a bit insane, didn't we? But I certainly also have characters talking to me--as I'm usually writing in third person, they tend to inform rather than totally dictate the voice. But they're definitely there :)

Madeleine said...

Excellent points. Great post :O)