Sunday, September 30, 2007

Wondering about voice

I'm having trouble figuring out how my characters should talk. For instance, when I was a kid, I would've said something like: "Me and Brian went swimming." Of course, that would've been wrong. The correct way to say it is: "Brian and I went swimming."

Thing is, kids from the hood (or suburbs for that matter) don't always talk like that? When I was a kid, my [black] friends called it 'talking white.' As an adult, I call it using correct English.

So, how can a writer make his character's voice ring true to their culture, lifestyle and experiences — right or wrong — while not promoting bad English?

Any recommendations on the subject of voice would be greatly appreciated.


rindawriter said...

That voice thing is again something that you can fix quite easily in a later revision.

Possibly it is something that should wait until an editor to whom you have sold the manuscript can discuss with you! They'll consider changes with more of an eye to marketing the book, and they will, most likely, once the manuscript is sold, pretty well want THEIR changes pretty strongly--at that point!

So, even if you choose a certain language for the character and sell the book that way, that does not guarantee the editors coming in and seriously wanting THEIR changes as far as the character's English use and grammar!

Thus, it makes a lot of sense to write what you feel, gut level, how and what the character would speak. You can explain why the character is speaking "bad" Engilsh in one short sentence in a query or submission package, and the editors will understand perfectly what you are tryign to do.

Remember, the CHARACTER'S voice is DIFFERENT from your, the writer's voice. The truer you are to yourself and your own vision in writing this book, the stronger your writer's voice will automatically be. And in the long term, final judgment as to how strong your voice is as a writer belongs to your reviewers and readers.

I was told in the one and only writing class I took in college that I had a strong and unusual voice. I never tried to do that. I had no idea what voice was. I simply obeyed the instructions of the teacher to write what I felt.
Many years later, a junior editor at a publishing house told me that college classes in writing would have ruined me--as a writer with real voice. So.

Again, I myself don't worry about my writer's voice. I simply try my best to write as honestly and as audience-engaging as I can--I try to communicate my heart earnestly. Let the reviewers quibble over my writign voice! I want to reach my readers.

I would again DUMP this concern about the character's voice into your DUMP BOX for this first draft write through. It IS A SOLID CONCERN! But the place to work on it is not in the first, wild free sloppy rough draft, where you are focusing on telling the STORY of this character, trying to get the STORY out. Just write in whatever language you think is TRUEST to your main character at this stage.

The reason for this is simply that THE STORY STRUCTURE must be strong from the very beginning of your story or you are in for endless, massive, and tedious revisions. Don't even worry about the structure even, just yet. In the next revision, that can all be attended to, get yuou on a solid base.

For now, the only thing you need to worry about, focus on right now is: Are you telling/expressing an interesting, emotion arousing STORY that you feel VERY STRONGLY you MUST TELL! Even if you cannot visualize your characters perfectly just yet (and you won't be in a first draft)are you intensely emotinoally involved in wanting to tell, express a story here?

I think you are already doing this, because you have stuck with the story for ten chapters so far, and I think it is possible that you have more in you still to express in this first draft stage.

When you feel, finally that you have no more to say EMOTIONALLY in the first draft or else you feel really hard stuck for a beginning or an ending to the story as I was, then you are ready for your first revision and some serious attention to story structure.

In that revision, if you are smart and want to avoid endless revsions, your first focus will be on getting the basic story structure in place, getting GOOD STORY STRUCTURE in place, with lots of GOOD story tension.

In doing that, also, surprisingly, your main character and your point of view and the language your main character speaks (generally used to express the voice of the character) are ALSO going to come into much clearer focus for you. Quite easily in fact.

Now I read again and again on the Net about authors, even first-time authors, who have extensively revised their manuscripts before selling their manuscripts, then spending literally YEARS in the editorial room AGAIN revising their manuscripts. A lot of that editorial work, it is very clear from reading the comments and blogs, is STRUCTURAL editing. If those authors had had a solid story structure in place from the very beginning, their revision work for them AND the editors would be far less.

Be of good cheer! Don't get discouraged.

The author of "Gone With The Wind" wrote only ONE book; she died before she could write another. It took her EIGHT years to get it out on a little portable typewriter. The manuscript was SO BULKY, the editor had to carry it in a huge suitcase. It was months before they bought the manuscript and many, many months later, despte her EXCELLENT storytelling structure skills and hard work, to edit it.

What you rather have? Tons of run-of-the mill mediocre books that fill a publishers midlists and go op like birthday candles flickering out--or a few really good books that ENDURE and keep selling?

Pay no attention to numbers, to quantity. Quantity is NEVER a measure of quality. Let other authors happily fill the midlists.

You go for the top, brotha! Maybe you won't reach the top. But in AIMING to do so, you will certainly get a better manuscript!!!

I don't mind sharing my own techniques with you freely, online, but some of the specific things/diagrams I worked hard on, and I'll give those to you privately when you feel you need them. You've been generous with me in sharing the art tips that helped me so much.

Varian Johnson said...


When you get a chance, send me your address. I'm going to mail you two books that I think will help: Tyrell by Coe Booth and The First Part Last by Angela Johnson.