I just realized the other day that I hadn’t written a follow-up to the DOGGONE VOICE WORKSHOP. We came, we saw, we critted! And going through all of those wonderful entries, I noticed a few trends and takeaways that I figured I’d share to hopefully help writers who are struggling to capture this elusive creature.
First person is not equivalent with voice.
A lot of the entries were YA, and first person is HUGE in that age group. I’d venture to say it’s more prevalent there than anywhere else. I think it’s so common, though, that it’s become a crutch. First person does not equal voice. In fact, choosing to write a story in first person just means that voice is even more tricky because you’re not telling a story from just any ol’ perspective: you’ve chosen your MC’s unique perspective.
I am the only one who sounds like me, who talks like me and puts my spin on phrases. I don’t sound exactly like The Man, my mother or either of my sisters. I’m unique. Your MC is unique, too. If you’re writing first person, that has to show in every sentence. How they express things, what they worry about, what they notice or don’t notice, what they value. Don’t write “an average teenager” – there are no average teenagers. There are only individuals.
Dialogue is your frenemy.
Yup, dialogue is that friend who loans you her hot new dress and then turns around and tells everyone that you look fat in it. (What a bitch!) I love dialogue. Looooove it. The quicker I get to see characters talking together, the quicker you get me intrigued, and if it’s realistic and smart and clicks together well, I will be so happy I might hug your story.
But – and this is a huge BUT(T) (*supply your own juvenile joke here*) – if the dialogue is clunky, if it’s unrealistic or doesn’t fit, if it’s just a terrible series of “As you know, Bob…” exchanges, it’s over. The hackles go up. My irritation soars, and I go bury myself in dark chocolate so deep that I can’t remember the color of the sun anymore. (It’s yellow, right?) So, yay to dialogue, but read it out loud. Or pretend you’re watching it enacted on your favorite TV show. Or find local thespians to do a dramatic read-through. Do something to make sure it sounds authentic.
Exposition is your archnemesis.
This goes for any POV. Infodumping or expositing about things that aren’t important right this second is the easiest way to derail voice. Don’t give us everything upfront. Give us only what we is absolutely necessary for us to know in order to maintain coherence and then work the rest in naturally. Give your readers the benefit of the doubt that if you take a step, they will step with you. I know you’ve spent all this time carefully constructing this story world. You might even have outlines of outlines and a sketchbook of details. Hell, if you’re writing spec fic, this is almost guaranteed. But we don’t want to read your plotting notebook; we want to read your story. Sprinkle in the rest, or you risk losing that all-important voice in boggy details.
Every word counts.
Okay, maybe not “the.” On the other hand, I’m sure someone could make an argument for “the.” Point is: If you’re trying to convey voice, every word matters. Every adjective, every adverb, especially every verb, and it doesn’t matter the POV because voice can be linked pretty closely to the concept of atmosphere. You want to create atmosphere around your story, and voice is how you do it. If your voice is weak, your atmosphere likely won’t be strong either. Every word in our language – in any language – has connotations, so make sure you’re thinking of those. One ill-chosen word probably isn’t going to destroy your voice, but half a dozen in the first several pages? That just might.
Trim, trim, trim…and then trim some more.
This is such a “Do as I say not as I do” moment, but if you ever get an in-line critique from me, I guarantee you that, at least once every five pages, you will see me slash out a cherished phrase or twelve with a little comment off to the side that says, “I don’t need this.” At which point, you will likely want to punch me in the face because you likedthose words, damnit. I do it to everybody – in my day job and in my reading/critiquing – because the truth is this: Extra word-clutter often dilutes your voice. Unless you’re writing from the POV of someone so in love with similes that they use four to describe everything they see (which would be the longest. book. ever.), then you probably don’t need some of the excess in there. It’s a kind of scary to slice-and-dice too much because you don’t want to slash all of your voice out of it, but try to be a little brutal about your edits and you may find you’ve enhanced, rather than diminished, the voice you really want.
It’s still subjective.
Are you tired of hearing that yet? I know I am. Unfortunately, it has to be said. I don’t care if you want to be traditionally published or if you want to strike out independently; either way, other people will read your shit. And pass judgement on it. Some of whom will share it openly on the intrawebz whether you like it or not. And when it comes to voice, just like everything else, you will not please everybody.
I like voices in books that sound like the people I hang out with in real life. I like narrators who are sarcastic and independent. I like clean and simple language, dark or dirty humor (sometimes both), a little bit of angst, zippy dialogue, and a plot where things blow up. I’m overly empathetic, so I lean toward third person because it gives me the semblance of distance.
Those are all preferences of mine. Doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a first person with a lot of beautiful literary description and a mainly internal conflict. It just means that I’m more likely to connect quicker with a voice that hits those points. It is not exactly what Brenda Drake prefers. Nor is it exactly what Leigh Ann Kopans or Marieke Nijkamp prefer. If we each listed our top five favorite entries from the workshop, I guarantee you they would not 100% match. Remember this as your working on your own voice. You can’t please everyone, so at least you ought to start by pleasing yourself.
Now… With all of the above said, please do not check any of my own work against these tips. I’m sure I’ve probably violated every single one of them.