The Right/Write Voice . . . or . . . Talk to Me Lucky Number 3

The last two posts touched upon voice, but given it’s a crucial component, maybe we should take it into a third.  A few points will be repeated, but . . .  Repetition is the mother of learning, the father of action, which makes it the architect of accomplishment.  (Thank you Zig Ziglar.)

An important rule when it comes to multiple characters: they should not sound the same.  If they do, your story will likely end up flatter than a flapjack; subsequently, you’ll lose your readers’ interest.

Given upbringing, lifestyle, career, and likes/dislikes—among other things—every person has a particular way of speaking.  Cadence/pattern differ, too.  A psychologist isn’t likely to speak with the same intonation as a construction worker; a child won’t articulate like an adult.  Bear in mind diversities.

Certain characters, like the folks we work with and meet in life, have funny streaks and can make us laugh at length.  Nothing wrong with having one in your book, if the story/plot can carry a comic.  The same holds true of a whiner, collaborator, grumpy old fart, shower singer—you get the idea.  Think: uniqueness, individuality.  Variety truly is the spice of life . . . and stories

Don’t drag on conversations or comments at length.  Readers shouldn’t embark on a snoozzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzze-fest.  Sure, some characters may be overly expressive or descriptive (in real life, lots of people truly love to talk).  If it’s part of the character’s make-up, have at it, but ensure it’s meaningful and appropriate to the story/plot.

And while we’re talking “story”, remember to always give thought to emotions, feelings, and reactions.  If there’s been a murder, characters will react differently.  A few may be appalled, others frightened, and the odd one inquisitive (like a sleuthing protagonist).  Ensure voice and dialog reveal this.

Here’s an example—a discussion between several characters—from my first e-book, The Connecticut Corpse Caper.

“The workout equaled five espressos,” I said cheerfully, stirring milk into a mug with a character resembling Count Chocula on it and taking a surreptitious glance around to see if any eyes were peering merrily around a corner or through a window.

“Gawd, you’re actually eating,” Rey groused, semi-staggering into the room. She was dressed in black jeans, black Roslynn UGGs (same as mine), and a cashmere fern-green turtleneck that would have offset her eyes quite nicely if they hadn’t been bloodshot.

“The frittatas are delicious.” Prunella beckoned my cousin to the chair beside her.

“Ugh. I’ll just have some java.” She plunked herself down and gazed from one face to another, as if attempting to recollect who each one belonged to and why they were here at the table. She gulped back Linda’s coffee, sighed deeply, and nearly smiled. “Any more news on our weird lawyer?”

“Our weird dead lawyer.”  Linda eyed her empty cup with a frown.

“There hasn’t been any word,” Jensen responded, spreading something resembling mushroom paté on a thick slice of white bread.  I’d half expected him to request Marmite.

Rey’s brow puckered and she watched Beatrice carry in a bone china coffeepot. “Are we still expected to stay, considering?”

“Yes Miss Fonne-Werde. ‘Regardless of what may occur’, so our mistress stipulated.” The maid offered a near smile. What an interesting if not unnerving voice she had: a hint of an Ingrid Bergman accent coupled with a Humphrey Bogart timber. The maid refilled more cups and did her lumbering thing across the room, leaving a whisper of rosewater behind.

They all possess idiosyncratic tones, slang/lingo, and expressions.  Rey, for example, has an extremely casual way of speaking (and isn’t opposed to swearing whenever the mood strikes); she’s also no stranger to “gonna”, “whadya”, “wanna”.  The maid is more formal or professional, given her role.  You’ll find that narrator Jill (JJ) speaks like an announcer (she’s a meteorologist); she tends to relay events with a newscaster approach.

Several editors say don’t state the obvious.  For example, his eyes gazed at her.  Eyes do that, so why tell us?  Speaking of eyes, Geena’s eyes flew across the room.  Ouch!  That’d hurt.  John whispered softly.  Whispering is speaking softly.  Lidia clasped the doorknob with her hand.  How do we normally clasp a doorknob—with our teeth?  This will be another post, but when you’re writing—using voice—watch unnecessary [useless and evident] explanations or narrative.

Many editors also say the word “said” is unnecessary.  Here’s an example from a book I purchased for a flight home from Hawaii—Murder She Wrote, Aloha Betrayed by Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain.  I was once a big Murder She Wrote fan but, in terms of this novel, I never got past page 100 because it was so flat (b-o-r-i-n-g).  Here’s how you never want to write:

“Good evening,” I said as he reached me.

“Hi,” he said, flashing me a boyish grin.  “Enjoying yourself?”

“Very much.  It’s a beautiful night for a sail.”

As he started to walk away, I said, “Excuse me, but are you Carson Nihipali?”

He turned and gave me a strange look.  “Yeah,” he said, drawing the word out.

“I apologize if I’ve mispronounced your name,” I said, “But I’m still trying to get the hang of the Hawaiian language.”

A lot of “said” there.  Whew.  How might we make this sluggish scene a teeny bit more interesting?

“Good evening.”  I offered a cheery smile as he stepped alongside.

“Hi.”  The lanky, handsome man flashed a boyish grin.  “Enjoying yourself?”

“Very much.  It’s a beautiful night for a sail.”

With a wave, he started to saunter off.

“Excuse me!  Are you Carson Nihipali?” I quickly called after.

He turned with an inscrutable expression and drawled, “Ye-eah.”

“I apologize if I’ve mispronounced your name.  I’m still trying to get the hang of the Hawaiian language.”

As writers—narrators—we have the task [challenge] of successfully communicating our characters distinct voices, actions and emotions.  Using “said” a dozen times on one page probably won’t help achieve that.  blwed2

A weak voice:

⇒  wanders   /   uses useless words/phrases   /  is unemotional/flat/stagnant.

A strong voice:

⇒  is clear/logical/concise   /   uses dynamic [evocative] words and phrases   /   portrays a picture   /   is emotional.

Keep it fresh; keep it interesting.  (You’ll do just fine.)

(Next post, let’s look at plots and subplots.)  maybe

 

Talk to Me, Too/2

The intention of providing short posts—snippets of advice—has gone [as an acquaintance often says] kablooey.  <LOL>  It seems when it comes to editing, there’s much to share.  As such, I’m thinking to be true to the goal, maybe I’ll simply provide more posts on certain topics—like voice.  Hmm.  Let’s just go with the flow, and see where the current takes us.

The last post touched upon the narrator’s voice.  What about yours—the writer’s voice?

It’s often said we should write as we speak, but that’s not always doable or practical, given the scenario.  Sometimes the situation, or the narrator and character(s) have particular personalities and speech or vocal quirks that require a shift in written speech and expression.  This is good.  You don’t want a flat voice throughout your book; you want it to sound real.  Just listen to those around you: no one speaks the same.  We all have our own [noticeable] cadence, expressions and phrases.

If you follow certain authors regularly, you’ve likely noticed that they often use the same specific words and phrases, idioms, sentence structure and lexicon, and rhythm.  I have a certain diction/delivery style and so do—or will—you.

Here’s an example from Chapter One of Tricky Twenty-Two by Janet Evanovich:

Ginny Scoot was standing on a third-floor ledge, threatening to jump, and it was more or less my fault. My name is Stephanie Plum and I work as a bounty hunter for my bail bondsman cousin Vinnie.

Ginny had failed to show for a court appearance and it was my job to find her and return her to the authorities. If I don’t succeed my cousin is out his bond money, and I don’t get paid. On the other hand, there’s Ginny, who would prefer not to go back to jail.

My colleague Lula and I were on the sidewalk, looking up at Ginny, along with a bunch of other people who were taking video with their smartphones.

If you’ve ever read Janet’s [funny and enjoyable] Stephanie Plum books, you’ll recognize her distinct style.  Bounty-hunter Stephanie is relatively laid-back and tells it like it is.  She doesn’t have a university education, which shows in her voice and attitude/outlook.  The job leans toward dangerous, given most of the folks she has to find are unwilling to be put back in the pokey.  That sense of danger is communicated when she imparts her (and Lula’s) antics and you perceive her emotions/feelings: resolve, trepidation, uncertainty, annoyance, worry.

How about before and after examples from another writer (yours truly)?

Before“She wouldn’t say what it was?”  Sach’s voice was sounding slurred.  Small wonder; he was about to down what had to be his fourth shot.  That, with the four beers he’d recently tossed back, should hit him much like the soccer-ball that caught him on the forehead early last November.

What have we learned about Sach?  He likes to bend his elbow from the sounds of things.  Because he was hit with a soccer ball, we could assume he enjoys sports, or at least soccer, but whether as a spectator or player is unknown (at least in this example).

After“No shi-it?  She wouldn’t sa-ay what it was, huh?”  Sach’s baritone voice sounded slurred.  Small wonder; he was about to down his fourth shot after having tossed back four beers.  Those would fell him like that soccer-ball that smashed into his forehead at Busch Stadium last fall.

Now what have we learned?  Again, he likes to bend his elbow from the sounds of things.  He has a baritone voice and he’s not opposed to using vulgar slang.  Watching soccer is a favored pastime.  Anything else?  Yes—he likely hails from Missouri, given that’s where Busch Stadium is located.

Diction (the selection and use of words in writing/speech) can paint an extensive, colorful picture. 

What makes up your writer’s voice?  Your outlook, tone/feeling, and personality.  Outlook: what you believe and stand for.  Tone/feeling: how you speak, the sort of feeling and emotion [attitude] you convey.  Personality: who you are, your personal likes and dislikes, and behavior. voicesat3

These come naturally, given who you are, but they can be developed or polished to produce a specific or new writer’s voice.

It’s tempting to talk about using multiple voices in a given project, but for this post at least, let’s stick to your voice on the whole.  Here’s an example of my writer’s voice 20-some years ago from an old manuscript, “Sardines & Cheese”.  My voice has remained rather similar (though nowadays I steer clear of attempting to sound cleverer than I am).

Allow me to officially introduce myself.  Kentucky Justice Smith, at your service, as my dear deceased brother Shane would have added.

The name Kentucky came about not because I was born in the state, as I’m inclined to tell people, but because I was born on the day of the great derby, a day my departed father had placed (and lost) a big bet.  Ian James Smith had been a copper on the Montréal force, a hard-edged one, but a fairly efficacious one when he wasn’t being questioned for questionable tactics or behavior.  He’d also been a gambler, as you may have surmised, and a drinker, one who ironically succumbed to primary liver cancer.

Me, I’m a private investigator and a part-time bartender.  I was an aspiring mystery writer, “was” because I’ve been in writer’s block mode for about nine months now, but then to be fair to myself, things like homicides, world-wide travels, and a bit of bedlam have consumed many cycles of the moon’s phase.  More on all that later.

The intention was to have my narrator, Kentucky, sound easy-going yet “clever” and witty.  Reviewing it now, I’m not sure that that was accomplished.  There’s a hint of patronization perhaps.

The intention re my writer’s voice was . . . LOL . . . the same.  To sound easy-going yet clever and witty.  It’s not patronizing, but possibly endeavoring to be something it’s not, such as cunning or maybe even glib.

Learning and developing are par for the course in anything we attempt and do.  As writers and bloggers we grow and mature . . . we improve with time, like a good wine.  Writing regularly will assist with that, so will reading.  And don’t just “read”, but notice (scrutinize) how the author has presented his/her voice through narrator, character(s), and/or actions.

And when you’re writing, review the voice(s) in your work for uniformity.  Are outlook, tone/feeling, and personality consistent?  Is there too much repetition for naught?  Does it read naturally—like a smoothly asphalted street, and not a gravel-lined rural road?  If it doesn’t, don’t fret.  It will come, like anything, when you apply yourself.

. . . On that note, although irrelevant, here’s a little sing-along to start the day off on a happy-talk note.