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

Continuing with editing, let’s talk about voice.  As previously mentioned, there are two: your narrator’s voice (how he or she thinks and speaks or, if you like, how the story is written/told) and yours (how you, as a writer, convey your personality and approach through words and content).  Let’s focus on the first today.

A narrator’s voice can be distinctive or veiled, depending on the aim of the story.  If distinctive, the goal may be that the narrator evokes a particular personality; if veiled, the goal may be that the narrator blends into the background so that all else leads.  Whatever the objective, ideally, the reader should be grabbed from the get-go.  Not only should that first “it-was-a-dark-and-story-night” sentence attract readers immediately, it should set the mood and tone of the story (another post).

How do you create a unique voice for your narrator?  Start by outlining what he or she’s all about.  Consider character traits (throw in likes and dislikes, hobbies, background and history, and so forth).   Is he/she:

⇒  cold-hearted  /  bubbly  /  bold  /  diffident  /  angry  /  depressed  /  honest  /  crazed  /  funny  /  serious . . . ?

Does he/she:

⇒  like kids and animals  /  have phobias  /  possess a deep, dark secret  /  do volunteer work  /  have a hobby  /  come from a poor or rich family . . . ?

What motivates your narrator?  How does he/she speak—with a Swedish accent, a Southern drawl, a lot of colloquialisms or swearing?  Does your narrator hail from another era?

You’ve got the idea—develop your narrator to breathe life into him/her.

Here are two examples of openings that introduce the narrator/main character—one from a cozy I’m currently reading and one from an old manuscript of mine (that may still, one day, evolve into a book).

Example #1—British Manor Mystery (Leslie Meier)

“If only they’d send a ransom note,” wailed Lucy Stone, pulling her old gray cardigan tighter across her chest.  “Then at least we’d have a chance of getting Patrick back.”

What do we immediately know about Lucy from the opening paragraph?  We can deduce that she’s:

  1. older (the old gray cardigan suggests someone who’s not fashion-conscious and likes comfortable clothing)
  2. caring and emotional (Lucy’s anxious about someone).

We also sense that it’s a mystery or drama because of the seriousness of her speech.

Example #1—Sardines & Cheese (Me)

This is the zany tale of Johnny “Baloney” Tino Vespuzzi and Sammy Mohammed “Mo-Mo” Martine, two dime-store mobsters.  How factual it is, is anyone’s guess, but all gossip and hearsay, even that related to murder and mayhem, begin with some kernel of truth.

We know who the tale revolves around, but we don’t [yet] know who’s telling it.  It has a casual tone, so we can assume that he/she speaks informally and is likely someone not in a highly professional career.  The fact it’s a mystery is obvious, thanks to the “murder and mayhem”, and “zany” suggests humor’s to come.

Has either pulled you in?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  Sometimes it depends on the reader’s personal tastes and interests, other times on the success of the paragraph’s suck-you-in drawing power.

Your narrator shouldn’t just tell us what’s happening, but draw us into his/her world.  We should envision the action and setting, feel the mood and ambiance, taste food, smell odors, and hear sounds.

Here’s something from Sardines that incorporates the above:

Strolling along a tourist-heavy, bustling side street were three men—one would be reluctant to call them gentlemen, for reasons that will become clear later—who’d just finished a three-hour stick-to-your-ribs meal at Reg’s Parmigiano, owned by gourmand-glutton Regulus Febrezia, a rotund and rapacious young  proprietor.  The dinner had consisted of crostini de fegato, quaglie, tortellini and tagliatelli, and osso buco, a favorite of Sammy Martine’s.  There’d also been three bottles of Regulus’ homemade red wine, an intriguing little red number that might not have made the top ten list in Wine Spectator, but received rave reviews from the locals because of the way it pricked the palate with a salty-sweet astringency, not to mention the way it complemented any dish.

Give thought to expressions and cadence.  Does your narrator have a certain tempo?  What about jargon or particular phrases?  If you capture your narrator’s [genuine] voice from the onset, things might fall into place a little easier, because you’ll have an idea of how your narrator’s tale should unfold, how he/she will proceed and react.

editing2b

When I first started writing back when, I wanted to sound [overly] clever and witty.  I came across as anything but.  I overused the thesaurus and wrote how I thought I should sound (without giving much thought to the reader or how the story should advance).  Looking back at the super old stuff prompts winces.  I wasn’t being myself and I wasn’t being true to myself.  I’m inclined to say write how you speak, but perhaps it’s better to say: write from the heart and gut.

It took many years to develop my voice, but it may not take you half that long.  For some it comes naturally, for others it’s acquired through trial and error.  (We’ll look at before and after samples next post.)

Voice is the key [selling] component in fiction.  Don’t be afraid of experimenting with a few voices until you get the right [write] one.  . . . You’ll know it when you’ve got it.