Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Power of An Outrageous Voice

I plunged in twenty years ago, started writing from the seat of my pants, and just kept going. (Definitely leaving myself open to scatological humor there!) Well, over the past year or so it’s been time out for continuing education. I feel as though I’ve awakened to writing skills after a long slumber. A great deal of what I’ve learned has come from the wise Sisters of the Quill, but precious nuggets have also been gleaned from teachers at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. A powerful lesson on voice came from that source.

For Gordon Mennenga’s Beginning the Novel course this past summer, we submitted our first fifty pages in advance. By the time the class gathered he’d read and evaluated them all. He’s wonderful; he may have saved my writing career.

But I felt sucker-punched when I read his comments scrawled across the top of my first page. They delivered a hard truth: You haven’t found your character’s voice. My first instinct was to scramble a defense. But but but…I’ve been working on this novel for many years now (many many years, in fact). I know how my character looks, what makes her tick, where she sleeps, what she eats, whom she loves, what she’s proud of. I even know her dreams. How could I not know her voice? This reaction was exacerbated by having once been utterly at one with the voice of an earlier character, the subject of six published mystery novels in the 1990s. I thought I understood voice.

But beneath it all I recognized the still, calm voice of truth. From the start I’d had trouble with how my new character expressed herself. She was too bland, too nice. Her voice didn’t flow easily, with the force of a real person. If I were honest with myself, deep down I’d known it all along.

I’ll never forget walking back to my room after that class in a sort of daze, a form of shock, and immediately hunkering down with the laptop. I was excited; I could feel I was on the edge of something big. Starting over in a new voice was like jumping off a cliff. Did I have the courage to make such a daring departure? My character’s “out there” voice had been lurking in the back of my mind, but I’d been ignoring it. I opened a document called New Voice and started typing. It came. She was there, ready and waiting.

How do you capture your character’s pure, authentic voice? I have a few ideas. But first you have to be honest enough with yourself to admit that you don’t have it, and that sort of honesty can be difficult. Ask yourself right now: are you certain your character grabs your reader and doesn’t let go? No excuses allowed; it won’t matter to the editor how many years you’ve been working on it. Do you have a “Call me Ishmael” power opening? Will something about your character linger in your reader’s mind? If not, you’d better fix it. You know the mantra: don’t give them a reason to reject your book.

Once you’ve decided to head into the fray, here are some tips for capturing your character’s voice:

Don’t be afraid to make your character different from you. Really different from you. In fact, the more different your character is from you, the more easily their voice will come. I hate offending people, so it was helpful to make my character the opposite of myself. My character is now so offensive to others, and so unconcerned about it, that it’s impossible to slip into a bland voice again. And writing with attitude is fun!

Get extreme. Look at Lady Gaga: she wants you to notice her, so she isn’t subtle. And it works! She’s met the Queen, for heaven’s sake! Yes, she’s good at what she does, but you’re probably good at what you do, too. You just need to get noticed to get published. So don’t be subtle. Go over the top. My current protagonist’s voice feels over the top to me, but I don’t think she would be to you. And you might remember her.

Go deep. The things that make a character memorable are often painful. Dig into the ugly truth of what makes him/her behave this way, talk this way, think this way. The kernel will probably be some sort of pain or loss. This may well come from your own experience, so it can be tough to go there. Discipline yourself for the sake of your craft, if you want a breakthrough onto a new level. Visit the hardest places to go within yourself, your toughest memories, most painful lessons. That’s where the power is. That zing you feel? You want your readers to feel that.

To illustrate, here are my before-and-after first lines.
Old voice: “They came for him at midnight.” This sentence isn’t bad, but it’s passive, distant, impersonal. It doesn’t tell you anything about either character. And the 449 pages that followed were rejected about a million times.
New voice: “Pepys calls me his Stormy Petrel.” This reveals a relationship, and something about each character. It’s active, and starts out talking about “me,” not “him;” it’s more immediate and direct. It has attitude, at least for the year 1670. I’ll let you know what happens.

Go for it! Jump off that cliff and open a new file. What have you got to lose? Nothing but a rejection.

Wishing you joyful writing,

Stormy P.


  1. So did 'they' come for him at midnight or not? One thing writers should be aware of. Whenever the word 'they' is used in narrative, it's a slip into authorial POV and passive voice. Search and destroy. Thanks for the post.

  2. And your new first line contains a metaphor and mentions a famous character -- which qualifies in my book as a brand name -- both of which are on the list of the twenty things that show up in the first 2 pages of best selling novels. (see Storm Petrel's remarkable July 12 entry) Great post, Stormy