Friday, October 30, 2009

Voice Hunting

I’ve been thinking about voice recently because I was searching for a voice for a non-fiction picture book I’m revising. This book needed more than a drastic revision. It needed a different voice. It needed a different approach to the subject. When I opened up a blank document I didn’t look at the previous two versions, which are as different from each other as bread is different from an apple. I played with words and sentences for days and days. Then it clicked. The writing flowed when I found the voice that felt “right” for this book.

There are many definitions of voice.

The most common one we think of is the author’s voice. For example, Jane Yolen’s voice is very different than E. B. White’s voice. Voice is hard to define, but it includes everything from word choice to syntax to the structure and approach to story.

A writer needs to be able to create an authentic voice for each character. An good example of this is demonstrated in Rita Williams-Garcia’s recent novel, Jumped (National Book Award finalist). This story is told in first person, with three points of view. The three characters take turns narrating. Each character has a unique voice.

A writer also needs to create a voice for each book--or type of book. Each voice gives a different perspective and a different feel. Basically, a writer needs to learn to control voice.

My “voice” is developing (maturing?) as I gain experience and as my writing skills improve. I found I developed a distinct picture book voice during my picture book semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I feel my best picture books were in this voice; I can of course alter this voice, or write a picture book in a different style. I find I naturally use different voices depending on what I’m writing and who the audience is.

Typically I don’t think about voice when writing. I just write. But this past week or so, I’ve consciously worked on voice. In essence, I'm learning to hone the tone and style of my words and sentences and stories. As I think about what I've written, it seems that in some cases voice has come naturally, while other times the voice evolved, or I had to purposely go out and find the right voice.

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