A Strong Voice is Essential to Writing a Break-in (or Breakout) Novel

Monday, May 12, 2014
photo credit: zilverbat. Via photopin and cc
When I look at the manuscript pages people send in with their novel queries, the first thing I notice is voice. You get voice before you get anything else.


“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.” (Matilda ~ Roald Dahl)

What do you get from that opening? Nothing about the main character. No hint about the plot. No theme, yet. But you get a good sense of the narrator's voice, don't you? Aren't you curious to read on to see what this guy says next? He calls children "disgusting little blisters" for crying out loud. That's voice.

Voice can change a story. Here are other voices saying the same thing as above:

I don't care for the fact that no matter how obnoxious children are, their parents still love them.

Parents, you see, are blind. Their children may throw fits that would make a rabid alley dog jealous, and still the parents will think they have born and reared perfect little darlings.
They's none as dear as yo' own babies. When them little tykes is bad, they jes' need lovin'.

Voice is about the tone, the diction, and the figures of speech that a character or narrator uses. Voice can tell us whether a piece will be rip-roaring or a boring, snoring snooze fest.

We sometimes think that voice can't be learned, but it can be. It is learned, in fact. Always. No baby ever came out of the womb telling stories.

We pick up narrative voice from our mothers and our fathers, from the books we read, and from the movies we watch.

So if you want to learn a certain voice, listen to it until you get the accent down.

Here are several different kinds of voices:

Voyage of the Dawn Treader ~ CS Lewis:There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. (Accessible and witty)

Pride and Prejudice ~ Jane Austen:It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. (Educated and witty)

Hatchet ~ Gary Paulsen:Thirteen-year old Brian Robeson, the sole passenger on a small plane from Hampton, New York to the north woods of Canada, boards the aircraft excited at the notion of flying in a single-engine plane. (Straight reporting with no frills)

Lord of the Flies ~ William Golding:The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon (Accessible and descriptive)

Huckleberry Finn ~ Mark Twain:
"You don't know about me without you have read a book called 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' but that ain't no matter." (Uneducated)

Play around with voice. Different voices will fit different books. Keep trying until you find one that's comfortable for you and interesting to readers.

Sally Apokedak (Sally-Apokedak.com) is an associate agent with the Leslie H. Stobbe Literary Agency. 

Join her brand new class, Four First-Chapter Essentials for Novels, which starts on on Monday, June 2, 2014.  This course includes a private group for student interaction, four hour-long taped lectures, weekly assignments, virtual one-on-one communication with your instructor, and an in-depth critique of your first chapter by your instructor.

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Sioux Roslawski said...

Sally--I don't know if voice can be taught so much as it evolves. People may start with a faint, hidden voice but with time and practice and exposure (to other writers) their voice becomes stronger, more confident and more distinct.

Thanks for the post. It is always great to be reminded to ensure that our voice comes through--loud and clear--every time we write.

sally said...

Thanks for pointing that out, Sioux. Yeah, voice does evolve. However, the evolution can come quicker with good instruction. I hope. Or I'm wasting my breath at all these conference I'm teaching. :) Voice is about adding in metaphors and internal rhyme and assonance and consonance. Voice can be much improved if we will read great books and if we will study figures of speech and work at adding them into our writing.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Ah, voice. A compelling voice will keep me reading even if I don't care for the story. So it's well worth investing time and energy to learn it!

Unknown said...

Ahh,using voice to make the message of/in novel writing, gripping and "entertaining" or "interesting from the start."
Sounds great, but I am not that kind of writer.
I can write about my going as a missionary to Pakistan with a soon to be born little one in my bacche dana (baby carrier) and the
NOVEL-ty of becoming a part of a culture and a brand new way of living, eating hot spicy foods with my fingers, listening to people who spoke a different language, and who, if they were able to write, wrote in characters from right to left, in a village with no such thing as indoor plumbing, having our water brought in animal skins from the spring by the river (or was it really river water, which we sometimes suspected.) The mashk wala (water carrier) would have found it easier to dip into the river than to wait at the spring.
All this and much more.
But the world wants fiction, a "novel" experience, and this is all reality.
I am 86 and all this was my lifestyle over a half century ago. Today, there are roads where we traveled over dirt trails in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. In our "modern world" who wants to hear about those ancient days?
Shall I just toss the massive amount of material I have kept hoping someday someone's appetite would be whetted and they would want to read on? This is just my own "voice" telling a story, and my "POV" may not sound like fiction. Or, maybe it would in today's world.) .
What would you do?

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