Saturday, January 23, 2010

Finding Your Voice

Today, I'm talking about voice.  Not mine, yours.  Actually, the voice you portray in your writing.  Perhaps we should discuss what 'voice' is all about, so let's look as some examples.

Voice 1:  Oh wow!  I'm going to the ballet, how cool is that?  It's all about a swan who dances near a lake, or something like that.  But it's rad, and I can really pour it on when I tell my friends about it.

Voice 2: I'm going to the ballet tonight. It's the famous Swan Lake, which Tchaikovsky composed in the late 1800s.  I'm really excited to see such a famous ballet, and I'm sure all my friends are going to be jealous.

Voice 3: Tonight I am going to attend the Ballet de Swan Lake, which of course was composed by the extraordinary Tchaikovsky.  Swan Lake is one of the most famous of all ballets and is known for its demanding technical skills in dance.  It will be most informative  to discuss this outstanding musical form with my friends.

Would you say these examples were all written by the same person?  I don't think so.  The first example was written by a teenager, the second by a woman who likes to attend ballets and operas mostly to impress her friends, and the third by a professor of music who also writes for literary journals.

So where does voice come from?  Well, from several places, actually.  Each of your characters should have their own voice.  Yet we know that often our characters, or at least, our Main Characters, are in some ways a reflection of ourselves.  Therefore, we could also say that "voice' comes from us as authors.

But when we're writing, we need to be very careful about the use of voice in each of our characters.  Each one is different, with distinct likes, dislikes, attitudes, emotions, and so on, therefore it is absolutely necessary that each character also have a distinct voice.  In order to do "find" the voice of each character, you need to know that character inside and out.  You need to know her so well that you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, how she is going to phrase her sentences, if she is going to use slang, whether her vocabulary is going to be average for her age or obviously above or below her age level.

Let's take another example:
First:  The four of us were waiting to be called into the principal's office.  We were sitting silently on wood chairs surrounding a small round table.

Second: Jeremy, Tyler, Amber and I were stuck in these crummy hard chairs waiting for the principal.  His secretary made us sit around this stupid little round table like we were first graders.  We were told not to talk, and it's a good thing, because if Jeremy had opened his mouth one more time, I'd have popped him.

We still know that four kids were sitting on hard chairs waiting for the principal.  But now we know their names, we have some idea of why they had to see the principal, and we know that our MC was mad at Jeremy and insulted that she and the others were being treated as small children. 

It isn't that one example is better than the other, but rather, that two different voices were used, giving us two different images.  If Jeremy or Amber had described this brief scene, the description and language were have been different for each of them, because each would have his or her individual voice.

One of the elements to conside when deciding upon your character's voice is the choice of words you use.  In my first novel, one of my characters speaks very formally, even though she is a teen.  Because she lived in Europe for several years, she learned to speak formal Italian, and it has carried over into her English.  Consequently, she never uses a don'ts, can'ts, I'm's and so forth.  It is always do not, can not, I am, etc.  That is her specific voice.

Also, if you use word choices that an adult uses, such as 'communicate,' 'objective,' 'proficient,' and other "big" words that kids don't normally use, you are not giving an authentic voice to your character.  Having said that, I will immediately retract it.  Lisa Yee, in her book Millicent Min, Girl Genius, does use many of those "big" words, but her MC, Millicent, is indeed a genius and that kind of vocabulary is just her.  It IS her voice.  But not many of us write about geniuses, so its much better to link the vocabulary to the age and personality of the character.

What about slang used to demonstrate voice?  Umm...NO.  A definite NO!  I've talked about using slang before.  In almost all cases, by the time a book is published, the slang used will be out of date, and kids might not even recognize what it used to be.  Besides, isn't that kind of a cheesy way to do things?  Unless you've got a character who is on the streets or who lives in a ghetto, keep all slang to a minimum for all your characters.  If you are writing about ghetto life, do some research about the hip hop language, and insert some of those words and phrases in the character's talk, but don't over do it.  Otherwise, use only fairly "standard" slang words, like "cool" or "crap" ( not a particularly nice word, but kids have been using it for years) and maybe one or two others that you can ask a teen about, and then let it go at that.

Remember that each of your characters has his/her own way of  interpreting events and actions, of expressing emotions.  Let those ways be expressed in their they say things, not what they say.  Also remember, always, that your MC is generally the one telling the story from his or her POV.  Therefore, that POV should be the most easily discernable voice throughout the entire story.

Voice may not be the easiest thing to develop in writing, but it surely is one of the most important, if not the most important.  If you have some tricks of your own to make sure your voice is heard in your writing, let me know.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Old Friends and Memories

Today I was playing around on Facebook, and came across some old friends, including my former son-in-law.  What a surprise!  He looks pretty much the same, a little older, but then, aren't we all.  Now he sports a tatoo which he didn't have years ago, and that's kind of interesting.

I also found a friend of my daughter's, who I used to call my "Chinese daughter"....because first, she's Chinese, and second, she was ALWAYS at our house.  I even took her and my 'real' daughter on a 2 week vacation to Canada.  Then I found one of her sisters, and heard about several friends of my son's, whom he had not heard of or from in years.

Strange how something so simple as this can trigger memories you haven't had in many years.  The trip to Canada, for example.  We really had some funny...and fun...experiences there.  One was in a hotel in Seattle.  Our room was supposed to be for three people...right. Well, it did have 3 beds, but in order to get to the 3rd one, you had to climb over the first two.  Guess who got that one. 

 There was a closet, but to get into it, you had to push one of the beds out of the way.  Only...there was no room for the bed to go.  So, okay, we didn't use the closet.  The only window opened out to a...yeah, you got it.  An alley, but first, if you stuck your head out to get a breath of fresh air, you would bump your nose on the brickwall of the building next to the hotel...and fresh air?  Umm...that's a matter of was only fresh if you didn't mind the smell of over-cooked Chinese food and burnt cooking oil.  We kept the window closed.

Then there was the bathroom.  I walked in to take a shower and began laughing hysterically.  The reason?  The floor sank in the middle of the room by about 6 inches.  I thought sure I was going to end up in the lobby.  When the girls finally got me calmed down enough to actually get me in the shower, I started in again.  It seems the shower "curtain" was one of these folding screen things that folded up in the middle when you pulled it to one end of the shower ( in tub shower) or the other.  In other words, it only sheltered the shower at one end or the other, and then for only about 4 inches.  The floor was soaking wet by the time I got out, and of course, I stepped into a 6 inch deep puddle of water.

Then there was the bell boy.  Boy?  Well, maybe in the 19th century he was a boy.  The girls named him Iago.  He was really creepy, and it seemed like every time we opened the door to our room, he was standing just outside.  By the time we went to bed, the girls and I had pushed the one and only dresser up against the door...just in case.  We didn't stay in that hotel after breakfast the next morning!

Canada was wonderful, beautiful, and full of REALLY fresh air!  The first night, the girls wanted Mexican food.  Really?  Mexican food in Canada?  Well, okay.  We found a Mexican restaurant.  Bright colors, good smells, soft music playing, lots of people.  We breathed in the smells, smiled at each other, and blithely order chicken tacos, rice, beans and tortillas.  Now...we're from California where Mexican food is practically a staple.  Plus, I've lived in Mexico, so I know whereof I speak when it comes to tacos or enchiladas or even...tortillas.

Our dinner was served.  Oh boy.  The rice looked and tasted like coucous, which all 3 of us do not like. The beans were some kind of red bean which didn't stay all smooshed up together like refried beans normally do, and there was no cheese on them.  We just kind of looked at each other, and I said, "Well, I'm sure the tacos will be okay."  Oh boy.  What an over statement.  I don't think the chicken was less that 40 years old...if it even was chicken, but I hated to mention my doubts to teen age know what hysteria does to a crowded room.  There was a bit of lettuce, but the rest was...corn!  and I'm sure, canned corn at that.  My daughter took one bite and I thought she was going to spit corn and...whatever...all over the table.  My Chinese daughter took a bite, tried to swallow and promptly choked.  I thought sure we were going to have to use the Heimlick ( spelling?)manoever on her, but she took a quick swig of soda and was okay.  They looked at me in a questioning kind of horror, so I quickly said, "Okay, we'll go and find a hamburger somewhere."  Before leaving the table, I peeked under the red checked napkin that covered the...tortillas.  I was glad neither of them had looked.

And that was just our first day in Canada.