Before I get to today’s post, I want to tell you that the website is close to going live. Thanks for all your suggestions!
When I mentioned that I would move the blog over to the website, two of you expressed concern about leaving Blogspot, which is what I will do, probably not instantly but soon. I’d hate to lose anybody or stop hearing from any of you, so I want to assure you that there won’t be a change in the level of safety. The host will be invisible, as Blogspot is, and it will be a big company too, with a long history of hosting websites and blogs.
Also, I have a couple of events coming up for my new picture book, Betsy Red Hoodie, which will be out on September 14th. By events, I mean I’ll read from the book, maybe the entire book, answer questions, and sign. Here are the events:
September 21st at 4:30 PM, Bank Street Books, 2879 Broadway (near 114th Street) in Manhattan, (212) 678-1654.
October 9th at 2:00 PM, Ulster Plaza Barnes & Noble, 1177 Ulster Avenue, Kingston, NY, (845) 336-0590.
As I always do at an event I’ll ask if anyone is there because of the blog, and I’ll tell the unaware about it.
By the way, I love that this has become a place for sharing writing ideas and support. I don’t always weigh in, but I always read and enjoy.
On April 29, 2010, Debz wrote, I’ve been having some trouble with voice in my story. Like for one paragraph in my story it’s told perfectly, and sounds just right, but then the next paragraph, the voice changes and sounds all wrong for the story, and no matter how much I edit it, nothing seems right.
And on May 6, 2010, F wrote, Ms. Levine – I was thinking today, about how they say that you should write, write and write until you find your ‘voice’ and style of writing (And coincidentally how yours always has that ‘fairytale’ feel to it). Whenever I think upon this topic, I’ve always mused idly that my voice is sure to differ from book to book. Coincidentally, I came upon a similar topic on the net, where someone had mentioned authors whose voices have differed from series to series, leading to their readers not recognizing them.
What are your thoughts on the matter? Is it important for an author to write in a consistent voice? Or is it all right to differ from book to book?
Chapter 15 in Writing Magic is called “Voice” and is about voice. I just reread it and was mighty pleased! So you may find it helpful to take a look. Here is the first paragraph, which defines this slithery, tricky concept:
Everything written has a voice, from advertisements to warning notices. “Trespassing prohibited” is written in a different voice from “Stay out! That means you!”
And a few paragraphs later:
Suppose I’d just written “Voice is ubiquitous” instead of “Voice is everywhere”. The meaning is the same. I’ve changed only one word. But the voice is a little different, isn’t it?
Editors, when asked what they look for in a manuscript, sometimes say “Voice” and then can’t explain what they mean. Miss Red Pencil, a hypothetical editor, says she knows voice when she sees it. She’s being honest but not helpful, and her response makes voice seem scary. If it can’t be defined, how will I know if I have it? How can I go after it, work diligently, and get it?
Voice is an amalgam of many elements: word choice, vocabulary, sentence structure, kind of sentence, sentences combined together, mood, point of view, even tense. So let me go through them one by one.
Or start with two, because I’m not sure if word choice and vocabulary are the same. Vocabulary level is obvious. Does the voice in question run in a sesquipedalian direction? Meaning, does the writer use a lot of big words? But word choice is more than vocabulary. Words have tone. My late, much missed friend Nedda was once asked by a native French speaker, “Which is more elegant, ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’?” (Imagine the question asked with a charming French accent.)
Maybe and perhaps are synonyms, but we probably encounter perhaps more often on the page in narration and maybe more often in speech or in written dialogue. The level of difficulty is roughly the same for both. Possibly we learn maybe in first grade and perhaps in second. But the tone isn’t the same. Perhaps is a tad more formal.
rage – fury
argument – dispute
antediluvian – ancient
huge – gargantuan – ginormous – massive
In the word sets above, one word can often replace another. Think about which you’re drawn to. Do you like rage better than fury? Or vice versa? I think they’re equal, but one might seem angrier to you than the other, or you might prefer the long u in fury. Of course, rage is a verb as well as a noun, but consider both in their noun forms. Maybe you’d use one in a particular place, the other in a different situation. Or you might alternate them so you’re not repeating words, if you’re writing something with a lot of hostility in it.
Consider all the word sets, and when you choose words, be aware of your choices. Notice words in other writers’ work that they use and you never do.
Sentence structure. I’m thinking here of simple sentences – a subject, verb, maybe a direct object, and that’s it – compared to medium complex ones – a statement but and an opposing statement, or two simple statements joined by and – compared to really complex sentences with many dependent clauses, possibly a parenthesis or two and a statement between dashes (kind of like this sentence). Some writers are given to sentences that take up half a page. My sentences are usually straightforward. In Ever in particular they’re very short.
Kind of sentence. Do you use questions a lot, as I do? Or exclamations? Or mostly sentences that end with a period.
Combos. Are you mixing up your kinds of sentences: long after short, statement after a question? This is worth being aware of. Most of the time you don’t want sameness to creep in, because sameness is often dullness.
Mood. Is the feeling happy, somber, funny, sarcastic, straightforward and unemotional?
Point of view. For example, if you’re writing from the first-person POV of a twelve-year-old boy, the voice will be different from the voice of the same character looking back forty years at his twelve-year-old self. And so on. This will come naturally in the writing.
Tense. Are you writing in the past or present tense? The two feel different. I wrote Ever in present tense, because past would have suggested something about the book’s outcome. Present tense sometimes gives a book a feeling of immediacy, as if events are happening this week.
Debz, you can analyze your voice according to all these elements and change it. Experiment! Alter sentence length, word choice, and so on. Fool around even with the paragraph that seems right. Maybe if you revise it, the rest will fall into place.
Also, I hope you haven’t stopped writing until the segment is right. You may wind up cutting this part. Or something you write later may show you what you need to do. The whole may guide the pieces.
F, I think it’s fine to change voices from book to book, and I don’t see it as a problem if a reader doesn’t recognize an author’s voice. The reader is likely to be interested in the variation. My fairytale voice in some of my books is absent from others. Ever isn’t precisely written fairytale style. Dave at Night certainly isn’t, and neither is The Wish or Writing Magic or the blog.
Taste varies when it comes to voice. I don’t tolerate extra words well, but some people may not mind. If you like spare, graceful prose, William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White’s The Elements of Style is worth reading. Let me change that, it’s a book you should read if you haven’t already. If you’re in high school heading for college, you may need it when you get there.
Last of all, there’s muddled voice, which accompanies errors in grammar, usage, spelling, punctuation. A reader can’t sort out the voice from the mistakes. Becoming best friends with a book of English usage will help. I’ve recommended Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe Is I before, and this is a fine occasion to recommend it again.
The prompt is to take a page from the beginning of one of your stories, the beginning because that’s where voice is established. Rewrite the page three or four or more times, trying different sentence lengths, different vocabulary. Fool around. This is only an experiment. Try writing a paragraph entirely in exclamations. Write another as if someone were screaming it, do you hear me? Another as if all your characters were on a stage, exaggerating everything.
Have fun, and save what you write!