In good voice

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!

  1. Thank you for such this fantastic post. I, too, have noticed variants of my voice depending on the work. It used to concern me that my "blog voice" (significantly less formal) and my "epic fantasy POV" were so different.

    The ambiguity of "voice" has always intimidated me. But this response really sharpened up the concept. I'll be paying more attention to all those little details during revisions.

  2. Ah, voice- I was just thinking about it an hour or so ago!
    I've noticed my writing voice needs more emotion in some places, and less in others. One author with fascinating voice is Eva Ibbotson, who (at least in the few books of hers I've read) is able to convey a separate voice for each character, which I think of as "POV voice". A very good skill for me to practice today! 😉 As ever, thanks for the post!

    Oh, and Rage vs. Fury: Fury all the way. 😀

  3. Wow, Ms. Levine, thank you for this post! It helped loads! Especially what you said about playing around with vocab and sentence length/structure. Whenever I strike upon a sentence that is 'just right', I always stop and admire its rhythm, and the way it flows, which leads me to think that I HAVE to do something about all the other nasty ones around it – which is where your advice comes in.

    Thank you! 😀

    Oh, and congrats on your new website! I'm going to await it anxiously! 😀

  4. Great post!

    Woe Is I is great, as is Words Fail Me (also by Patricia T. O'Conner).

    I always use whatever voice feels right for the story I'm working on, if that makes sense. I mostly write in first person POV, and each character feels different, each thinks differently, so each is written differently.

  5. Like you said, voice is a tricky thing to explain. But I think you did really well! I hope this posts helps a lot of people. It makes a lot of sense.

    Personally, I try not to worry about voice. The more I worry, the more my writing sounds stilted. I read a lot of great books and write a lot (regardless of greatness). That practice has helped me gain my writer's ear—what sounds right, and what doesn't. In other words, I just follow my gut.

    I have a question that isn't about the craft of writing itself… Do you have an agent? Did you always have (or not have) one? Or do/did you submit proposals directly to editors instead?

    I'm interested in querying some of my stories (children's picture books and YA novels), but since the children's market is a different beast from adult genre fiction, I wasn't sure how an agent would fit into the picture.

    I've met several children's authors who don't have agents, and a few who do. What is your personal opinion?

    If this question is too far off of the focus of your blog, you don't have to answer it in a post. I'll just keep researching. 🙂

  6. Very interesting post. Voice is one thing I definately need to work on and notice more.
    I am currently working on writing a book with a good friend of mine and we take turns writing certain chapters. Now that you mention it I can read a chapter and will be able to tell who wrote it because our voices differ a bit. Interesting, I hadn't noticed that before.
    Thanks again, Ms. Levine, and I can't wait for the website. 🙂

  7. April–I didn't have an agent until I started sending around ELLA ENCHANTED, but in those days many publishers still looked at unsolicited manuscripts. I think you'll have an easier time getting your work read if you have an agent.

  8. Thank you so much for this!
    It helped a lot. Since I asked this question, I've been experimenting with my voice.
    I write in 1st person usually, but sometimes I rewrite scenes in 3rd person, and it's amazing how much the voice and feeling can change just like that.

  9. Congratulations on the website Mrs Levine!!! Wish I could fly over to Manhattan, but I doubt my family would allow that.;)

    Like Alex P, I've been thinking about this particular subject a few hours ago. This post is amazingly helpful, I never realised, consciously at least, that my muddled up voice was due to the spelling errors, plus the red/ green underlining in Microsoft which just adds to the confusion.
    So I took off to correct the mistakes, and my goodness, the voices seemed so much more clear. I suppose this leads to editing, and I've realised it might be best regularly, instead of leaving it to the end, like I usually do, to maintain the voice.

    The prompt was a lot of fun, I was amazed at how my introduction could turn from a tragedy to an outrageously funny beginning.

    At Alex P: Eva Ibbotson definitely has a fascinating voice. The first of her books I've read, The Secret of Plaform 13, had an easy and engaging style.

    Then I read one of her Victorian romances, and was very surprised by how different the style was. I don't think it was just due to the fact they were both rather different genres, but I guess it shows what an impact voice makes.

    But I think your voice, Mrs Levine , is quite distinctive, whether its Writing Magic or Ella Enchanted. They're all very recognisable.=D

  10. This was an interesting post, since I've never actually thought about my writing voice.

    I have noticed a change in the narration, or in the "voice", when switching between different stories. I find it fascinating that this happens "automatically". I mean, in series the voice stays the same throughout the two or more books/stories. You sort of recognise the story for it's voice, when you reread it.

    If my stories had background sounds, they would all have a different one, except for sequels, which would have the exact same one as the preceding story.

    I love going back to my old stories, even to the ones written years and years ago when I seriously didn't know how to hold a story together. It's the voice that attracts me. I've saved my old self on those pages, in those stories. Even if the stories are horrible, they're part of who I was at the time, because my voice was the sort of inner voice I had back then. It's like when you arrive to a place you've last seen when you were 4, and you have to look at it from another perspective to realise you've already been there. It's a different voice of a different age. It's also a different voice in a different story because our perspective in the stories changes.

    Thanks again for a post that made me think!

  11. Thank you for the amazing post! I've never really understood what sorts of things make up "voice", so this helped quite a bit. (By the way, my favorite words are rage, dispute, ancient, and massive.)

    My voice always seems to come naturally, except in the places where I'm stuck and unsure of what to write, those are the places I'm obviously going to have to go back over. I'm going to use this as a nice checklist to make sure my voice is consistant. (By the way, Alex Newman, my "blog voice" is a lot less formal than my "epic fantasy voice" as well. 😉 )

    Congratulations on the website – I can't wait to see it up and running!

  12. @ C – I know! Reading your old writing is like opening a time capsule. There's one story that makes me hurt to read it, just because I wrote it at a very difficult time in my life, and boy does it ever _show_ – even though the story had nothing to do with what was going on with me. I feel that my writing is my journal, in a deeper way than any real journal of my actual experiences could ever be.

  13. Great post! This may seem like an amateur question but I'm writing a story from the first person POV of a sixteen year old boy. His voice is different than mine but I don't know if his voice is coming out too formally. Is there a good way to define the line between an accurate voice and one that seems to reflect lack of care? My character is intelligent but I don't want him to seem completely structured and focused on conventions of the English language. Thanks!
    Good luck with the coming website!

  14. Thanks for the post! I've found that I tend to write in a more conversational tone, but I'd like to get better at writing with a more formal, exciting, or mysterious voice. And I do plan to read that chapter in Writing Magic tonight. 🙂

  15. Thanks, Mrs. Levine! This was very helpful.

    I was wondering for your input about online, blog-type stories.
    What I mean is if you post a story via a blog, would your chances of being published decrease versus writing directly and sending it to a publisher?

    Thank you so much, and I'm looking forward to the new website!

  16. McWriting–The best way I can think to advise you is to suggest a book. THE VIEW FROM SATURDAY by E. L. Konigsburg is a great example of the voice of an intelligent boy. Hope it helps!
    Marmaladeland–Yes, if you post a story you may have a harder time selling it to a publisher. By posting it online you make your story free for everybody, and a publisher may worry about asking people to pay for it. On the other hand, I hope to turn the blog into a book someday.

  17. @Rose – Exactly. My stories to me are like a journal of feelings and memories and thoughts, that I might not even have put on the paper. The story just takes me back to them.
    It's sometimes hard to show people my writing, and one of the main reasons is that I fear some of my secret feelings have seeped into the pages, even though the sroties tell nothing about my life or difficulties.

    It's nice to know someone thinks the same. 🙂

  18. OH MY GOSH, NEW WEBSITE!! *grins*

    Congrats! *claps hands*

    ….is what I was going to say, until I realised only the layout had been changed. *headdesk*

    Stupid, stupid moi.


    Forgive Me, I Meant To Do It! 😀 I look soooo forward to it.


    (incidentally, anyone notice the title serves as a nice pun? >:D Forgive me, but I DID mean to double-post.)

  20. C – when I write a story, little bits tend to creep in of whatever I'm doing. Even if they have nothing to do with the story. I started one tale with the MC complaining about being hit on the head by a falling rake in the tool shed – because the same thing had just happened to me. Now when I read that story I remember sitting inside feeling the sore spot on my forehead, wondering about what to write, and then starting with: "I just nearly knocked myself out with a rake handle." And the story that followed had nothing to do with that.
    And then sometimes, it's the wishes that creep in. Wanting a dog, wanting a place to belong, wanting to see my brother again, wanting to have adventures… these are the stories that hurt to re-read.
    After I went to summer sleep-away camp I wanted to write a story about it. I did. It was a fantasy, set at a summer camp, and I look at it again and find that so much of my own confusion and fear and trial from camp had translated into my story. And the MC in that one was possibly the most flawed one I'd ever written before then.
    A story is a part of you. A part that you write out onto the blank screen or page, and frame in words, saved for later to re-read and remind yourself of how you were…and learn from it, hopefully.

    (sorry for the long comment!)

  21. Rose–Yes, exactly. I don't know what else to say because you've said it all. I've had some stories start with what I was just doing as well, and the story that follows has nothing to do with it. And what you said about wishes, so true. I have this one story which is very dark, and the wishes I connect with the story haven't got much to do with the darkness of it, or most of the story. What I mean to say is my feelings and wishes have been hidden in simple sentences or side plots, and it's always nostalgic and sometimes sad to read those stories.

  22. Thanks for this post, it was really helpful. I've never really worried about voice, because each of my stories has one and it stays pretty consistent throughout the story. I'm more worried about recognizing a writer's genre than voice. But this was helpful anyway!

    @Rose and C – You're right, now that I look at it, I can see my thoughts and feelings reflected in my writing. This is more obvious in some of my older stories, where my MCs are loosely based around myself. They all have some of the things that I lacked at that point in my life.

  23. Mrs. Gail,
    first of all I want to say I am a big fan of your books!:) okay well I saw somewhere that you do creative writing workshops in New York, do you still teach them? if you do my mom promised me that if I finished the One Year Adventure Novel curriculum that she fly with me to New York and take one of your workshops… I was just wondering if you sill do… Thank you, and hope you have a nice day! -Hannah

  24. You are doing a signing on my birthday!!! But it is half the country away…
    I'll be there in spirit 🙂
    Has anyone else read A Great and Terrible Beauty (Gemma Doyle series)? I read it a long time ago but I recently reread all three books and I have become obsessed all over again!
    If no one else has read it then I guess I am suggesting it. Oh well.
    Well anyway I just was going to say that ever since I reread those books, certain parts have stuck to me and now my writing sounds like it. I am trying to shake it off because I don't want to sound like another author. But they are just so amazing!!!!!!!!

    oh and…

  25. The website is up!!!! I just checkeed out, it was amazing!!!! I'm sure all of sure here are totally thrilled!! Thank you for sharing so much about your life, I don't know many published authors who do so.=) Something just made me want to revisit this blog today, and this comes up! Trusting your instinct, it does work!

    I never knew you had to wait 9 years for Ella to be published Mrs Levine! On the other hand, it does prove that if you're determined, you will get published, which is a nice thing to think about for us waana-be authors.=D

    The excerpt from Forgive Me, But I Meant to Do It, now that was hilarious.=D Its quite tease, now we've got to wait for 2 years before finally devouring the rest lol!

    There is problem though, the commentary on The Princess Test repeats on the one for the Fairy's Return. I'm not sure if its just my computer messing around.

  26. WOW. 😀 Loved the website! Don't have much time right now to check it out leisurely, but what I've seen, I LOVE! 😀 Congrats, Ms. Levine! Yay website!

    (It seems a particularly significant achievement for me when I've searched for it so vainly before, heh.)

  27. Whee! We get to keep the nice blogspot blog (and the new colors are great too). I'm now waiting with baited breath and all that for _Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It_!
    And convey my compliments to the web designer. I love your home page w/the typewriter, Ms. Levine!
    Now I've got to scurry and make sure Alex P. has seen this….

  28. I finally had time to carefully explore your website…wow. It's absolutely wonderful. Awesome! 😀 Especially your personal comments on all of your books, those were extremely interesting to read. OOoh, and the foreign covers! I agree about the Korean for Writing Magic…how DID they do it?! 😛
    I wish I could have my 'school' invite you. The only problem is, it's outside the US, and a university!

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