by Adria Quiñones
“Voice” is one of those elements of writing that gets talked about—or at least mentioned—frequently, but often the discussion doesn’t seem to go much further than noting that it’s important. What do we mean by voice? How do you create it, much less improve it?
Luckily for us, NY Metro SCBWI’s January Professional Series event featured Kat Brzozowski, an editor at Macmillan’s Swoon Reads/Feiwel & Friends imprints, who gave us the opportunity to analyze the choices that affect voice and to experiment with them in our own writing. The atmosphere was more like a writing seminar than a lecture, as audience members sat in a circle and engaged in a back-and-forth discussion of voice, both in well-known works and in scenes that attendees created on the spot.
While plot and voice are both building blocks that make a novel, their function is different. Voice is the expression of the character’s personality on the page—the way a character sounds. “Voice is the lens through which we see the world,” Brzozowski said. “It’s the thing that pulls you in, that you recall when you think back on a book.” Plot creates excitement, but, without a memorable character, the book won’t keep you engaged.
Taking apart the building blocks of voice was a new experience for me. Brzozowski gave us a series of questions to help us examine the author’s choices in passages from several well-known children’s books:
- Do they use slang?
- Do they swear?
- Do they use regionalisms?
- Are they funny? Are they funny without realizing it?
- Do they have a great vocabulary or are they pretending to have a great vocabulary?
- How long are their sentences and paragraphs?
- What are their specific word choices and how do they reflect how the character sees the world? Think of Holden Caulfield’s use of the word “lousy” in the opening paragraph of A Catcher in the Rye, or what he terms “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” Immediately the reader has a sense of Holden’s disaffection and cynical world view—and how much he wants you to be aware of it.
“Voice can tell the reader a lot about the character without you needing to spell it out in description or back story,” Brzozowski said. This makes it an efficient way for the writer to get information to the reader. But too much voice can be can be distracting and overpower the plot. “Make sure that something happens as well,” she smiled.
Voice can reflect changes a character makes during the journey that is the book’s plot—for example, a character might begin by talking in sentence fragments and end using sentences that have grown in length and complexity. “Read the first and last page of your manuscript,” Brzozowski suggested. “Do you see a change of voice? If not, why not?”
Even if you currently write voice unconsciously (and prefer to do so), knowing how to examine the choices that create voice is a valuable skill, particularly when revising a work. Thanks to Kat Brzozowski for giving us a look at how this works.
Adria Quiñones is a wildly successful technical writer who began writing novels for kids in order to have the experience of writing something that someone actually wanted to read. Adria is a regular contributor to the Metro-NYC SCBWI‘s blog and was a winner of the SCBWI 2014 Midwinter Conference’s prestigious joke contest. You can visit her at adriaq.com and follow her on Twitter (@AdriaQuinones).