Thursday, 25 August 2011

On Voice - Creating Unique Voices for Your Fictional Characters

When I wrote the first draft of my first novel a few years ago, I submitted it immediately to Kensington Books. Talk about hutzpah! John Scognamiglio, the Editor-in Chief, was far kinder than I had any right to expect in his letter of rejection. He said I needed to find my voice. I had no idea what he was talking about.

I’ve learned a lot since then. I stopped trying to decipher what my voice should be and started looking for voice in the authors whose works I love to read. What makes Donna Leon’s writing so distinctive? Why do I read every Nora Roberts that comes out no matter how inane the story? Why is The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett so compelling?

Voice, voice, and voice.

The best story one can imagine is nowhere without that magic ingredient of the storyteller’s voice.

Voice is the most intangible and elusive ingredient of memorable writing. I recognize it easily in my favourite authors, but if it’s missing in an author new to me, I don’t immediately know what’s wrong. I just know that there is a lack of conviction in the writing.

I think my own writing has improved considerably since that first experience in rejection. In the ensuing years I believe I found my voice. Comments from contest judges and even in rejection letters, of which I’ve had my share, have referred positively to my voice.

So what is this thing called voice, and how do we achieve it?

My favourite book on the art and craft of writing is Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing (1995). It has saved my life, or at least my story, more than once. Stein tells us to “examine each word for its necessity” and to write with “precision and clarity.

I sometimes think I should have those words fashioned into a flashing sign and mounted over my desk, where I cannot avoid them. It’s so much easier just to blather on.

The bottom line about voice, I believe, is that our written voices as authors must be as easily identifiable to our readers as our speaking voices are to our friends and family.

And as if that weren’t a tall enough order, the voices of our characters should also be easily distinguishable, one from another. It should be possible to tell who is speaking by the way they speak, by the words they use and by the way they express themselves.

Is there any doubt in your mind as you read the following excerpt from The Memory of Roses whether it is the hero or the heroine speaking? The scene is a beach on the Greek island of Corfu.

“Stop! We mustn’t do this,”
Andreas looked at her, dazed.
“You’re too young for me,” Brit blurted out before she could stop herself.  “Just how old are you?
“Twenty-six. And you are thirty-two. Daphne told me. A difference of six years. Would it matter to you if I were six years older than you?”
“Of course not.”
“Well then?”
“You’re just twisting things around. You know it’s not the same.”
“I believe that it is exactly the same, and I assure you that I’m not in the least too young for what I have in mind.”
Andreas brought his mouth down again to hers and Brit’s last conscious thought was, what the hell! Why not? Why shouldn’t I have this brief interlude?

In this small sample, there are five consecutive lines of dialog with no dialog tags. “He said, she said” are unnecessary and would have the negative effect of interrupting the flow of the scene. The voices are clearly identifiable as male and female, hero and heroine.

I ascribe particular voices and patterns of speech to my characters when I construct character sketches and this happens well before I write the first words of my stories. My characters’ voices always sound in my mind as I write their dialogue.

I frequently hear the voices of actors and actresses in my characters. One of my favorites is the voice of a well-known film star of mature years, who shall remain nameless, but who was often identified in his films by the number  '007' rather than a name. But I’m just as likely to use the speech mannerisms of my next door neighbour or the local French Canadian farmer from whom I buy eggs. I shamelessly listen to strangers speaking and jot down notes in my ever handy pocket notepad. When I travel, I steal speech patterns and mannerisms from shopkeepers, hotel clerks, waiters, and just about anyone else I can engage in conversation.

As for my own voice, it is always in my head as I write. I don’t think dialog or even setting. I hear and speak dialog, I see setting.

Do I have the problem of voice resolved? Of course not. But at least I know now what the term means. I think it’s something all writers strive continuously for – developing that unique and individual voice that we hope will make our readers keep coming back to us as authors.

The Memory of Roses by Blair McDowell, Rebel Ink Press, will be available at and on October 3rd, 2011.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

I Don't Follow Umbrellas

I travel abroad every year. My favourite destinations are Greece and Italy, the settings I used for my novel, The Memory of Roses, to be released on October 3rd by Rebel Ink Press.

Whenever I’m in some popular tourist destination, such as Venice or Florence or Athens, I see large groups of people mindlessly following tour guides who have umbrellas raised high in the air to keep the group together. I suppose it must be easier in a way to let someone else figure out what’s worth seeing and what’s not. Whether Michelangelo’s David is worth ten minutes or only five because it is necessary to get the paying customers into some shop where the guide gets a cut-back.

My point is, people who follow umbrellas miss a lot. Whether it’s in traveling or in life. I’ve had many years of experience as a writer. I’m a published author of six professional books as well as numerous articles and speeches. However none of this prepared me in any way for writing fiction. I’d always wanted to write stories, but never had the time. Then suddenly I had all the time in the world.

So I wrote my first novel and submitted it to a publisher.  People started throwing terms at me I’d never heard before.  I had no idea what they meant.  POV?  What’s that? Voice? Doesn’t everyone have a voice? Formatting? Show don’t tell?

Just to show how dumb I was I thought people told stories. Not too surprisingly my first book ended up in the recycle bin.

I survived the criticism, but the book didn’t. I decided to start all over again with something completely different.  This time I asked people to read and critique as I worked. One was a Hollywood film editor whose notions about scene were extraordinarily helpful.  I took courses—not the on-line kind. The kind where you have to sit and listen to fellow authors tear your work apart.  I took three, all offered by published novelists. The shortest but most useful of these was the one given by Dean Wesley Smith in Oregon. If you aren’t familiar with his work, do yourself a favour and look up his website . It’s a gold mine.

I’ve never worked as hard in my life as I did in that workshop with Dean Wesley Smith. And I never learned as much in so short a time. It was brutal, but wonderful.  And at the end of it I knew what I had to do to make my book work. I came back home and rewrote the whole thing. That was the third draft.  And it worked. Part of my problem had been that I was trying to follow umbrellas. I had read books and taken courses on how to write romance and I was trying to squeeze my story into their format. But it wasn’t a formula romance. It was women’s fiction – a book with four central characters, not two. A story encompassing two generations and two love stories, one of which didn’t end happily ever after. No wonder publishers of genre romance didn’t want it.

Then I found Rebel Ink. It’s funny. That week two publishers accepted my manuscript but the first one wanted me to change it into a traditional romance.   I’ve never been sorry I went with Rebel Ink, a publisher that doesn’t follow umbrellas.