Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Smart Things: Finding Your Voice

Elizabeth Bear is saying smart things today ina post about the importance of confidence and finding your narrative voice. I commented over there, but I want to post here as well about this. Because this is my issue du jour at the moment.

I think (wrongly, rightly?) that my writing has reached a point where I can effectively tell a story and have it flow, make logical sequence, reach a climax, and resolve. I can even toss around the odd turn of phrase.

However. I do not have a narrative voice yet. I can't seem to figure out what it is, from the inside out. I admire the voices that other writers employ, and how they change from one piece to another, but when it comes time to speak in one, I find that I don't have it. I feel dumb, tongue-tied.

And until I figure that bit out, I'm hovering just below breaking through. Which is why Bear's post was so useful.

What about you? What is your experience of narrative voice? Whose do you like, or admire? What struggles have you had in finding a voice of your own?


Tim Susman said...

David Mitchell, in "Cloud Atlas," practically gives a clinic on narrative voice. My favorite contemporary author, Kazuo Ishiguro, excels at it--compare "Never Let Me Go" with "Remains Of The Day"; I could tell you which book any passage from either is from, regardless of context, just from the narrative tone.

My own struggles have been pretty much the same as yours. I tend to step back from the story and focus on telling it. I think the people who succeed in having a really distinctive narrative voice without writing in the first person (where it's easier because you're writing AS a particular character) do so by letting you know what they think of the story as it unfolds.

I think the way to do this is to imagine you are a character telling the story to some friends. In the easiest case, you're just you. One of my friends (whose book we're publishing this summer) has a great narrative voice that is purely him: it's slightly sarcastic and cynical, and it gives a whole added texture to the stories he tells. I haven't managed to master that yet myself, but at least I've developed a theory ...

Anonymous said...

It sounds like a good theory, at least to start with. The practical implications of adding the layer of a character who is the not-me-narrator, and whose telling is in and of itself a tone for the story, are easy enough to understand.

I've been accused of editorializing the story in those moments, though, and that has encouraged me to shy away from a strong narrator voice. Perahps I need to play with that a bit more.

Douglas Hulick said...

Sean says, in part: "that has encouraged me to shy away from a strong narrator voice."

There is a difference between finding your voice and the narrator's voice, IMO. Maybe it is more about how I interpret style, but I see a writer's voice having a degree of consistancy across time. Narrative/narrator's voice, on the other hand, is more about finding out who the character is and then telling the story through their filter (even if it is a distant 3rd person multiple). Your voice as the writer will come through the narrator's, but that doesn't mean the tone of the book and the narrator's voice has to be the same as any other book you've written.

As Tim says, first person can be easier in terms of keeping your voice consistant. It is for me, I know, but I've had other people say they have a heck of a time with 1st-P narratives. 1001 and one ways and all that. :) I know that in HQ, I am having a bit of a trick switching between 1st and 3rd person POVs, but I feel like I am starting to get a better handle on it. There is still a distinct filter there with the 3rd-P, I just need to be more aware of it -- it doesn't fall in place as naturally for me as 1st-P does. Sometimes, I have to clean things up in the second pass, but that's mainly matter of rewording a sentence here or there to be more true to the character. The more I write from Wynn's POV, though, the easier the filter is to get in place and then forget about.

Anonymous said...

I think that POV doubles for narrator in third person, Doug. The voice of the character has to come through in the text of the piece, or else it's not really in POV, is it?

I'm not suggesting that you would argue with that, more just processing it "out loud."

Kelly McCullough said...

Neil Gaiman actually had some smart things to say about this last month in the post here

Kelly Swails said...

I think I'm getting there. I feel like most of my stuff is different, but if you stood back as a whole, you'd know I wrote it. I think.

That's how I think of narrative voice: you know who wrote it, regardless of what the story is about or the narrarator or the POV. You can pick up a coverless book and suspect within twenty pages it's a Koontz/King/Rowling/etc.

Douglas Hulick said...

I think that POV doubles for narrator in third person, Doug. The voice of the character has to come through in the text of the piece, or else it's not really in POV, is it?

I agree, but you started out talking about finding your narrative voice. I was taking that as separate from the POV -- more of finding your voice/style as a writer than finding the character's voice. That's how I read it, which is why I was making the distinction.

They are very differet things in my mind. I like to think I have a way of writing and conveying a story (my voice as a writer) that is different than the voice my narrator(s) will take on, be they first or third POVs. D&S and HQ each have arguably distinct first person POVs, but I think my voice as a writer -- my style and phrasing and construction, if you will -- is still discernable in both. This is the distinction I was making.

Maybe it's the terminology that is hanging things up here. How about writer's voice vs. POV voice to keep things clear? :)