Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Voice training

So what is voice?

Voice is that feeling the writer creates, while narrating a story that convinces you that there is a real, living mind behind it. In a way, it is the way we keep the curtain closed and the feet tapping, the way we keep you from thinking too much about any potential contradictions or defects in world building

By this I don’t mean that you shouldn’t bullet proof your world building as much as possible, but when you’re writing a story you’re essentially constructing a big lie and, no matter how well researched and thought out, there are always holes that give it away as a man made thing.

The difference the voice can make is that a good, confident authorial voice will keep you reading the story to the end and only when you set it aside will you go “Wait there, on chapter seven he said magic didn’t work on eggs, but for the back story of the third subplot to work...”

A really good, strong voice will stay with you even after you’ve finished the book. Sometimes it’s not till weeks or months later that you see something couldn’t have happened, and even then you’re not likely to care.

OTOH a weak, meandering voice will make you put the book down when you’re not sure he’s right about some minor detail. You will go “Well, I have no idea what the duck penny is, but it doesn’t sound like he has it right.” And then you’ll set the book down and never pick it up again.

So right now you’re thinking it’s style, or perhaps the way one strings words... Well, yes and no. All those go to form a voice but a voice is something different that transcends all that.

The voice is the difference between the vaccum salesman who rings your doorbell and says “I’m not sure, really, if this is any better than what you have, but let me show you,” and then gets confused and stammers or tries to over explain and the man who rings your doorbell and says “I’m here to sell you a universe. It’s MUCH better than what you have now.” He will come in wearing the best clothes and look absolutely sure of himself, and will talk so convincingly that you’ll be sure you need that universe and you’ll give anything – even your vaccum to get it.

Is it charisma? In part. Like charisma, voice partakes self-confidence and the certainty what you’re doing is important and needful and there’s only one way to do it – your way.

I can achieve this, occasionally, on a story or two. Most of the time, I grope and I falter, and explain too much or too little. But when the voice is coming through and it’s golden, you know it, as much as your reader will know it. It’s a bravura performance, where you’re afraid to breathe least you disturb it.

So how can you cultivate your voice? Not sure. I’ve been studying it, and I have some idea what works for me. Hopefully I can communicate it to you next week. If not, you can always throw things at me. :)

On a different note, if anyone is interested, this is a podcast of myself reading one of my short stories. It is more like a reading than an audio performance, because I was nursign my voice (I've had the flu) and because I didn't edit or clean it up afterwards. So when I go wrong, I just backtrack half a dozen words. The story is Ariadne's Skein which is part of my collection Crawling Between Heaven and Earth, available for free at the baen free library at

And again, unfortunately, yes, that IS my accent. :) (See why worries about voice are natural to me?)


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Voice is a funny thing, Sarah. About ten years ago I met Maxine McArthur at a convention. We ended up spending most of the Con hanging out. Then I bought her book 'Time Future' and read it on the 'plane home. And I could hear her 'voice' as I read.

I'd never met someone, gotten to know them, then read their book before. It had always been the other way around. Until then, I'd never realised how distinctive individual voices could be.

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