Friday, 29. April 2011 11:59 | Author:Karen
Yesterday I posted the first of a couple blogs on what writers call “voice” and gave three very different examples of writers voices. So what IS a writer’s voice? It’s a combination of things. Christopher Mohar, a faculty member of the University of Wisconsin’s writing program, gave a really interesting presentation at their Writers’ Institute earlier this month. Along with Josie Brown’s presentation, the one I mentioned yesterday, Mr. Mohar’s talk helped me understand more about voice.
First, as I said yesterday, voice depends a lot on whether you write in first person or third person. But I’ve covered that. So let’s move on to “style.” Some people think “voice” is synonymous with “style,” but Mohar discussed style as a matter of what language you choose to use and what kind of sentences you write. Are your sentences long and full of subordinate clauses? Or are they lean and spare? Have you ever used the word “tintinnabulation” or do you go for something more easily recognized, like “chime”?
Here’s a single sentence from the first chapter of Chang-Rae Lee’s ALOFT:
“From up here, all the trees seem ideally formed and arranged, as if fretted over by a persnickety florist god, even the ones (no doubt volunteers) clumped along the fencing of the big scrap metal lot, their spindly, leggy uprush not just a pleasing garnish to the variegated piles of old hubcaps and washing machines, but then, the a stock guy like me, mere heartbeats shy of sixty (hard to even say that) the life sings of a positively priapic yearning.”
They don’t get shorter or less complex. Now compare that to a sentence from Jane Smiley’s A THOUSAND ACRES, which won the Pulitzer:
“A mile to the east, you could see three silos that marked the northwestern corner, and if you raked your gaze from the silos to the house and barn, then back again, you would take in the immensity of the piece of land my father owned, six hundred forty acres, a whole section, paid for, no encumbrances, as flat and fertile, black, friable, and exposed as any piece of land on the face of the earth.”
These two sentences are similar in length, but their structures are very different, as is the language they employ. Voice!
Another part of an author’s voice is what Mohar calls the piece’s “personality.” It can be extreme, as in Elmore Leonard’s crazy but wonderful mysteries, or factual and ordered, as in many police procedurals. The personality of a work can be thought of as its worldview. Is it funny? Is it serious? Is it light and breezy, or dark and brooding? Think about the personality of J. K. Rowling’s books – in some parts, it’s hilarious, but in others, not so much. Or Robert B. Parker’s Spenser mysteries. They’re so spare, with so little detail about setting, that the characters sometimes seem to speak and act in a vacuum.
Okay, so now we’ve covered the work’s personality and style. More on voice on Monday….