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That Elusive Voice
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I accidentally agreed to read some first chapter submissions for a recent conference (or the conference organizer figured out I’m a Pisces and just pretended I agreed to it so I’d have to do it, which actually would work like a charm. Hmm… and that would be just like him, too.)

This is not something I ordinarily do because I’m so much more comfortable teaching plotting and structure – and rewriting! – than I am teaching more basic writing writing, which I tend to believe can only be self-taught. I know how to write because I spent however many dozens of years journaling, starting at age four (my mother was a teacher and insisted that my siblings and I write every day. First a sentence, then a paragraph, then a page. Let me tell you – it worked.). That’s not something you can recreate in a workshop, any more than you can teach someone to play the piano in a workshop or teach someone to dance or paint in a workshop. The authors I know ARE writers; they may just have gotten around to writing a first book, but inevitably, in whatever way, they have been writers for dozens of years.

So I am reading these first chapters, and realizing that I am absolutely right – I cannot teach these people to write. Some of them can write already, and some of them can’t. I can make suggestions to all of them to improve what they have handed in to me. And actually the suggestions would pretty much be along the same lines to all of them. But the ones who can write will take my suggestions and end up with better first chapters – or they’ll ignore me completely and their chapters will still be good, possibly better than they would be if they tried to rewrite them.

And the ones who can’t write can take those suggestions and incorporate them until the cows come home and – I’m afraid – they are still never going to have chapters that would be of any interest to any editor.

These are not terrible writers I’m talking about, either. The writing is not uneducated, or laughable. That’s sort of what makes this kind of thing so painful to see.

And it occurs to me that this is mainly what editors are talking about when they talk about VOICE. I think there’s some confusion on this issue because a lot of times when people talk about voice they’re talking about how a character narrates a story – especially those first-person narrations. If they’re clever and witty and self-deprecating or use a lot of hip words, then a lot of people call that “voice”. I also hear “voice” used to describe an author’s unique storytelling –I mean the author’s character, or persona, as it comes through the story.

But there’s a more important voice that makes a book – and I mean literally MAKES a book. And that is the way an author puts a bunch of images, actions, thoughts, emotions and sensations into an order, in words, that puts a reader into the action and makes a reader have the exact experience that the characters are having – just like being inside a dream or a movie.

That is the real and completely elusive magic of storytelling – that an author can make all those disparate elements play as an engaging, unbroken whole – that literally becomes more important to the reader than their own consciousness. Because it’s true, isn’t it? When we read, we give up our own consciousness, our ego awareness, to the book, to the story.

I don’t know if this makes any sense at all, but voice is like the unspoken narrative that makes a dream seem to make sense at the time that you dream it. It gives the action cohesion.

Okay, here's another analogy. I was a theater director, mostly musical theater, and I've sat through many an audition. This is always an excruciatingly tense thing in the first couple of seconds of a song, because you do not know if the person in front of you is actually going to be able to sing or not. You are bracing yourself - physically bracing yourself, for the very real possibility that this person will not be able to pull off a song at all, which is actually very sad and painful.

Most of us now get to have this special experience with televised American Idol tryouts, right?

And when that person starts the song, and they really can sing, there is first a relief, and then a relaxation, a giving over into that person's hands, because you know they're not going to drop you. You can commit to that song, that performance, because of the singer's confidence. They're going to do the work and make it not seem like work, and carry you along.

Same with writing. The first page, the first chapter, has to convey that confidence in storytelling that will make the reader relax and give herself or himself over to you. They are putting themselves in your hands. But the thing that makes them have that trust is VOICE.

I would not exactly say that ALL published authors have this skill, or gift… not as far as I’m concerned. But they obviously have that gift enough to make other people (agents, editors, readers) give their consciousness up to their stories. And most of the time, annoying as I find these authors, I would have to reluctantly concede that they have at least that much skill – compared to unpublished authors.

I’ve taught enough now to know that some things about writing CAN be taught successfully, so I find this question of voice very interesting, and, like most unknowns - scary.

Is there a way to teach it, I wonder? Or is it like perfect pitch – you can fine-tune it, but if you don’t have it, you don’t?

Now, there are obvious, easily definable problems with some of these first chapters I'm reading. I think a first chapter carries the whole weight of the book with it. It has to convey mood, tone, genre, foreshadowing, stakes, urgency main character need and desire, setting, theme (especially, especially, ESPECIALLY theme) – and a dozen other things I’m not awake enough to list - and the absolute sense that this is a journey that we want to take. (Note I didn't mention "a great first line". I am not one of the cult of the first line).

And a first chapter doesn’t have to be explosive or perfect to convey those things, either. If an author has written a book worth reading, the first chapter will communicate that (partly because if it hasn’t, the author will have rewritten the chapter or started over with a new chapter that introduces the book convincingly.)

So I can tell these writers that they need to be conveying mood, tone, genre, foreshadowing, stakes, urgency, main character need and desire, setting, THEME, etc., in their first chapters. And I can make very concrete suggestions about how to bring those things out.

The problem is, I don’t think that’s going to do a thing to improve the voice of a book.

And – I’m not sure if I’ve ranted about this before, here, but I think contests put far, far, far too much emphasis on endlessly rewriting the first three chapters when there’s no book there to begin with.

Maybe the only advice to give people who haven’t discovered voice is – keep writing. Write whole books. And find a critique group that will let you read your work aloud, where it becomes immediately evident if voice is there or not.

Except that even in that situation, if a writer doesn’t have voice, it doesn’t seem evident to them at all.


So here’s my question. Authors, can you actually tell us how you learned voice? Have you ever encountered a teacher who was able to teach voice (or even adequately explain it)? How do you define voice? Readers, do you read for voice, and how would you define or explain it?