Thursday, 29 June 2017

Ink Tip: Style and Voice

One of the more confusing things for a new writer is trying to understand how to find the line between accepting corrections and staying true to your own voice.  I certainly found it frustrating as I sorted through critiques and suggestions on my first manuscript.

So let's start with the basics.  A writer's voice is hard to define but easy to recognize.  It's a combination of word choice, sentence structure, storytelling technique and description that comes together to create a unique way of telling a story.

Here's a demonstration.  These are the first paragraphs of some of my favourite books:

"Shadow had done three years in prison.  He was big enough and looked don't-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time.  So he kept himself in shape and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife."

"I parked the bike in front of the restaurant, wiping perspiration from my upper lip.  It was unseasonably warm this January, but sweating during a Florida winter was better than freezing in a Northern one.  I twisted my hair into a knot, my neck cooler once the long back swath was off it.  With a final swipe at my forehead, I entered the restaurant, ignoring the tables in favor of the patrons seated at the bar."

"Shoot the moon was considered to be one of the more dangerous yoyo tricks.  Not particularly complicated -- nothing like the crossovers of a Texas Star -- but a moment's inattention and the odds were good that 35.7 grams of hardwood would be impacting painfully off the front curve of the human skull.  There were rumors that, back in '37, Canadian and World Champion, Joe Young, had once bounced a Shoot the Moon and continued to ace the competition with no one the wiser until the next day when the bruise began to develop.  She didn't know about that, and she didn't put much trust in rumors, but she did know that when Joe Young died in the war, the sport lost a master."

All three of these are obviously very different stories.  The first has short sentences and short words, creating a sense of action and movement.  In a few short sentences, we get a clear idea of who the hero is.  The second is very focused on the senses, creating an immediate and intimate connection between the reader and the character.  And the third brings in humour by talking about the danger of yoyos, but is also very specific and precise.  Again the words are shorter but the sentences are longer, creating a flow of language.

For the curious, the first example is from Neil Gaiman's American Gods, the second is from Jeaniene Frost's Once Burned and the third is from Tanya Huff's The Enchantment Emporium.

Neil Gaiman has a dark whimsical twist to his writing and that comes through in the first paragraph.  We start with the hero being in prison and then make it clear that no one messes with him (dropping an f-bomb along the way) and finish with learning coin tricks and loving his wife.

Jeaniene Frost's writing tends to be very sensual and intimate.  She uses the first person and puts in a lot of sensory detail but does so in a way that it doesn't become overwhelming.  We follow the heroine through just a few seconds of her life but already feel as if we're part of it.

Tanya Huff mixes humour and eccentricity but also brings in backstory in a way that sets the stage and tells us about the characters.  The few lines about the adventures of Yoyo Master Joe Young establish the tone as quirky but also reveals the character's admiration of perfection and skill.  

Finding your own voice as a writer is an ongoing process.  Some core elements will always remain the same and become more refined over time, but others may change over a writer's career.

My rule of thumb is: if I took this out of the story, would it also take out the fun?  If I feel removing a detail is going to suck the life out of my story, then I know I'm touching on something inherent to my voice.

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