Home    Workshops    Members Only    Contests    Join    Contact us                       RWA Chapter

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Please welcome guest blogger Marcella Burnard

If you’ve ever heard an editor or an agent talk about what he or she looks for in a story, you’ve heard the term ‘voice’ mentioned. Usually, the phrase is ‘a fresh or unique voice’. What does that mean? How do you know whether or not you have any such thing? How do you go about cultivating voice?

As the term applies to your stories, voice is technically defined as: How you construct phrases and expressions to impart more than the narrative line. Okay. You caught me. I did just make that up. Voice is the word used to describe how you say what you say when you are telling a story. The trick is that it conveys more than merely ‘A’ happened, then ‘B’ happened. Your voice clues a reader into an emotional response to story occurrences.

Think of your two favorite bands or musicians. If I pulled songs from each artist and played only the music, no words, chances are you’d be able to tell me whose work I was playing. Same with handing you the lyrics. You’d still be able to tell me who was who. Why? You’re recognizing each band’s unique sound – their distinct voices (and I bet you could assign an emotion to those voices – angry, brooding, etc). “I know these artists…I remember the songs”, you say. Doesn’t matter. Voice forms the basis for your recognition. That’s the point of voice – that you be recognizable as you when someone picks up your book.

How do you develop your voice? You can’t until you forget about it. Let it go. I want to make up a bunch of tee shirts for writers that say “Voice Happens”. Because once you’ve worked your craft and perfected your process, relaxed a bit into trusting that you know how to write, voice naturally emerges. It’s the flower that opens only after you’ve prepared the soil, planted the seeds, and watched the plant grow big enough to support a bloom.

Here’s the thing about ‘you can’t develop voice until you forget about it’. So long as you’re self-conscious and worrying about voice, you’re choking it off. That’s why when I write, I come at a story via character (as opposed to coming in via plot). I have to hear one of my protagonists in my head. Once I do, voice is taken care of. I needn’t worry because it *isn’t* my voice – the story is told in the character’s voice (yeah, okay, it is my voice, but leave me my little illusion). My background is in acting, so I can say that getting into a character is a matter of practice.

You know who your characters are. Pick the one with whom you most identify. Now ask a series of ‘what if’ questions. What if you had this person’s background and experiences? What if you were the one in the middle of the story situation? How would you feel? How would you respond? What would you say? Congratulations, when you’ve stopped saying “I don’t know”, you’re in character. (See acting books by Stella Adler for more in depth character work.)

Now. I’ll ask you to try doing what I do and as in all things, take what works – discard what doesn’t. You’ve spent time getting inside a character’s heart and mind. Write your story in first person from that character’s point of view and go fast – don’t try to flesh out your scenes, just throw the basics at the page. This is important AND it’s for draft purposes only. You’ll change the POV and add detail in your second draft, if you want. The point is to learn how to relay a narrative line from someone else’s eyes honestly and authentically. Speed is essential to shutting off the internal editor standing at your shoulder saying, “That reaction is so dumb! No one would do that!” In the case of emotional, knee-jerk reactions while writing from within your character, your first instinct is almost always real. Raw. Honest. You may feel exposed. Yay. That’s exactly right.

There’s a story that seems to be as much urban legend as anything, (debate on that: http://msgboard.snopes.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=32;t=000474;p=1) but I’ll repeat it anyway. During the filming of Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman arrived on set one day looking mighty rough. In the film, Dustin Hoffman’s character was supposed to be ragged and exhausted. The story goes that the Method actor went without sleep to immerse himself in the character. Laurence Olivier had trained in the UK and was a technical actor, meaning he spent his time working with the script and the words in order to understand his character and that character’s travails. The story goes that after a few hours of work, Laurence Olivier supposedly said, “Dustin. Try acting.”

Those of us coming at our books through character are the writing world’s Method Actors, I suspect. The writers approaching stories via plot are the technical actors. Neither is superior to the other. Both produce fine work, but if you are a plot-driven story teller, your chances of getting lost in a character are slim. Voice, for you, will come when you’ve peeled your narrative back to its starkest, most authentic through-line. You’ll find voice by focusing on goals. In every scene, make certain your protagonists have goals they must achieve and that they are driving hard for what they each want. Pay attention to what they’re willing to do to get what they want – especially when it’s at the expense of someone else. Do that, cutting away anything that doesn’t serve the conflict and you’ll have voice. No, you aren’t likely to feel the story the way your Method-writer fellows do. You may not feel exposed. That’s okay.

Another Laurence Olivier story: “It isn’t my job to feel anything,” it’s reported he once said in reply to an interviewer asking the actor what he’d felt while on stage. “It’s my job to make you feel everything.”

Writers, too. Bet you didn’t have any idea how alike acting and writing could be. Actors have words, intonation, and action to convey feeling via the body language the audience observes during a play. Writers have those tools, but they’re delivered via a much narrower sensory experience – the printed word. Your voice – the subtle, distinct, and individual way in which you express yourself – is the only substitute for body language you have. Relax. Trust that you know how to do what you do. Have fun. Listen and let yourself feel, if you’re character driven. Drive hard for goals, if you’re plot driven. You’ll be surprised at how effortlessly voice rises out of the confusion of the drafting process.

Marcella Burnard: I blame my father for my love of science fiction and fantasy. We watched many a late night science fiction movie together. I was five. By the time I was six, I was having raging nightmares inspired by The Omega Man, The Fly, and The Incredible Shrinking Man. The sum result seems to have been that I wouldn't walk into a dark room until well after I'd turned ten.

Growing up an Air Force brat, I moved often and traveled all over the US. We spent two years in Iceland, watching blue whales migrate, volcanoes erupt and geysers spew steaming, superheated water into the cold air. The whole family did plenty of reading. When the tiny base library ran out of interesting books in the kids' section, and wouldn't allow me in the adult section yet, I began writing my own stories. 

My family finally settled in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Western Washington. I graduated with a BFA in acting from Cornish College of the Arts in 1990 and promptly went to work for a large software company.

I live with my husband and our cats aboard a sailboat on Puget Sound

Enemy Within

After a stint in an alien prison torpedoes her military career, Captain Ari Idylle has to wonder why she even bothered to survive. Stripped of her command and banished to her father's scientific expedition to finish a PhD she doesn't want, Ari never planned to languish quietly behind a desk. But when pirates commandeer her father's ship, Ari once again becomes a prisoner.

Pirate leader Cullin Seaghdh may not be who he pretends to be but as far as Cullin is concerned, the same goes for Ari. Her past imprisonment puts her dead center in Cullin's sights and if she hasn't been brainwashed and returned as a spy, then he's convinced she must be part of a traitorous alliance endangering billions of lives. Cullin can't afford the desire she fires within him and he'll stop at nothing, including destroying her, to uncover the truth.

1 comment:

Jeffe Kennedy said...

Very interesting! Particularly the debate on the Hoffman/Olivier exchange ;-)