Style and Voice

On the childrens-writer list serv through yahoogroups, a member asked about the meanings of style and voice as well as what editors mean by the expression “fresh voice.”

This is from my response:

In an interview for my site, author Kathi Appelt (Miss LadyBird’s Wildflowers: How A First Lady Changed America) said: “Calling on voice is in some ways like calling on the muse. It’s a slippery thing, and not a little magical. I think it has to do with passion and whether or not the subject you’re writing calls to you from somewhere deep, some profound place that means everything to you.”

In another, author Franny Billingsley (The Folk Keeper) wrote: “I love a wonderful first-person voice, such as Cassandra’s voice in I Capture The Castle and Scout’s voice in To Kill A Mockingbird.”

In yet another, author Bruce Hale (the Chet Gecko series) confided: “…during a free writing exercise, I happened upon the character’s voice. He said, ‘Kids talk. They say I’m someone who can solve mysteries. They’re right. I can. Who am I? Chet Gecko, Private Eye.’ And when I wrote that, I knew the gecko would not be denied.”

To me, “voice” is the expression of character through word choice and cadence.

Think about how a 15 year old Cuban American boy from Los Angeles might speak. What if he’s upper middle class? What if he has a great sense of humor? What if he’s an avidly into science? Now, how might he speak differently than, say, his twin brother with whom he has all those things in common?

What if instead your character was a 78-year-old old Cherokee great-grandmother from Talequah, Oklahoma, who’d lived there her whole life? How does she express herself differently than, say, the other members of the board of the Five Tribes Museum in Muskogee? How about the one who once went to New York City on an airplane?

A first person narrator has a voice. Second and third person narrators have a voice. Every character who speaks in the book has a voice.

“Fresh voice” is essentially a voice that–for whatever reason–commands a reader’s attention. It doesn’t sound like the voice in a thousand other books. It’s somehow groundbreaking. I know that sounds elusive, but at the risk of paraphrasing Justice Potter Stewart, I know it when I hear it. Read until you do, too.

Style is even more vague. I think of it in part as a combination of stylistic choices and devices–first person or third, one viewpoint or three, a book in poems or a book in journal format, heavy on the flashbacks or racing forward at breakneck speed. More globally, I’d probably describe author David Lubar‘s style as humorous, author Annette Curtis Klause‘s style as sensual, and and author Lori Aurelia Williams‘ style as heartwrenching.

I’ve heard my own style described as folksy, lyrical, and indigenous, though neither of my upcoming books fit those descriptions. So maybe style is more about what the book demands than what the author brings to it. If you look at author Jane Yolen‘s vast body of literary trade fiction, she appears to adapt her style to each new story. Or more likely she already has several to draw upon, and reaches for the one that in each case fits best.

Cynsational News & Links

IRA Young Adult Choices 2005 (a PDF file): those I’ve read and recommend include: The Afterlife by Gary Soto (Harcourt); The Creek by Jennifer L. Holm (HarperCollins); My Not-So-Terrible Time at the Hippie Hotel by Rosemary Graham (Viking); Vampire High by Douglas Reese (Delacorte); and Vampire Kisses by Ellen Schreiber (Katherine Tegan).

Teen Spirit: an interview with Judy Blume that mentions Tanya Lee Stone‘s upcoming YA novel, A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl (Wendy Lamb Books, 2006).

Author Catherine Atkins has a don’t-miss blog! Among other things, I learned from it about Shirley Harazin‘s blog. Buzz has it that she just sold two YA novels to Random House. Woo woo!

Author D.L. Garfinkle blogs lately about her recent reads.

Author Ellen Jackson blogs the pros and cons of agents. One pro I’d like to add: an agent may do a better job of shopping your subrights (audio, textbook, foreign, film, etc.).

One thought on “Style and Voice

  1. It helps to define literary terms like “style” and “voice,” etc., in context sometimes and to attempt to try at least to use the words with precision.

    If you are a proofreader, using the “Chicago Manual of Style,” the term “style” refers to the how the mechanical elements of writing like punctuation, spelling, grammar, etc., in the writing. These need to be used correctly and consistently according to an accepted and widely used authority like the “Chicago” or my personal favorite, “The Gregg Reference Manual.” This definition of “style” is what E.B. White is talking about also in his famous little style guide.

    “Style” in a general literary sense simply means how a writer chooses to express himself or herself, the ideas, words, concepts, etc., he or she decides to use and how. The more distinctive the way in which the writer uses his or her words, the more clearly the writer’s style of writing can be distinguished by the readers.

    Sometimes, a writer’s style becomes so distinctive, so unique and personal that it truly becomes his or own personal, unique style of writing. This is when a writer’s style of writing becomes his or her writing voice, in my humble opinion. When this happens, editors say the writing has “voice,” and readers, who may or may not know what the term “voice” means, can often recognize a particular writer simply by how he or she writes. It’s like my recognizing the work of Barbara Cooney once on a “Hornbook” cover from across the bookstore floor. Her style is so distinctive, I said to myself “that’s Barbara Cooney’s work,” and it was. The same is true for a writer, for any artist. Voice evolves always out of self actualization, self awareness. The more a writer knows himself or herself and the more he or she strives to discover and be more himself or herself, the more distinctive a voice, the more truly unique style he or she will have, wehther it be in writing or art or living. There is a stage of learning for writers in which imitating the styles of other writers is perhaps a necessary part of the process. But you don’t, as a writer, get a unique voice by staying at that stage. You, must eventually, evolve your own unique voice. And that comes from not being afraid to discover and to know yourself and to be yourself.

    “Tone,” in a literary sense, describes the enmotinal state of the writer in a piece of writing.

    “Mood,”in a literary sense, describes the emotinal state evoked in the reader by a writer’s writing.

    Take the “Pickwick” book by Charles Dickons. He uses an informal journalistic style to write this book, a style which, already even with this early book of his, has evolved into a very distinctive personal style or voice. You know this is Dickons’ work after reading even a few pages. It’s unmistakeably his own unique writing voice. It has all of his taste, all of his flavor as an author.

    The tone of this book is gently humorous throughout. Dickens is, in a subtle, gentle way, making fun of his characters and the culture in which they live.

    The mood, however, evoked by this book in this reader, is at first also humorous, but it evolves by the end of the story into, again for this reader, into a mood of compassion and respect. (Remember, mood is always a personal thing for each reader of each book.) I end up feeling compassionate about society and its characters which Dickons creates, and I end up, suprisingly, really respecting Mr. Pickwick. That is enjoyable as I did not expect, at the beginning of the book to end up feelign taht way about this silly, fat man. Hats off to Mr. Dickons! There is still much to be learned from the old classics….

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