VCFA Writers: Mandy Robbins Taylor on Voice

Mandy Robbins Taylor

By Mandy Robbins Taylor

A few years ago at a conference, I heard Erin Clarke, a Senior Editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers, reply to a question regarding voice.

“What is voice?” she ruminated. “Basically, voice is everything.”

Great. So I get to write a one-page blog post on “everything.” No wonder nobody else claimed this topic.

She’s right, though. Voice is everything. Every word on your page is told in your character’s unique voice, or your unique voice if you are writing nonfiction.

In writing, a voice ultimately is the embodiment of a character. Even if you are writing in third person, your narrator is a character.

The YA novel I’m currently working on, in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, is written in first person present tense. Choosing this point of view means each word must really and truly belong to my main character. Sure, she and I would say the same thing sometimes. But other times, not so much.

Uma Krishnaswami

While revising, my brilliant and talented VCFA advisor, Uma Krishnaswami has called me out a few times on my voice slipping into my character’s narration. For example, at one point my character describes an “omniscient smile.” In the margin, Uma commented something like “this sounds like you, not her.”

At first I was annoyed. Just because I’m a writer doesn’t mean the writerly word “omniscient” is so uniquely mine. But then I realized she was right—my character is a grieving seventeen year old on summer break, more interested in making varsity softball than writing “A” English papers. Words like “omniscient” are not just going to pop into her head while observing the smiles of people she’s just met.

Lately, Uma has just been oh-so-sweetly highlighting passages in blue when I slip out of voice. I’ve noticed this helps me to connect the dots and see when, where, and why I’m doing it. I enjoy academic writing, and most of my trouble spots simply sound too…fancy.

HarperCollins, 2005

As Fancy Nancy would say, “I’m inexplicably devastated” is a fancy way of saying “I don’t know why I’m so upset.” And it’s me, being a fancy, show-off, critical writer who likes to feel smart–not my girl, processing her emotions in her own mind.

But the good news is, when it comes down to it, after spending eighteen months of my life with her, I do know this girl. I know what she would say, and it isn’t (usually) hard to fix. Sometimes it just takes another pair of eyes and a gentle reminder that I’m way too impressed with myself.

But sometimes you may find you need to spend more time getting to know your character. Try freewriting conversations with her. Have him fill out an email survey. Make a character profile in your novel folder. Pretend to be her when you’re walking to the store, working out, talking to a salesgirl. Just never take a shortcut and assume one way is as good as another. It isn’t.

Voice is everything—and every single word on every single page matters.

Cynsational Notes

Fancy Nancy was written by Jane O’Connor and illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser.

Mandy Robbins Taylor will graduate from Vermont College of Fine Arts‘s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program in January 2012, though she would truly rather not. Ever.

She loves writing realistic young adult, funny fantasy middle grade, and goofy picture books. She occasionally teaches workshops for teen writers, passing on some of that hard-earned MFA knowledge and staying connected with her audience.

You can find her this October teaching the teen portion of the inter-generational Pacific Coast Childrens Writers Workshop.

Feel free to email her at MandyRobbins7@aol(dot)com with any questions about this post, her writing, or Vermont College of Fine Arts.

See also Romancing Reality in YA Fiction by Mandy Robbins Taylor from Pam Watts at Strong in the Broken Places. Peek: “…in your average, contemporary, realistic YA novel, why do the boys have to be so much better than real life teen boys? What are we telling our girls to expect?”

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