Here is a sample workshop in more detail on the topic of Voice. Again it can be delivered as a one off hourly session, as part of a selection of topics or as otherwise required.
One of the protagonists of my book, Theresa, known as T, is a vocalist in a band. She’s been married to guitarist, Colin, a male chauvinist arsehole for four years. Whilst on a tour of American Army bases in Germany, they are thrown out of their hotel. William Carter, a Black American sergeant and his wife, Kim, offer to put them up. William treats T with respect, something alien to her. Later in the tour, after they’ve moved on from William’s Colin and T split up after a row. William invites T over to return a statue, stolen by Kim. When T gets there, she discovers William and Kim have also split up. After dinner, William suggests a walk in the local park.
William was right; there were many undiscovered delights in the town. This was T's first visit to the park; Colin wasn't one for taking walks. William and T walked arm in arm; the immense trees shading the path standing tastefully disposed about the way, in singles and in groups. Some suffered from ivy, others from the various malignant disorders to which vegetation is prone. One had even been struck by lightning, but all stood majestic in their old age. The Anglo/American pair ambled past until they came to a stop and sat on a park bench looking out over the still lake. More trees with naked winter branches reflected in the calm water. The air was cold but dry and fresh. T snuggled down into her warm coat and squeezed the forearm of her companion.
When I wrote the above in one of my earliest drafts, I was really proud of it. However, when I learned a bit more about editing and about voice, I realised how wrong it was for the piece. Prior to turning professional, T worked semi-professionally, singing in workingmen’s clubs whilst working as an auxiliary nurse. She is a Leeds lass. When she speaks in dialogue, she speaks as a Leeds lass should speak. What I didn’t realise, in those early drafts, that narration is the thoughts or descriptions, seen through the eyes of your viewpoint character. If the reader is to maintain empathy with the character, the narration needs to be written in the same voice as that character. The above paragraph is not written in the voice of a Leeds lass, it’s the author, trying to be clever. She does read a lot, so sometimes I can get away with using certain words that could be considered outside her vocabulary but not to suddenly think in a way that makes her sound like she spent fifteen years at Roedean. This is the piece as edited.
William was right; there were lots to see in the town. This was her first visit to the park. Colin wasn't one for taking walks. They walked arm in arm, the great trees shading the path. Some had mushrooms like warts, others, covered in ivy. One had even been struck by lightning but most stood there, majestically, like grand old men. William and T strolled past until they came to a park bench overlooking a still lake. More trees with bare winter branches reflected in the calm water. The air was cold and fresh. She snuggled down into her warm coat and relinked his forearm.
Sometimes it’s argued, there should be no difference between the narration in a piece written in the third person to that written in the first person but there is a difference; it’s called Narrative Distance.
In my revised piece, some might say it’s still not the voice of a Leeds lass but that’s where the advantage of narrative distance comes in. I thought it important to show the peacefulness she experienced with the occasion. My justification for any poetic turn of phrase is that this is a moment in the story when her relationship with William turns from a fling into something more serious. She would never vocalise such thoughts and if this was written in the first person I couldn’t justify her even thinking them. However, she’s not thick, if she had the inner vocabulary, she would think in this way for something so important. Used in this way, Narrative Distance is a useful tool to show those momentous moments in the story. Obviously, this would be weakened if all the narration was written in the same way. I do the same thing earlier with the description of the Arabian Night’s Storyteller shopkeeper when she first comes across the statues.
Two pinches from an elliptical rococo snuffbox, placed on the back of his hand then sniffed with great vigour up each nostril, and the storyteller's head looked like it was going to spin off, earrings jangling and eyes blinking. "Not ebony, soapstone, very lucky, especially for ladies." His gold tooth flashed through his sales pitch. "Almost one thousand years old, discovered in the Land of Ophir, made by the Shona women who worshipped them as gods, plundered by the Portuguese, centuries ago." So much history, culture and mystique: "As you can see, lady, they are in very good condition. I believe they once belonged to King Solomon, himself." The storyteller stamped the base of his fist into his palm like an auctioneer's gavel.
Before I learnt otherwise, I would write as the author describing the situation and describing my characters, even the protagonist and viewpoint character. The writer’s voice should be linked, and intimately belong to a character. This is the opening of “Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold.
My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.
The most striking thing about this opening is we’re listening to a dead person. If this was the author narrating it wouldn’t have anything like the same impact.
If you have more than one viewpoint character you need to make sure their voices are not interchangeable. This can be particularly difficult when your characters have similar backgrounds but whatever personal history it should be their voice and not the author’s. However, when your character has distinctive style, in some instances it might be better to maintain some narrative distance. If for example, your character speaks in fast, short sentences, if this continued throughout the dialogue and the narration for the whole book, the reader would become exhausted. It would be like listening to “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” in concerto length. Similar, if you try to copy the style of some of the great writers and hence try to imitate their voice, it can come across as pretentious and unreadable. Style and voice are not the same. Every writer has a literary style, whatever their calibre but not necessary a voice. Some writers can do clever things with POV or tenses but whatever style they use, it’s usually one that serves the story. If your style overshadows your story, you’ve defeated the object. To write with creative maturity takes and needs time to allow the writer’s voice to mature.
Having said all of the above, the last thing you want to do is restrict yourself into a minimalism that doesn’t suit your natural voice. Sometimes, poetic flights of fancy are just what’s needed. Whilst you don’t want to take over the story from them, it might be necessary to use vocabulary outside that of your character to show the complexity of their thoughts. Just because a character is inept in the area of articulation doesn’t mean they’re incapable of multifaceted thinking.
Naturally, when you use this option, it should be important to your story. It should be done at a turning point in the character’s life. If you expend your literary gifts on a passing fancy or whim, it will get in the way of the story. Also, it shouldn’t be overdone. Not even Lord Byron would think like this for very long. And it’s not only where the character is in the story, but where they are in the moment.
How do you recognise the author’s voice? Go through your sections or chapters and the sentences or phrases that give you a little smile of pleasure will probably be a representation of your voice. Analyse them and compare their rhythm, fullness, simplicity, or freshness to those sentences that feel flat, strained, awkward, obvious, pedestrian, forced or make you wince. Are the sentences around the weak ones all of the same structure? If a sentence is vague, rewrite it and make it specific. ‘A man walked into the bar and ordered a drink,’ doesn’t have the same bite as: ‘A midget cart-wheeled through the Dog & Duck and ordered a pint of Crème de Menthe’.
When you’ve analysed all the parts of your manuscript that make you smile, hopefully you’ll be able to rectify those that don’t. Only revision can do this. Listen to your characters, over and over. When you believe everything they say and think, you’ll have discovered their voice and probably your own.