Friday, March 2, 2012

Can you teach voice?

I was asked this question recently. I'm thinking about it. Yes and no. How's that for a definite answer. (My students, btw, frequently assert things like, "I am defiantly glad I moved here!" and "Survivor is defiantly the grandfather of all reality shows." Cough. Spell-check is not always your friend.)

Writing voice is like singing voice. You're born with the potential for a good voice, or not, and you can't be taught to have the potential. But you can be taught to refine and improve the potential voice. And I think that even if you haven't the potential for a good voice, you can certainly be taught to have an adequate voice to suit most writing purposes. You won't end up singing at the Met if you aren't born with the potential (and without insightful teachers along the way!), but without the talent but with the teachers, you can learn enough that you don't embarrass yourself at a group sing-along.

But yes, voice is more than just the rhythmic and near-musical assemblage of words in a pleasing and/or effective pattern. Voice includes worldview, attitude, personality, wisdom, and other personal traits that exist within some of us, and can be brought into our writing to deepen what we have as a voice. This is (to use another musical metaphor) probably what separates (I'm dating myself here, but with Davy Jones's death, they're in my mind) The Monkees (technically polished, even talented) from The Beatles (ditto, but with some extra fillip of meaningfulness and imagination). The Monkees couldn't help but be derivative, and The Beatles couldn't help but be a thing beyond their influences.  Now would you say that the depth and thought and all that is more or less useful than the technical expertise?  Shallow-but-polished vs. insightful-but-a-mess. Well, we know, given that choice, what the buying public usually goes for.

I think "iimagination" is another aspect that takes voice above the merely competent technically.  I've taught former journalists who really want to be novelists, and of course their writing mechanics are admirable (they better be), but often they struggle to create characters and stories that are beyond what they have observed. (Some journalists, often those who struggled in their jobs with the desire to "just make it up," like, say Mark Twain, have great imaginations, but that's not really compatible with the career choice.) They are often less successful as writers than that fabulously imaginative but technically hopeless fantasist. You can hire editors, but you can't hire imaginators.

But, as one who is somewhat imagination-deprived, I can attest that it's indeed possible to go "deeper if not broader" when you don't have much imagination, and still come up with books that are more than just "what anyone could come up with."

Anyway, you can tell voice is something I'm intrigued by, and there! I ended on a preposition! I feel sinful!


C0 said...

Ah, spell check has trouble with the word definitely. I often have to type it out myself to keep Word from suggesting defiantly. And Chrome puts it as the first choice.

Voice is such a tricky subject. Most of the voice articles never dig into the mechanical nature of it. Once, I wrote a guest post on character voice (with factors like formality, word choice, hesitation, and even usage of the word "I"), and it landed on several round-ups simply because people rarely writes such a post on the subject. One day, when I actually have experience on the subject, I'll rewrite it.

You can write a list of factors that can go into narrative voice, (paragraph structure, word choice, humor, etc) but in the end, it's something a writer has to find for themselves.

Alicia Rasley said...

C0, I think there are techniques that can help everyone refine the voice. The most important step, I think is getting to know your voice and its potential. And I'd also say it's important to find the genre or publisher or market niche or readership that can be drawn to that voice.

Really strong voices alienate probably a large percentage of readers, and I would think a thick skin is an essential possession until you find the right path to the right readers!

James Scott Bell said...

Nice post. I do think voice can be developed with certain techniques. I use them in my workshops and seminars. Voice is like gold in a stream, and you can learn how to pan for it. To "tickle it so she comes out laughing." You just can't stick your fist in and come out with voice.

One of the things I use is the page long sentence. There are others. Ray Bradbury advocates reading some poetry each day. It opens up new synapses. Which is, when you get right down to it, where original voice comes from.

Eliott McKay said...

I'm going to have to read your book, because I'm curious about the page long sentence.

Wes said...

Interesting post. My sense is that voice comes from one's formative years during which one gains a world view, a way of thinking, a vocabulary, and observation of colorful or influential persons. I had the surprising exerience of improving voice by studying linguistics on an ethnic group I had little experience with (ending with a preposition). The analysis of speech patterns, sentence structure, etc. helped. The research enabled me to avoid using phoenetics, dropping letters, etc., yet getting the flavor of speech and thought across.

John Wiswell said...

The defiantly issue is too cute! It took me a moment to figure out why they were so bold with you.

I believe you can teach people to recognize some of the tricks and tools for establishing voice, like syllable frequency, sentence length and pacing, but whether they can manipulate them into new voices, and whether it's feasible to coach people to these ends, would rest with the individual's experience.

Alicia Rasley said...

James, poetry-- yes, there's nothing like that for honing the word choice. Distilled emotion. :)

Leona said...

I don't know if you can teach voice, but you can teach someone to edit out their voice! I've done and I watched a friend do it as she took everything everyone said (like 5-7 beta readers, at least 3 of whom were writers) and took it to the extreme. Soon, she'd lost the charm that was intrinsic in her YA writing. I tried to tell her to take everything with a grain of salt as I'd spent agaonizing hours trying to make my fantasy have little "purple prose" until it had lost all it's flavor, then tried to put it back again. Sigh. Such hardwork for something which may have been technically purer on the grammar level, but not happily read. :(

Anyway, I think you're right, part of our voice is how we're raised, what we believe, etc. But a huge part is something beyond that. You touched on it. Although there are other influencing factors, I think it comes down to one large issue.

What can we imagine? THAT is the ultimate limit of our voice.