It’s interesting how we write our stories and often in workshops I ask people to write me a scene, hook me in and let them think it’s because I want to see how they use devices. But what I am really doing is looking at what comes naturally. If I asked you to pick up a pen and write me an opening scene now, about a missing dog, how does it start? What is your natural storytelling voice? Who does the reader hear, you or the character?
While the omniscient narrator is still alive, these days most novels use character voice and that means first or third person… because, as I have said here before, even in third- person you can still create a limited or subjective viewpoint. So imagine not an external narrator sat in the corner of the screen saying he did, he thought, he said but as if you are that character, You have to imagine you are sat right inside their head. So the narration is as close as a first-person, right? He couldn’t believe it, hell where did she get the damn gun? Jesus, how would explain this? He had to get out. Jesus, right now he had to get the hell away from here…
It’s in third-person… off the cuff writing so don’t judge it but can you see that this is anything but generic. Even in third-person, it’s the character’s voice you should hear and not me as the author. Look at how other writers create these voices. In this voice we see, think, hear, make assumptions, act as if we are him and so no external view of his face as he doesn’t see it, does he? So no his eyes sparkled at that moment… how does he know?
Voice is the point in the writing that connects YOU to your READER. The reader wants to be this character and so that’s why, for me, voice is everything. I make the distinction again that I mean character voice and not ‘your voice’ as the author. That’s more about style, how you write, how you construct your sentences, the signature bits that make this story your unique way of doing it, right? That’s what you develop the more you write. No, here I mean character voice and it’s what stops the writing being generic and makes it feel real. Honestly, I learned that from reading Stephen King, the master of characterisation. Look at his work if you haven’t.
When you start a novel the voice you ‘start to’ create for a character changes as you progress through the novel. What you have to do when you edit, is look at how much of that is character development that you need for story, and how much is you developing the character the more you get to know them. The latter is the thing you need to address in the big edit. Ensure a consistent voice. As you get to know characters they start to exhibit behaviour patterns so the reader sees these as cues, he coughs when he can’t think what to say, he picks at an old pockmark when he’s anxious… and he will use memes, expressions, unique to him, as we as people do, right? This is when the character begins to truly live on the page. He attains his own identity. The way he speaks, thinks, acts in given situations, even what kind of person he is: messy, neat, a touch of OCD, outspoken etc. all start to form. Now you will feel as if his voice is natural to you. You have breathed life into a character.
Voice is all part of that characterisation and since it’s the character we hear in any given scene, chapter or the whole thing, then it needs to be right. I actually think it’s the difference between something that’s okay and something that’s great.
When I wrote While No One Was Watching voice was so important to me and Lydia just became real. Her voice was tricky and, while most people loved her, there was the odd review that said they did not get her voice. Trust me I had a softer voice, worried I was overdoing the African-American vernacular but an editor told me to commit, do it or don’t do it at all and I did have to study to get it right, or as right as this British white girl was able! I hope I succeeded! What can I tell you, as soon as I breathed life into her, she took over and showed me this is me, this is how I walk, talk, think and you better do me justice, girl. Yes, Sir!
The aim for me is that you can pick up the book, let it fall open and know from a couple of lines whose voice this is. That for me makes it sing!
So deleting stuff… I talked earlier this week about the need to edit out those phrases, expressions that repeat, are not functional etc. That is so true. However, you also want to think about the voice. There are times when there might be a sense of repetition, a sense of recap because that is one of the aspects of the character’s personality. Look at Lydia as an example, she does tend to repeat for emphasis. The trick is to get the balance right between the wittering repetitive non-functional diatribe that reflects the way people really speak and creating a believable character with a believable voice, and one that does not bog the reader down with unnecessary repetition. It still has to function to move the plot.
Your editor should be able to make this distinction so you keep the voice but lose the filler.
So now go and look at your favourite novels and firstly ask yourself if this is a character narrator… and now look at how the voice works, is it distinctive?
I will leave you with an extract from my novel…Lydia at her finest… I hope…
The storm is gone.
Mister Tommy is still curled up in the towel from last night when he came in lookin’ like he’d fallen in the river. Missy Cat is watchin’ me from Papa’s rocker. In the kitchen there’s half a bowl of beef stew on the floor – soul food Momma used to call it. Or maybe that was chicken stew. Either way she always said it was the way to a man’s heart, of course I wouldn’t know about that.
Don’t you leave one morsel, she would say, food is for the soul and if your soul is right everythin’ else gon’ be right. Then she would get that look as if she was seein’ into the distance. Momma always said she didn’t have the gift but when she looked at me like that with her eyes so wide they looked like poppy blooms with big black centres, I thought maybe she did.
Of course Papa, he never approved of nothin’ like that. He said it was against God. I can still hear him: There should not be found amongst you anyone who practises divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer. Now I never knew what one of them was – a necromancer, but he’d look at me real hard and no way was I gonna ask him and he’d carry on: or one who inquires of the dead. Anyone who does this – they an abomination of the Lord. And I would see the way Momma looked at me when he said that. Papa liked to quote the scriptures, yes he did. But me – little ol’ Lydia an abomination? Just as well I never knew what that meant neither.
Right now not even soul food’s gonna lift this feelin’. Like a cloud even though there’s no clouds in the sky this mornin’, just good ol’ Texan sunshine. But it’s there anyhow: a memory I put away a long time since. Matter of fact I didn’t just put it away – I closed the darn lid.
I walk to the kitchen and gaze into the fridge mumblin’ to myself: Eggs. Bread. Oatmeal. Bacon. Then I close the fridge door with a soft suckin’ sound and look at King Marms who watchin’ me like I’m some kind of crazy woman. Now I know somethin’s gonna happen. I know because I lost my appetite and that means there’s more than last night’s storm in the air.
I look at the pile of paper on the table, all kind of nonsense that comes through the door, offerin’ me all kind of things I don’t want. Except for the coupons. Papa would be so proud about that. He’d rock in that chair cuttin’ coupons like it was therapy. I used to wonder where in the scriptures it said somethin’ about cuttin’ coupons. I bet if I’d asked him he would’ve started quotin’ me the Old Testament: Thou shall cut the coupons …
And he would come home from the grocery store tellin’ me how much he saved, a whole five cents on beans he’d say like he just won the lottery. Papa was proud to own this house. He’d be tellin’ folks ’bout it like he weren’t like the other coloured folks back then. Sometimes I thought maybe he forgot his roots. But he weren’t too proud to cut coupons, no Sir.
© Debz Hobbs-Wyatt, Parthian Books, 2013
Tomorrow I can talk about anything you want editing wise… send me suggestions, questions etc!