Finding The Right “Voice” For Your Novel, by Carolyn Meyer
Finding a “voice” that enables a novel to connect with teen readers requires skill. Even the most fascinating characters and the most intriguing plot will fall flat without that voice.
Finding it begins with the narrator. An older adult, looking back over his life? A young person, telling her story in a voice that changes as she ages? Or a third-person narrator, recounting the story from a distance? Tense also affects voice; present feels different from past.
Victoria’s diaries and Darwin’s correspondence were invaluable in finding the voice in Victoria Rebels and The True Adventures of Charley Darwin.
Cleopatra Confesses was harder. She spoke ancient Greek and a number of other ancient languages, including Egyptian. None of this helped. I decided to use first person present tense, but I knew that if she sounded too “modern”, the effect would be jarring, and a formal voice felt too mannered and off-putting. Contractions have been common in English for centuries; not using them makes for a formal voice. Assuming there must have been similar grammatical constructs in ancient Greek, I used contractions when Cleopatra speaks to her sisters, brothers and servants, and more formal language when she speaks to her father.
Voice also involves the length and complexity of sentences. Generally a mix of short, simple sentences with some compound and complex sentences feels right. Choice of vocabulary is critical, especially in writing for teens. I avoid passive voice and replace weak-verb-plus-adverb with a strong verb: “gobbled” or “gulped”, rather than “ate hungrily.”
When a certain word or phrase may be unfamiliar to a teen reader, I explain it, directly or by context. When Darwin meets the captain of the ship on which he will sail around the world, the captain says, “I’m an ardent believer in phrenology, and I hold that a man’s character is revealed nowhere so strongly as in his face. I doubt whether anyone with a broad, indelicate nose such as yours could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage.” Concerned that young readers would not know anything about phrenology, I included the phrase about “a man’s character is revealed…” to explain it.
White Lilacs is narrated by a 12-year-old African-American girl in the 1920s. I didn’t use dialect; Rose Lee’s voice is simple and direct. I must have gotten it right, for many teen readers were surprised when this white author showed up for school visits.
Beware the dreaded anachronism. When I wrote Loving Will Shakespeare I used a dictionary to determine when certain words came into common usage. But I missed one, and was nailed by a reviewer who noted that I had referred to Anne Hathaway as a “spinster”; in Shakespeare’s time a spinster was a woman who spun wool or flax and did not yet mean “an older unmarried woman” for another half century or so.
At some point I read aloud what I’ve written and listen to the voice, trusting my own ear to detect anything that sounds a bit “off”. It’s not a perfect detector but it’s usually good enough to send me back for a rewrite – especially when I’m writing about spinsters.
Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com
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