It’s All in the Voice
The other day I received a phone call from a girlfriend as she browsed the shelves for a new book.
“Have you read The Rosie Project?” she asked.
My response was a gushing “Absolutely. Loved it. You won’t be able to put it down.”
It wasn’t until later that evening, after my friend was happily in possession of her new book, that I realised I’d made a horrible mistake. It wasn’t The Rosie Project I’d been thinking of at all. I struggled with that book – couldn’t even finish it. It was The Beloved by Annah Faulkner that I was picturing (in order to understand how I could get two such books confused you’d need an insight into the muddled, dysfunctional workings of my brain as those only close to me have learned to tolerate).
The two books couldn’t be more different. The Rosie Project is written in the voice of 39-year-old Don Tillman: a methodical, geeky IT professional somewhere on the autistic spectrum. The Beloved is written in the voice of Bertie: a determined, resilient young girl growing up in New Guinea with a crippled leg and a passion for drawing.
The Rosie Project is sharp and witty – I probably should have given it more of a chance. Yet somehow, I became all fidgety and teeth-grindy at the thought of spending the entire book with the harmless but tedious Don. Sorry Don.
Bertie’s voice, on the other hand, had me captivated from the first paragraph.
Do you ever loiter around the bookstore flicking through the first pages of a book to see if it grabs you or not? You’ve read the blurb on the back cover, you’re already intrigued, but it’s the voice that’s the deciding factor. It’s a little like choosing guests for a dinner party. Will they be interesting enough to spend an entire evening with? Will they make us laugh? Weep? Will we be itching to pour a bottle of red over them before the hors d’oeuvres are even finished? Do people even serve hors d’oeuvres anymore?
Voice is a personal flavour, like chocolate ice-cream. You either like it, or you don’t.
The Rosie Project has been sold to 30 different countries with advances exceeding $1 million, so there must be plenty of people out there who would place Don at the top of their dinner party invitee list.
Whether we connect or not, what is it that makes a voice strong and compelling? In her book, How Bullets Saved My Life: Fun Ways To Teach Some Serious Writing Skills, author Judy Green mentions:
“Strong voice is engaging to read. Energy and emotions charge the writing so that it is compelling and full of conviction. The writer’s tone is interesting and presence is powerful. Readers can “hear” personality in the writing. A weak voice, on the other hand, creates a watered-down effect, where the writer seems indifferent to the subject or distanced from the audience. The writing is plain, and the author sounds monotonous, flat, or even bored. With a weak voice, a writer loses the reader’s emotional investment.”
For me personally, I like a voice to show flair, to be stylish and consistent. To show depth and perspective. It’s not enough to be just dry and witty, I want to fall in love, or at least click like I’m making a new best friend. Show me you care and I will too. Lead me and I will follow.
How do we find our voice in writing? Nathan Bransford said the following on his blog:
“Your voice is in you. It’s not you per se, but it’s made up of bits and pieces of you. It may be the expression of your sense of humor or your whimsy or your cynicism or frustration or hopes or honesty, distilled down or dialed up into a voice. We should never make the mistake as readers of equating an author with their voice, but they’re wrapped up together in a complicated and real way. We leave fingerprints all over our work. That part of you in your work is what makes it something that no one else can duplicate.”
I haven’t apologised to my friend yet. I figured I’d let her finish the book first and make up her own mind. Let’s hope she sides with all those fans who would willingly sit next to Don at a dinner party.
What are your favourite/least favourite voices?