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May the Voice be with You!

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When I took up writing (on the serious) a few years ago, one of the hardest elements to wrap my head around was voice. I have degrees in English and writing, and I’m a creative soul (aren’t we all?) so I figured this should be easy. You tell a good story—strong characters, vivid settings, a dynamic plot—take out the adverbs and BAM! You got yourself a published book. Turns out, the rest of that stuff is harder than it sounds, but that’s another ten posts. But voice…what was it exactly. And why was it so important?

Being a reader, I knew what it was. I just didn’t know I knew. Voice was that… thing. That thing that made the whole book come together. That thing that made a good read, a great one. That thing that got you to the last page in style. If I wanted to be a great writer, I needed to be a Jedi-Master with words. I needed to wield the Force. Turns out Voice is strong with midichlorians. (Apologies to all true Star Wars fans.)

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So I honed my skills. I made my characters quirky, moody, and unpredictable. I wrote sentences. And rewrote sentences. And re-rewrote sentences, all so I could twist the phrase to make it memorable. They needed to do more than move the story and carry the characters forward. They needed to do it in style. And, after much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, I got pretty okay at it. But okay wasn’t going to sell.

It wasn’t until I read Mindy McGinnis’ Not a Drop to Drink that I got a whole new perspective on voice. Ms. McGinnis does everything you’re supposed to do with voice, and then she gave it a whole new layer—which gave me an A-HA moment.

In cinema, a director may choose to shoot the film through a filter or later apply one. The filter has the effect of establishing a mood—creating a tone that produces a feeling within the viewer. In Not a Drop to Drink, Ms. McGinnis has done this very thing, but her filter was her voice.

Not a Drop to Drink is a futuristic story set in a world where water is a most prized commodity. When teenager Lynn isn’t purifying and storing water she’s retrieved from the family pond, she’s watching over it with her mother—and a shotgun. Every drop is precious and not to be shared with animals—or strangers.

Now in a story such as this, you can probably imagine the setting—dry, barren, sparse. And how does she tell the story? In a wonderful, matching voice.

Years before, Mother had shown her pictures of the thirsty dead. Their skin hung from their bones like the wallpaper that sloughed from the walls in the unused upstairs hallway. Swollen tongues were forced past lips cracked and bleeding. Eyes sunk so deeply into sockets that the outline of the skulls was evident. “Do you want to die like this?” Mother had asked that night and every night since then. Lynn’s answer never changed. “No.” And Mother’s response, their evening prayer. “Then you will have to kill.” Regret was for people with nothing to defend, people who had no water. McGinnis, Mindy (2013-09-24). Not a Drop to Drink (pp. 4-5). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

In this passage, Ms. McGinnis’ language matches the content. Concrete nouns do the heavy lifting. Verbs perform a workman-like job, nothing more. Adjectives are harsh and utilitarian. Visceral but short, spare phrases set the tone. And the picture that’s presented when she’s done? A Spartan depiction that perfectly mirrors the setting she’s trying to paint.

I know this sounds simple, but the simpleness of it blew me away. As writers we don’t have music or lens filters or camera angles—all we have is words. Why not use those words to do more than tell the story—use them to paint the picture. Match the words and sentences to whatever setting you wish to create. A vivid lush landscape? Allow your prose to be flowery and bold. A poor ramshackle neighborhood? Use punchy, short sentences containing gritty adjectives and nouns that leave little to the imagination. Even scenes within a story can be matched with slight adjustments to the voice.

To close, what I learned was that while voice should convey style and match your character’s views and attitudes, it can also be the brush that paints the canvas and gives your writing that mysterious Force that resonates with a reader long after they’ve finished reading.

 

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