In which we talk about ‘voice’.

Hello, duckies. Hear the bell? Class began last Tuesday night (Feb 2). Oh my goodness, it was awesome! I could literally hear the brains buzzing. Or maybe that was my brain. Or the cicadas. No matter. For those of you who couldn’t join us, here is an excerpt from the Official Course Notes. Posh, hey? I hope you find them helpful. 😉

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WEEK ONE: Writing Books For Children. A few notes on voice.

Do YOU belong to the FAMOUS FIVE CLUB? Have YOU got the FAMOUS FIVE BADGE? There are friends of the FAMOUS FIVE all over the world. Wear the F.F. badge and you will know each other at once. Enid Blyton will wear one too, so that you will know her. The lovely little badges cost one shilling. Any profit will go to THE CHILDREN’S CONVALESCENT HOME in Beaconsfield.

From the prelims to, Five Run Away Together, 1944

 What is VOICE?

Well, what does the magic box (aka the Internet) say?

The writer’s voice is the individual writing style of an author, a combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works).

And while we’re thinking about voice we should probably get clear on tone as they go hand in hand and are often spoken of within the same context. Here’s another definition—yes, I lurve formal definitions:

Tone is a literary compound of composition, which shows the attitudes toward the subject and toward the audience implied in a literary work. Tone may be formal, informal, intimate, solemn, somber, playful, serious, ironic, condescending, or many other possible attitudes.

Here’s a beautiful quote from one of my favourite authors:

‘Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.’– Meg Rosoff, novelist, author of How I Live Now

Rosoff’s definition, though inspiring, is a tad idealistic. But voice does need to be as honest as we can make it. Voice is what gives our writing personality. Of course, all literature is an artifice but the closer we can get to an authentic voice, the more original and engaging our work will be. This is why I say rewrite until you hit on the perfect voice for your story and your reader.

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When we first begin writing for kids we are bound to have all sorts of beliefs (subconscious or otherwise) about what sounds convincing and how we should come across. Who’s watching? Who’s judging? Who’s hovering at our shoulder with a red pen and whacking cane? These fears and preoccupations will affect our voice. And I speak from experience. Despite having written multiple novels for kids, when it came to picture books I was at a loss. I somehow felt that picture books had to be ‘worthy’. That I could not expect people to trust me with their babies unless what I had to say was…important. I spent years paralysed by visions of the gatekeepers — poking fun at my writing, screwing up their noses (in my mind they always wore shawl cardigans and navy court shoes). Because of my paranoia, every one of my first picture books was earnest, highbrow and stiff. I even wrote a picture book based on Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shallot. What was I thinking?!

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I was writing for the critics and not for my audience. When I FINALLY realised this, something else occurred to me—even a book about ‘up and down’ or a tale about a frozen chicken in a top hat, is worthy when you’re a little kid eager to explore every corner of the world. So, I gave up pre-empting myself and found my voice. What a relief! I wrote three picture books in quick succession and sold them all to major publishers. We have to ‘write out’ or purge ourselves of our grade three teacher, our favourite authors (remember they are not US), our great aunt Agatha, the nuns, the critics, the judges. Only through constant practise will our voice become refined, fresh, and free of the you-better-do-it-properly ghosts.

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Note: While their voice might be consistent across a body of work, a writer will often alter their traditional voice in order to suit a particular story. For example, Truly Tan. This series is written in first person, present tense, vaguely unreliable narrator (we will discuss the details of this definition later). For now, it’s worth noting that I developed this voice through trial and error. It did not come instantly. Not at all. I nailed it when I decided to write a diary entry in Tan’s voice not my own ‘author’ voice. Having said that, there will usually be an essential characteristic that links an author’s body of work in terms of voice. For me it’s humour. My work is characterised by a light touch even when the subject matter is dark. For others, it might be sentence structure/syntax (Meg Rosoff), tone (Enid, J K Rowling) or any number of idiosyncrasies.

Because children’s authors often write for different age groups and thus a variety of audiences, it’s important that we understand and master voice. We must adjust and refresh accordingly. (Unless of course you only want to write in one genre or for one age group. But that could get boring, right?)

Need more convincing?

Voice is what makes our work stand out from the crowd. But it’s more than that. A strong or well-crafted voice tells the reader, ‘I know what I’m doing. Come with me. I’ll tell you a story that will blow your socks off’. A finely honed voice instils confidence from the outset and invites the reader into our world. The reader can relax and enjoy the story without being conscious of the writing — or worse, the writer behind the writing. Good writing is, in many ways, invisible. It is smooth, seamless, confident. We can admire it as we read but it never shouts, ‘Look at me!’ Good writing is never jarring, uneven, overwrought—(unless this is your intention). Readers must never know that behind the story the writer is skidding about on the literary ice rink—arms, legs, skates akimbo.

Developing voice is fun!  Accept that it might be a lengthy process—possibly lifelong. There is always more to learn. More to hone. And as you grow as an author your voice will become more confident. But in the early days you might have to be patient. Learn to enjoy playing with and refining voice. It’s a compelling way to spend time—and will make your work SHINE.

silencePS If you’d like to see me talking about this topic, subscribe to girl and duck and get the link to  Q & Q Friday videos. Episode 7 is all about voice.