Today’s guest is TL Costa, the debut author of the young adult novel Playing Tyler (Strange Chemistry/Random House), which has been called “One part Real Genius and one part War Games” by A.G. Howard, author of Splintered. Howard also said:

Playing Tyler has voice for miles, two damaged yet driven main characters who will simultaneously shatter your heart and send your pulse into overdrive, and disturbing plot twists that could too easily be real. The emotionally riveting prose and genuine relationships draw you in and won’t let go until the final satisfying sentence. Costa is on my auto-buy list from this day forward!”

And the lovely New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Kristin Higgins said this of Playing Tyler:

Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, Ponyboy Curtis…add another name to the list of unforgettable teenage heroes: Tyler MacCandless. Ty will break your heart and make your cheer on this fast and furious thrill-ride. A breathtaking new voice in young adult fiction, TL Costa weaves realistic adventure, heartache and first love in this amazing, fast-paced story. Fresh. Thrilling. Heartfelt. I’m running out of adjectives, but trust me. You will love this book.”

TL Costa has worked as a publicist, assistant gallery director, high school teacher and she’s a mother. Here, she talks about voice, including how being in a musical family helped her build her main character.

Learn more about her and her novel, Playing Tyler, on her website, and by following her on Twitter (@TLCosta1) and Facebook.

Develop Voice by Listening

Voice is a concept in fiction that stands out as an abstract.  Terms like theme, pace, structure, character, can all be explained to an emerging writer in a comparatively straightforward fashion.  A strong voice, on the other hand, is something that readers and agents and editors want, but very few can define in quantitative terms. It can also be divisive, as a book with a strong voice is typically either loved or hated.

Coming from a musical family, I grew up hearing loved ones slowly plucking out a song from the atmosphere.  Hours of my childhood were spent with my head bent low over the piano, playing a tune again and again in my mind, my fingers desperately seeking the notes that would match my song.

To call a song into life is a realization of the relationship between musician and instrument, much like to write with a strong voice is the realization of the relationship between author and book.

This, to me, is the essence of voice.  Voice is the music called into being by the writer and put into words.

How is this done?

Through the manipulation of words, of dialect, and of punctuation used to appropriately reflect your character(s), their thoughts and their emotions.

The beat generation exemplifies a community of authors who understood the correlation between prose and melody.

Jack Kerouac admired the work of Charlie Parker, a legendary trumpet player.  Kerouac’s style of writing, a stream of consciousness that echoed the wild, sometimes discordant music in his head, is reflective of this jazz.  And, like Charlie Parker’s music, it’s Jack Kerouac’s voice that pulls the reader into his story.  That keeps us reading.   If we read the opening lines of Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, you can almost hear a Parker jazz riff behind them:

Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara.” –Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

Now listen to Charlie Parker’s All the Things You Are:

Hear it?

Other authors that use strong voice in their work may not have such a specific type of music by which to model their craft, yet still the voice of each character make its own, character-specific, type of music.  The Catcher in the Rye, for instance, has a very distinct voice, and it’s the word order, the rhythm behind the thoughts, that so clearly demonstrates Holden’s state of mind, that grabs the reader and takes them along.

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me.  And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.  That’s all I do all day.  I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.  I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.” – JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

In this example, Salinger uses certain word repetition—have to, I mean—and pairs it with punctuation to create a melody to the words that reveal to us the depth of Holden’s character.

Playing Tyler ARC cover-1 1 (2)
In my debut, Playing Tyler, Tyler’s voice is it’s own distinct song, a song that I transcribe from my mind to the page.  His ADHD gives him a unique, rather staccato melody of thought.  Much like in music, I use his voice to increase tension by speeding the pace of that song, by blurring the lines of reason into a burst of emotion reflective of the discordant epiphanies found in the music of Bartok, or the anarchic beauty found in the work of various punk bands.

I wanted to show the reader that his condition is reflected in his every thought, every action.  I would ask myself how would that voice change as he encountered first love?  As he visited his brother in rehab?  As he started to discover the matrix of moral ambiguities between right and wrong?  His words barrel through chapters and help steer the reader through the complex workings of his mind, giving the reader a deep, almost visceral relationship with Tyler.

Voice is a great opportunity for the writer, a chance to demonstrate a character’s personality, convey emotion, and reflect the pace of the plot.  So if we really wish to master the voice of prose, first we may have to open our ears.

What books contain your favorite examples of a strong voice?