Develop Voice by Listening

voice

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? 

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Comments

  1. says

    Fascinating comparisons with music and prose. The Kerouac passage also reminds me of the rhythm of a long-distance train traveling the rails. Voice is a powerful tool to evoke setting, too. Kind of like casting a spell to transport readers into the story world and the mind of the narrator.

    Books! You asked about books! :) A strong voice helps bond me to a book. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a banquet of voice, but I’m partial to the southern voice anyway. I also enjoyed John Burdett’s BANKGKOK 8 with its mix of the spiritual and profane. Two more recent books with strong voices I enjoyed are two takes on dark deeds in small towns: Patricia McLinn’s SIGN OFF and Gillian Flynn’s SHARP OBJECTS.

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    • says

      Thanks, Rhonda! I love TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Scout is just an unforgettable narrator. Also, Gillian Flynn is quickly becoming one of my favorite mystery writers, all of her characters have such distinctive voices.

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  2. Ekwy says

    Hi there,

    You’re the first person I’ve come across that has related voice with music and oh, how it makes sense. Voice is something I yearn for in my work and so I’m always so excited when I see an article that talks about voice. For the past year and a half, I’ve been listening to a particular album while I write and find that apart from getting me in the mood, the rhythm of my narrative voice has remained consistent (at least that’s what my tutor says).

    Thank you for an enlightening post.

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  3. Ekwy says

    Forgot to answer your question: Patrick Ness’s The knife of letting go, Meg Rosoff’s How I live now and Jenny Downham’s Before I die.

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    • says

      Thanks for stopping by, Ekwy! I find that when I write I tend to listen to the same pieces over and over. Oddly, I can’t listen to the music when I’m actually typing, but rather when I’m forming a plan for a scene in my head. But each character tends to have their own album, and I really believe that it does help with consistency of voice.

      Patrick Ness’ Knife of Never Letting Go is one of my absolute favorites. What he does with voice is an inspiration!

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  4. says

    Most of the classics, and one authors who write both songs and books are often favorites. Woody Guthrie is often overlooked, but had amazing voice in the few books he wrote.

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    • says

      Thanks for stopping by, Dan!

      Yes! Woody Guthrie’s voice is remarkable. The other author who pops into my head immediately for having a terrific writing voice as well as being a respected composer is Anthony Burgess.

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  5. says

    Although I’m not certain I can draw a direct correlation to voice, music plays a major role in my writing. Certain musical artists have a way of conveying emotion in such a direct way. Sometimes it’s lyrical, sometimes relates to sounds or orchestration. I aspire to tap into emotion with such directness and simplicity, but I know I have far to go. Nice examples!

    As far as strong voice examples that spring to mind: Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, and Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels.

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    • says

      Thanks for stopping by, Vaughn!

      Yes, the Kushiel series is wonderful! I am going to have to check out Tender Morsels. Thanks!

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  6. says

    It took me a while to realize why the Narnia series was such a big part of my childhood and after a while I realized it was because of C.S. Lewis’ narrator’s voice. I’ve heard others describe it as too patronizing or intrusive, and I can see how someone might see it that way, but for me it was like having some kind grown-up explain all those weird things you know are going on but you’re not quite understanding as a kid (and not sounding at all patronizing, to me).

    It’s a unique voice because Lewis uses a first-person, past tense narration with an omniscient narrator, a narrator who is not a character in the novel. You don’t see that much these days!

    I actually wrote a blog post with some examples from one of the books here: http://christianfrey.ca/narrative-voice-and-cs-lewis/

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    • says

      Thanks, Christian! I LOVE your piece on CS Lewis. I have been trying to think of someone else who uses first person, past tense omniscient POV to such great results and just can’t. CS Lewis was a master-storyteller and his style in the Narnia series hit the perfect mix of charm and whimsy. Have you read the Screwtape Letters? The POV is different, but the voice is simply remarkable in that one as well.

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      • says

        Thank you!! I haven’t read the Screwtape Letters, although I’ve read about them. It’s on my TBR list ;)

        Another favorite of mine for voice is the YA novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson. Two authors writing two protagonists with the same name who meet unexpectedly halfway through the book. It’s a great contrast.

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  7. says

    I hear the “strong voice” statement quite often, but I don’t know what a strong voice would read like. I’m still chugging down similac on that concept. Sometimes I think I know, but I probably really don’t know. Honestly- I don’t really think about it. It feels like it’s above my pay grade.

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    • says

      Thanks for stopping by, Brian! Voice is definitely one of the trickiest concepts to master, or even understand. Because one aspect of the voice lies in the writer’s own personal style, and the other lies in maintaining a certain uniqueness to the characters the author is writing. One thing that helps me is to imagine that as I write each character’s POV, I am “method acting”- assuring that every word I use, every thing about my situation is what that character would notice and nothing else.

      For great examples of a strong, clear-as-day novels with a strong voice I would recommend A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess and FEED by MT Anderson.

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  8. says

    Awesome post, T.L. I love the analogy of writer’s voice to that of a musician’s song. There are those rare writers who stand out head and shoulders above the rest with an indefinable something in their writing that captivates and draws the reader into the head and heart of each character. You have defined it beautifully! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

    As for distinct voices in literature, Barbara Kingsolver comes to mind, as does Diana Gabaldon. These ladies could write grocery lists that would make my heart sing and force me to turn a page. Both have a sense of the lyrical that resonates with me. I think I could identify their writing even without knowing it was them. That’s the true essence of voice for me.

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    • says

      Thanks for stopping by, PJ!! (And for sharing!)

      Yes, Kingsolver is one of my favorites! Her lyricism and her ability to paint such amazing visuals wither her prose is just amazing!

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  9. says

    LOVE this post! Voice is so tricky to nail but so worth getting down. I think listening to people talk is a great way to help develop a character’s voice.
    This is actually something that really bothered me about The Hunger Games. Katniss’ voice was ok, but sometimes she would use big words that I didn’t think Katniss, girl from the slums, would know. It took me out of the story.

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    • says

      Thanks, Jessica! Voice is such a tricky thing, and one or two mis-steps in a text can definitely pull a reader out of a story.

      You are so right! Listening to the way people speak helps me greatly when it comes to voice. I go and sit in cafes and pretend to read while I’m really taking notes on patterns of speech. I find it’s so helpful.

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  10. says

    definitely a trip finding the lines to match –

    esp loved,

    “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.” –

    i think dance can help, poetry, listening to the wind, a baby breath, but music does have a power ;-)

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    • says

      Thanks, Felipe! And I’ve never thought of using dance, but I do notice that I channel my characters the best when I’m in motion, walking, running, etc. So dance most definitely fits the bill!

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  11. says

    Love the analogy between voice and music. Books with a great voice: Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate diCamillo (actually, she’s got such a beautiful voice, I’d even read her grocery list). The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (the details are so evocative, I am transported into the world she creates. It’s like listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), and A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck (love the grandmother and her wit and wisdom). That’s three for now …

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  12. says

    I’d always thought authorial voice and music should be related; they’re both dependent upon sound, and otherwise we’d use terms like “fingerprint” or similar. But I enjoyed this explanation.

    As for strong voices, I think of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, or anything written by Jennifer Crusie and Georgette Heyer. Heck, I’ve found myself thinking in their voices for days after closing a book. They’re most infectious.

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    • says

      Thanks, Jan! I think that “fingerprint” could definitely be used when talking about authorial voice. Crusie and Heyer have such distinctive authorial voices, I find myself sort of relaxing into their books, falling under their spell and letting them take me off into their stories.

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  13. says

    TL, I love the comparison of voice to music. I don’t think voice is always musical, but it can be, and it can be beautiful. When I think of Kazuo Ishiguro, I hear a quiet piano. Right now, I’m reading Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – the narrator’s voice doesn’t sound musical to me, but it certainly sounds alive, and very much has the quality of someone locked inside his own head. Lyric poetry has an even stronger connection to music, although I get the feeling that when you refer to the sound and personality of narrative voice, you mean something a little different? I’m know I’m struggling with voice in my own writing. Thanks for your thoughts on the subject!
    Christian, good point about Lewis, and I like your blog post about it.

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    • says

      Thanks, Patrick! Yes, there is a strong tie between poetry and music. One of my favorite examples is the poetry/plays of Lorca. How he mixes poetry into his prose and uses every aspect of language to create music within his words is breathtaking. As for Kesey, yes, his voice is definitely alive! I still think of it as musical, though, just more of the discordant variety- like punk, heavy metal or experimental electronica.

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  14. says

    Fascinating post. Voice is one of those things that is so hard to pin down. I really love Lily King, Kent Haruf, Tim Winton and Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars for voice. Their characters are so real and the writing so evocative.

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  15. says

    Wonderful post! It reminds me of why I listen to music when I write. In the beginning, I had a lot of problems writing dialogue without all my characters sounding the same, using the same inflection, the same words, the same tone. My writing was very flat and one-dimensional. Music helped open those doors and really allowed me to create characters who were layered and interesting. To further that development, I listen to different genres of music when I’m world-building, drafting a character background, and just generally polishing my manuscript. I have found the addition of music to be invaluable in my writing process.

    Thanks again for a great post!

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    • says

      Thanks, Akira! Yes! Though I can’t listen to music while I am writing, I have to listen to music to visualize where I am going to go and how my characters speak. I have separate playlists for different settings, characters and sometimes even scenes.

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