If I were going to tell you one thing to do with your manuscript, it would be, when writing in first person as I do, to find your protagonist’s voice. Voice is king. Voice is, in my opinion, everything. As my fellow novelist friend, Laura Dave, once said to me, “Voice is the reason people pick up a book. They’ll forgive a lot of other things, but they won’t forgive a voice they don’t like.”
How do I find the voice for my books? Well, sometimes it’s easy and sometimes, it’s a lot less so. I do it the way that I imagine actors do with their own roles – I try to get inside the heads of my characters: how would they act in certain situations? How would they REACT in certain situations? What bothers them? Are they snarky, sad, contemplative, unwilling to tackle confrontation, too quick to tackle confrontation? I consider all of these things, and if I’m lucky, a voice comes to me quite easily. That’s what happened for my first two books. I considered the character from a variety of angles, and, well, I just knew how they’d sound. I think it’s important to make their voices as fully-fleshed out as a real person’s voice – and by that I mean inner-dialogue – would be. Donald Maass spoke earlier about being too wishy-washy and this is so true: your characters and their voices need to stand out. They need to resonate inside readers’ brains. They need to stick there, like taffy, because readers hear a part of themselves in your character, and bland, blah, boring voices just won’t do that.
How do I know? Weeeeelll, I ran into a bit of a problem with the heroine of my third book, The One That I Want, which isn’t yet out, so none of you have read it and you’ll have to trust me on this one. As in my other books, I tried to delve into Tilly, my protagonist; I tried to lean my ear close and hear what she was telling me, listen in and hear HOW she was telling me it…but…I just couldn’t. In retrospect, I suspect that I had a difficult time hearing her voice because she was just so different that I am: that resonating undercurrent wasn’t ever there – I struggled to understand her circumstances, her mindset, and how she found herself where she found herself in her life. (Again, in hindsight, it’s probably easier to write about characters whose choices you understand on some level. But I was in too deep with this book to back out when I realized this.) The plot was strong enough, the writing was sharp enough, but the voice just wasn’t there. I rewrote and rewrote the heck out of the book, but I still wasn’t happy with it.
It was only when my editor gave it a semi-final read and suggested that instead of making Tilly depressed over her circumstances that I make her angry, that Tilly’s voice kicked into gear. Suddenly, I had a character who wasn’t blah – like Maass said – but who was instead pissed-off, angry, ready to take her life and her husband and her father and her sisters, and shake them by the ankles and slap them silly! This brought out such a different voice from a character whose circumstances and plotline didn’t change. But her reaction to it did. She had fire! And THAT, I understood, and THAT, I was able to translate onto the page. By upping her emotional stakes, I completely altered her voice, and by altering her voice, I completely altered the book. Now, it’s up to readers – whether or not Tilly’s voice resonates with them – but I’m glad I kept digging, kept pressing my ear up and listening. She’s a full-fleshed out, as-real-life-as-can-be-in-fiction character, and that’s what voice is all about.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s ThouArt.