Monday, June 27, 2011

Giving Voice to the Boy Who Lived

We hear a lot about Voice in the business of writing and how every editor is looking for fresh, new voices. It’s easy to get confused and think this means simply a sarcastic way of delivering our words, as is common in chick-lit, something hip or flippant as is often true in YA. Or maybe Voice is dark and angsty as in romantic suspense, paranormal, or gothic. But I believe this explanation only scratches the surface of Voice.

Voice goes much deeper than the style of how words are strung together on paper or screen. Voice reflects what you believe, what you know, what you understand, what you have experienced in life. It reflects where you choose to put enormous amounts of your time and energy.

You may be entertained by reading from a wide variety of books that take up a few hours of your day. But when it comes to spending several months of your life writing one, it’s going to reflect who YOU are deep inside. Your cares and concerns, your beliefs, and your passions. Your Voice is You. Voice reflects your writer’s soul. That’s why there’s such a strong spiritual aspect to writing for so many of us. We’re not only trying to make a living, or even better, communicate with our readers and our world. We’re expanding and enriching our souls. And that’s why Voice cannot be duplicated. No two souls are alike, and every soul has something unique to contribute.

Harry Potter did not spring out of just anywhere. He sprang out of JK Rowling's life. Her life-long concern for equality and justice are evident in the book from chapter 1 as the wizarding world celebrates the end of a reign of terror by the survival of a lowly babe. Her abhorrence of intolerance is threaded from the beginning with the Dursleys' disregard for Petunia's own sister and her fear of the influence her nephew could have on her son's life. Jo's belief in imagination and her disdain for the petty populate her world with giant wizards on flying motorbikes and long-neck women who spy on their neighbors. Her sense of whimsy and her delightful humor are reflected in a cat sitting on a corner reading a map and the unappreciated hug Mr. Dursley receives from an overly-enthusiastic wizard on the street.

In this first chapter, we also see the dark tone which JKR became more known for as the series progressed. But could you begin a children's story with anything darker than a child being orphaned having survived a murder attempt himself? She also laces her story with her love of mythological references by naming Sirius after the Star of Isis of ancient Egypt and marking Harry with the thunderbolt of Zeus -- a weapon he will only learn how to use at the end.

Voice is also affected by a writer's style: the strength of a writer's verbs, the accuracy of the adjectives and adverbs, the structure with which the author frames the story, the choice of perspective from the POV. Here are examples from "The Boy Who Lived" showing how JKR used each one of these to her advantage:

1) Strong Verbs -- Look at how JKR announces that Lily and James were killed:

Dumbledore bowed his head. Professor McGonagall gasped.

Two simple verbs, but used strongly and effectively to show action and reaction without ever saying the words, "They're dead." Also, take a look at Hagrid's departure:

Hagrid swung himself on to the motorbike and kicked the engine into life...

The highlighted verbs carry a precise punch. It would not have nearly the Voice if she'd said: Hagrid got onto the motorbike and turned the engine on.

2) Pinpointed Description -- The story starts on a "dull, grey Tuesday" in the Dursley home, and explodes into a riot of colors with Dumbledore's appearance:

He was tall, thin and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. He was wearing long robes, a purple cloak which swept the ground and high-heeled, buckled boots. His blue eyes were light, bright and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and his nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice.

Don't you want to know how that long, crooked nose had been broken twice? And can't you see those half-moon spectacles and his sparkling eyes?  And I adore those "high-heeled, buckled boots"!

3) Structure -- From the Dursley home, to Vernon's work, to his questioning of Petunia regarding her sister, to the wizarding invasion of Privet Drive, JKR takes the reader from the mundane to the magical, all along threading through the build-up of the magical world and the mystery of what has set the wizarding world in collision with the Muggle. She leaves us with a most unusual babe left on a doorstep and the knowledge that he will not be welcomed.

4) POV -- This first chapter is different in POV than the rest of Harry Potter because Harry plays no active role in it. He's brought in as a sleeping babe only near the end. The main POV for this beginning chapter is omniscient narrator, though she gets into Vernon's head the most. That choice of omniscient allows her to present her beginning with a wide-angle world-view as she sets up building her fantastic new world.

In examining your own voice, ponder these questions:

  • What makes you unique?
  • What fires your passion, both for things you love and those you hate?
  • What do you believe in, care for the most?
  • Where do your wild flights of imagination take you to wander?
  • What experiences in life can you channel into your writing to create a more vibrant world?
  • In what type of story do you want to spend your next several months, if not years?
  • And whose hearts do you really want to touch?

I'd love to hear about your voice, though for some of you, it comes across strongly, even in your blog and Twitter feed -- as it should! Have any of you wandered through different types of stories in search of your true voice?

Check out the full series of posts in this First Chapter Series:

1) characterization
2) world building
3) mystery
4) stakes/conflict
5) backstory, and
6) voice - right here!


  1. Thank you for this excellent post! I know I am always in search of the Voice whenever I start writing a new story. Both with "Almendra" and my current WIP I spent years looking for one until I finally found the Voice that worked for me and that I love[d] going back to.

  2. Ahh the voice! The best and worst thing to realize is that your voice is a part of you. Good because when you realize it, you can use that knowlege to help you clean up some of the mess you have written and bad--bad because then when you here the voice is the issue you will hear that YOU are the issue.

    I'd say my voice comes through pretty crystal clear when I want it too--or don't plan for it otherwise. Like blogs, comments, twitter, and sometimes I use that voice in my books, but not always.

    You can write books in completly different voices by being someone else. I was an actor for a long time and it's very easy for me to slip into another character in my head and just go. I never thought that was strange when I was younger, but thinking about it now it's not something normal people are trained to do. The plus side is, lots of people like to read books--even completely differnt stories by people and know they were written by the same person. It's comforting.

    Mostly I am a freak.

  3. Voice is so intangible really. It's the one thing that I'm not convinced can be taught. Only guided, or let loose. Not to say you can't improve, you can. But it's innate to you, and your voice is your own, like a fingerprint, each one is different.

  4. Thanks, Susan, for a wonderful post!! I am in the middle of editing my WIP right now, and the Voice is one of the many things I will be looking for.

  5. This is a great post - very insightful.

  6. Me too, Farida. That last question I had about wandering thru different genres in search of your Voice comes from my own experience!

    Angela -- you're right (not about being a feak :-), but I don't mean to confuse an author's voice with a character voice. I have a certain perspective on life, certain themes, certain preferences in style, that are going to be true from story to story no matter how different (hopefully!) my characters may be.

  7. Exactly, Lisa. Though I do think it may take a while for SOME of us to find our voice. I think when we start, we oftentimes imitate the voices of the authors we love most. Which is fine -- apprentices across occupations learn this way (& is a huge reason for studying HP4Writers!) But with experience and time, I think as long as we stick with it, we discover our voice.

  8. Thanks Melinda and Jo!

    And Melinda, I've found that the editing process is when I can sometimes fine-tune my voice the best. :-)

  9. As a long time fan of the series and a writer, I have to say this has become one of my favorite blogs.

    Bravo! :D

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