Thursday, January 24, 2013

Learning by Teaching, With Applications to Voice

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The more I teach, the more I learn. You know that thing called voice in our writing, which is often so elusive and hard to define? I did define it, here, and I still like that definition. As I continue to teach writing students, I continue to see examples of voice or lack thereof. Voice is partly talent, partly language competence, partly the unique way we sound when our writing is flowing, and most of all it puts the author-ity in our writing. When it's there, it's there; when it's not, it's not; and I believe now, more than I once did, that if you have other skills and craft but don't have voice, your story won't work. If voice can be taught at all, I think it's taught indirectly. By that I mean the teacher can point out examples of voice, write essays on voice (as Larry Brooks does for 12 pages in Story Engineering), and discuss voice, but then the student has to take it from there. She can learn about voice, find her voice, and develop her voice. It takes reading, it takes writing, and it takes time.

I think my teaching so far has taught me this: Voice is first. (I didn't always believe this.) If you don't yet have your voice, you are not ready to query or submit. Only books with voice have a chance. It's not the most comfortable thing in the world to realize that this elusive voice element, that can seem so difficult, is for openers.

But once you have voice, it's the story that matters. This was what I'd always thought; it's the story that matters! Once the voice has gained you admittance into real consideration by an agent, editor, or reader, it's the story, story, story that has to deliver.

Any thoughts? Or do I think this way mostly because I write for those people who want to know what happens -- MG-ers? :)

19 comments:

Laura Pauling said...

That's tough. Probably the MG books I read and loved had terrific voice, but they also had great story/characters/writing.

Vijaya said...

A great book has it all! I'm sucked into books for all sorts of reasons -- usually concept or voice, but what keeps me invested is whether I care what happens to these story-people? So, character probably matters more to me ... of course, they can't be sitting on their duffs doing nothing, because then I just want to whack them ;)

And yes, if you really want to learn something, you teach it.

Mirka Breen said...

I agree that voice, in literary context, is the narrative personality. Simplest way I can put it. Just as the characters have personalities, the narration is the over-arching "person."
I don't know that you can teach it so much as bring it out. Help coax it out of your students. That's what good teacher does in the creative fields.

Dawn Malone said...

I'm reading something now that has a great plot but the voice is flat. I'm having a hard time getting through it. After a quick look at my bookshelf and the finding the books I've loved in the past, it's the voice that drew me in.

Barbara Watson said...

It could be, that in MG, equal parts of both are imperative. Perhaps you can't separate the two even; they're melded. Great voice means great story. Great story means great voice.

Jaye Robin Brown said...

I think voice is critical to engage the reader.

Faith E. Hough said...

I agree...because I think the things we love like plot and character rarely reach us if the voice isn't there. I've read synopses of books that sounded amazing that I just couldn't get into because the voice wasn't there.
It's funny how hard it is to create voice on demand, as it were...but I do notice when it is lacking in my own writing. For example, when you critiqued a chapter for me several months ago, I KNEW the voice I wanted wasn't there yet--and your comments really helped me bring it out! So thank you!

Janet said...

Yes, voice is important. I love the way some books are written. I also love unique characters in MG books.

Marcia said...

Laura -- Yes, it's all got to be there. But I think now I understand better what it means for voice not to be there.

Vijaya -- Very true: If I don't care about a book, it's usually because I don't want to follow the characters.

Mirka -- Yes, what a challenge and a gift to be able to draw out someone's voice. It does seem most teachers and editors are of the opinion it can't be done.

Dawn -- That's very interesting! You'd think a flat voice wouldn't get published. But we know how subjective the business is.

Barbara -- That's one of the things I love about MG. I think the "parts" are less apt to be separated, if that makes sense. MGers want to know what happens, and the characters, plot and voice are organic for them.

Jaye -- I do think trouble with voice can be interpreted by some readers as "the book is boring," but they can't quite put their finger on why.

Faith -- Oh, I'm glad that helped! Thanks for telling me!

Janet -- I'm rereading Little Women, and so enjoying the warm, humorous, upbeat voice of LMA. I hadn't really seen it that way before.

Emily R. King said...

Fleshing out characters really helps with voice. Also, I think voice comes during revisions.

Bish Denham said...

Voice may be like gravity, the weakest force, and yet it holds the universe of the story together.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

This is hard to say. I've loved books that have a good voice but an amazing story, and have been disappointed with books that have an amazing voice but the story bored me. As long as you have a voice that isn't dull and a rocky story, I'm happy.

Ruth Schiffmann said...

They really do go hand in hand, don't they?!

Medeia Sharif said...

I want a book that has it all.

I can see how people struggle with voice. I see it with my students, and I know it took awhile to find mine.

Marcia said...

Emily -- Yes, I think you can definitely improve voice in revisions. Kind of refutes the idea that "You can't fix voice," really.

Bish -- Love that!

Stina -- I'm kind of that way, too. A great voice with a boring story seems pretentious. A great story with a reasonable voice will thrill me to pieces.

Ruth -- Mostly, yes they do!

Medeia -- Me too. I want a book that has it all.

Daisy Carter said...

I think you're onto something. We hear "Story!" trumpeted by all the professionals, but the voice has to lift that story off the page and take flight.

Not just for mg-ers, I think. For everyone (or, at least, YA-ers, too).

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