Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Writers Voice

A writer's 'voice' is usually a product of his word choice, phrasingand pacing. Stephen King, for example, uses a lot of internalmonologue with his characters and is a cognitive rather than visualwriter. Dean Koontz uses a tremendous number of metaphors andsimiles in his text. Read a page of each and you can tell one fromthe other.Also, a lot of writers use favoring expressions over and overagain. In every single James Lee Burke novel you'll find theterms "fecund", "chemical green", etc.

Some writers can change their voice -either because they aren'tlocked into one, or because their particular skill set doesn't relyon a central voice for storytelling. Richard Matheson is anexample. His style for What Dreams May Come is totally differentthan the voice he used for I Am Legend or Stir of Echoes. Otherwriters deliberately change their voice with a new project, thoughthis takes a degree of effort. When I wrote PATIENT ZERO, the novelI have coming out from St. Martins in March 2009 I chose a lean and noirish style that was unlike the much more ornate style I used formy trilogy of supernatural thrillers (GHOST ROAD BLUES, DEAD MAN'SSONG and BAD MOON RISING). But it was a conscious choice and Ispent a while reading sections of old and new works aloud to lookfor similarities so I could deliberately change them.

I like experimenting with variations on voice, and I find it easiestto do this experimentation in short forms. When I wrote the shortstory Pegleg and Paddy Save the World for the History is Deadanthology I wanted a light, comedic voice and that took some doingbecause it isn't my natural style. Earlier this year I was asked tocontribute a short story to an antho of West Virginia tales based onfolklore, and I decided to write a story in which Sherlock Holmesvisits the US and solves a crime tied to a folkloric event. Thatwas a deliberate experiment in voice because I wanted to see if Icould write in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle. To manage it I reada ton of Sherlock Holmes stories and also fell back onto the usefultrick of reading things aloud: both Doyle's stuff and my own.

Then I handed the story over to one of my trusted `first readers' and asked him to see if it sounded like me or like Doyle.

I'm currently writing the sequel to PATIENT ZERO, so I have toreclaim that nourish style; but at the same time I'm collaboratingon an urban fantasy novel with another author, and though we wantthat to also have a noir feel to it we're working to make sure thatit has it's own unique voice.

It's not easy, but the challenge is fun.

The most useful strategies are to read through your work andhighlight phrases that you know you tend to repeat. And then readpieces from two or three separate works aloud. Those two stepsgenuinely help.-Jonathan


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