Novel Boot Camp #14: Questions about Voice

3210838977_26d9efb96e_oVoice can present a lot of challenges for writers. Today I hope to provide some assistance with your concerns about voice.

These questions were submitted to me by Novel Boot Camp participants. Feel free to submit your own question here.

Do you have any advice for women writing in a male POV or for men writing in a female POV? I love to write male characters in first person POV, but I’m not sure if it would ring true to a male reader.

Though society puts a lot of emphasis on the differences between men and women, we’re really not all that different in terms of how we think and feel in most situations. In my experience, people fail at writing the opposite gender when they try to put too much emphasis on “being” that gender. It’s easy to overshoot your target. For example, I’ve seen several men write female characters who talk too much about menstruation while actual female writers almost never touch the subject. On the flip side, I’ve seen females write male characters who focus too much on their man parts while male writers almost never mention it at all.

Generally writing is perceived as more feminine when it is flowery and emotional, and writing is seen as more masculine when it is direct and focuses on facts. But there is no hard and fast rule, and I certainly don’t advocate sticking exclusively to gender norms. Making the gender clear as close to the first sentence as possible is key.

A lot book reviews I read tend to assume that the character’s way of thinking is the same as the authors, which is not always true. It makes me a little nervous to write characters with with strong and/or controversial opinions as I’m worried people will not separate the character from the author. Do you have any thoughts or advice?

I touched on this topic a pretty good amount in my lecture on messages and morals. A character will be seen as the author’s mouthpiece if the character’s traits, motivations, desires, etc. don’t hold up under scrutiny. If the character development is flawless and cohesive, readers usually won’t assume the character is simply saying the writer’s opinion because the character will feel like a real person.

That said, if a message is pushed strongly, readers might still assume it’s the writer’s opinion, but that’s okay! You’re not going to please everyone. So long as you aren’t beating the reader over the head with the character’s opinion, you’re probably fine.

How can a tried trope still be presented as fresh and amusing (without predictable scenes)? Can this only be done with an outstanding voice or are there other ways?

An outstanding voice can make tropes feel fresh, but that’s certainly not the only way. Combining tropes in unexpected ways, inverting/reversing tropes, pairing them with unique ideas, strong plotting, and surprising twists and turns are all ways to make tropes feel fresher.

How can a writer evaluate, and thereafter  develop their particular strong suits?

I think if a writer has a strong suit, they are probably already aware of what it is. You might need other writers or an editor to help you identify your strong suits, but chances are if you don’t know what your strong suits are, you don’t have any. This is okay! Sometimes a writer develops more or less evenly across all areas without having one area that stands out as stronger.

The most common strong suits I see are: an ability to be extremely creative/original in concept/plotting, an ability to manipulate and utilize language in a way that is emotional or poetic, an ability to craft characters that are intensely realistic and emotional.

I’m not sure if I answered your question. Please comment if you meant something different.

I find it difficult to explain dialog between people without repeating the same word patterns. Like blah blah blah, said tom. Blah blah, exclaimed jake as he blah blahed. The “said tom” and “exclaimed jake” is what I’m referring to here. Doing this too much makes me want to vomit. If I got rid of the filtering here and just had the dialogue then the problem of identifying who said what pops up. I mean it’s obvious they’re talking and I don’t really have to repeat it, but how do we know who said what? How do I get around this without the agonizing he said she said?

Dialogue tags are not a requirement. They are designed to make writing clearer. An alternative way to achieve this is through formatting. If you only include action/thoughts/emotions from the character speaking in the same line as the dialogue, readers will always know who’s talking without it needing to be explained. For example:

Todd bounced on his toes. “It’s freezing out here.”

Mitch nodded. “Yep.”

“You want a cigarette?”

Mitch cocked his head. “You smoking now?”

Todd shrugged.

“That crap’s going to kill you.”

I didn’t need to use any dialogue tags to make the scene above easy to follow because the formatting is doing most of the work for me.

When you’re writing from a first person perspective is it assumed that all events being told have already happened? Is it like the main character is telling you ‘the reader’ what has already happened to him/her? If that’s true wouldn’t every action be described as “had said” or “had done”? Is there any notion of a present and if there is I find it incredibly difficult to keep the two distinct.

I think I understand what you’re asking here, but my apologies if I don’t . I assume you’re referring to first-person past tense. In that case, there may or may not be a sense of the “present” but I would say that usually there is. For consistency, I think it helps to think of your character as telling the story “now” even if the present is never relevant. So your narration might read:

I walked into the house to find Mom reading at the dining room table. She had a book propped up. She loves reading, always has. I approached her with caution, not wanting to jar her away from the story.

The line She loves reading, she always has is in present tense because presumably his mother is still alive and still has this trait at the point that he is relaying the story. This is your choice however. You could just as easily put that line in past tense as if everything about the narrator is in the past. Just keep it consistent.

When it comes to writing colloquial speech and accents, what does an author need to know? What works and what fails?

When writing an accent, make sure you truly understand what the accent sounds like so that it doesn’t come across as cartoonish. Sprinkle in a few colloquialisms or a few indicators of an accent but don’t write out every line phonetically because it will drive the reader crazy and it’s very difficult to read.

“I gotta get goin’ Ma. The man’s at the door.” is totally fine.

“I gotta git goin’ Ma. Da man’s at te’ door.” is probably too much.

Do you have any tips for writing voice specifically for YA novels?

Remember that teens are as diverse as adults. Not all teens are whiny brats. Not all teens are obsessed with sex. You can write your teenagers as diverse as you write your adult characters.

Make sure you listen to real teenagers talking. Read modern (last five years) YA novels. Watch TV shows or movies aimed at young adults. Listen in on conversations at the mall or movie theater. If you don’t know modern slang really well, don’t try to use it. Also note that most teenagers aren’t using slang or use it sparingly. I would go for a timeless youthful voice over trying to make it too modern, which (even if done right) will make the work quickly feel dated.

I hope this answers some of your questions about voice! I am still taking questions for tomorrow’s blog post if you’d like to submit yours.

One thought on “Novel Boot Camp #14: Questions about Voice

  1. Julie Griffith says:

    Thanks, Ellen, this was very helpful. I will be using your advice on writing in the opposite gender’s POV. By the way, I thought John Green did an excellent job with the female POV in “The Fault in Our Stars.” When I read the question about writing colloquial speech or accents, it made me think of “The Help” and why I couldn’t get past the first couple of chapters. It was just too much to struggle through. Lots of good questions and answers here!

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