Monday, April 30, 2012

Voice Lessons: Making Your Manuscript Sing

Heather Alexander's Intensive –
                     Voice Lessons: Making Your Manuscript Sing

Alexander is assistant editor at Dial Books for Young Readers.  She gave a writing intesive during the SCBWI weekend conference in Houston. 

Below is an excerpt from my notes on her lecture.  What makes voice?   
Diction – (vocal choices)   These could be cultural references.  You can make cultural references up , but use them sparingly and  thoughtfully.  It’s the personality of your story.
Perspective – It’s about setting, too (where you’re from or where you are).  Text that has great perspective can be found in these books : AU REVOIR, CRAZY EUROPEAN CHICK,  THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE, THE WEDNESDAY WARS.                              

Characterization - The character determines your voice.  Write down all the reasons you like a character. (You should pity the villain.  Feel sorry for him.)  All likable characters are incredibly independent.  Also, all your characters should be as fully realized as the main character. 
Dialogue – It has to feel real.  Never start dialogue like a real conversation.  Real conversations can drag the story down and make it boring.  Use economy of words to express what is actually being said.  Cut the crap, but keep the voice.

Interior monologue (im)– It is the best way to express character, to convey their feelings, to see a character being truthful or dishonest.  It’s in im that readers get the “Aha!” moment.  Without im we lose the emotional stake of the dialogue.  Text with great im can be found in: SHINE, A BEAUTIFUL BOY, FREAK SHOW
Interior dialogue (id) is needed to create empathy about the character.  You can have id if it’s in third person, i.e. what the character thinks.  This is also a great place to get backstory.  Without id the reader can lose dramatic irony (where the reader knows more than the character).  Id examples in text: SLAM, THE HUNGER GAMES

You want suspense in all your scenes. You can have that by using voice.  Voice is how the character reacts to the action or effect (no quirkiness in character). 

Voice is the way your words sound on a page. 
Voice is not constant.  It will change. – Our voices change dependent on who we talk to and where we are.  Your voice will change as you talk to different people, e.g., your boss, best friend, thief, baby, and your dad.

An authorial voice is the voice of the writer of the book or voice of the creator.
A narrative voice is voice invented by the author.  It’s the protagonist voice.

Exercises to help you define and improve voice.*:
Exercise 1
Heather Alexander had us do a voice exercise to help us see how voice changes are dependent on characters.  We were given 3 – 5 minutes to write a paragraph from each of four different points of view.

1. She had us think of the most beautiful place we’d ever been to.  Then, we were to describe it.
2. Second, we were to describe the same scene from the perspective of a high school girl.

3. Then we were to describe it from the viewpoint of a Middle School rural boy.

4. Lastly, we were to describe the same scene from the point of view of a six year old girl.
(If you would like to read my 4 examples, they are at the bottom of the post.)

Exercise 2: Go to a public place and see what kids are not saying: stomping, eyes rolling, fist making, etc.  Think of how you can use these to help you with voice. In this way, readers can get a clearer picture of your story.

Exercise 3: Write 2 different scenes.  One viewpoint from the kid being bullied.  The second, from the bullies perspective.  This exercise shows you that both characters can be unreliable, because neither knows the full story.

Middle Grade and Young Adult "Voice" – Characters have a limited perspective of the world.  They have a limited life experience. 
MG and YA readers like interesting characters.  For a young person, everything feels like it’s the end of the world.  Every day they are doing something new.  Everything shifts because of one new experience in their young lives. 

When writing for this age, erase all your adult views for the mc.  Text examples can be found in: THE TRUTH ABOUT FOREVER, OKAY FOR NOW.
Helpful Hints:

In dialogue use “said” or show the emotion.  Don’t use words such as: retorted, responded, remarked, etc.  in dialogue.
Remember,“your first idea is never your best idea” when writing stories.

My response to Heather’s voice exercises:
Describe the most beautiful place you’ve been to.

The warmth engulfed him.  His soft skin feeling the coolness of the water sent sensations like he had not know before.  Inside surged laughter, wonder, and pleasure until his inner world burst into the scene.  “Agua!”  He laughed.
Describe the same scene from the perspective of a high school girl.

A baby, nude!  Oh, no.  And his parents smiling as if they had somehow thought their nude kid on public property was such a clever idea.  Hideous!  It’s ruined my summer day at the beach.  Thank God my parents never put me through that.
Describe it from the viewpoint of a Middle School rural boy.

The ocean was unbelievable.  It went on and on, sort of like the spinach fields at home.  Water rippling in the wind just like my pa’s crops.  And the baby, pink as a pig, having the time of his life in a salty water hole.
Describe the same scene from the point of view of a six year old girl.

Wow, the sun is so bright.  Everything looks pink with my new sunglasses.  Momma looks pink and Papa’s hair looks pink.  I love my new bathing suit.  It feels soft and the wind makes the ruffles dance.  My baby cousin is naked, and he likes it!  He’s too little to get in the real ocean.  I’m not.
*If you want to understand voice, do the exercises.  They will help.


  1. This is fantastic Brenda! Thanks so much!

    1. I'm glad it helps. Alexander had a really good writing intensive.

  2. Thanks for writing all this out for us, Brenda, a very helpful post and I love the exercises!

    1. I think the exercises are really good, too. When someone spoke about Voice it was such a mystery to me, but I can see why. A lot of things make up Voice.

  3. This was such a helpful post! Voice is such a tricky thing for me to understand, and your entry really helped clarify things for me. I especially liked the exercises, and your entries for one of them. Thanks for taking the time to post this for us.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Diane. I am glad that this has been helpful to you. I love it when I read someone's post and learn from it. I'm glad this post is doing the same. :)

  4. Thank you so much for posting this. Whenever I heard someone speak of voice, I was in the dark. I will try the exercise above. Interior monologue and interior dialogue are also new concepts to me. It makes so much sense. It's what I have been trying to achieve and did not know its name. Thank you. Great info.

    1. That's great, Pam. Good luck on the exercises. They were fun and eye opening for me. :)

  5. Neat exercises. Thanks for sharing this.

  6. Thanks, Stacy. If you ever get a chance to hear her speak, I recommend signing up. :)