We’re talking about voice this week here at the Ball. This topic is a tough one because voice defies definition, at least, in my mind, it does, perhaps one of my esteemed Deb sisters will have a good definition for it in subsequent days. But for me, it kind of eludes description. So I sat here at my desk for a long time, trying to come up with something to say about voice, and of course, I was drawn to Google it and found this: “Ask five writers what voice is in writing, you’ll get 15 different answers.” So I feel a bit better about having trouble defining what voice is, although I do know this: yours must stand out. I hear over and over that editors can fix grammar and story issues, but they can’t fix voice. It’s something that a writer can work on, but it’s only in the writing that you can improve and hone it; it’s a muscle that needs to be worked on to become stronger. But each writer’s voice is distinct, growing from the writer’s life and experiences*. Anne Lamott says this about voice:
“We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.” From Bird By Bird, p. 198.
In other words, it’s about writing truths and honesty and real feelings and everything that shapes you as a human, even if it’s ugly or scary. In fact, it’s those ugly and scary things that make for great writing and if they’re told with honesty and no sugar-coating, they can be the most meaningful and visceral works.
And I’ve never read Lamott’s fiction**, but I expect it is meaningful and visceral and captures the human experience in a very raw and honest way. Because her book about writing does it, so I imagine her fiction does that times about a thousand.
My writer’s voice is usually funny. I know, I know: that comes as a huge surprise to you faithful readers. I have tried to deny it and write SERIOUS WORKS, but even when I’m trying to be SERIOUS, my stuff is funny, though sometimes becomes dark, gallows-type humor, because I just can’t help myself. I can’t escape my sense of humor and the truth is, I will go to the moon and back to set up a good joke. I used to try to deny it because it seemed that writing SERIOUS stuff was more respected, but I learned my lesson, thanks to a really smart editor (not the one I ended up selling SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE to, but still, a very smart and experienced lady).
I was on the phone way back when, well before SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE sold, and I was talking to this VERY IMPORTANT editor and she said what she loved about my writing was my voice. She said I was very funny and then asked me if people told me I was funny. It seemed like an odd question at the time, but as humbly as I could, I said, “Yes, people tell me I’m funny. I’m a laugh riot.” Although at that moment, the absolutely nerve-wracking situation of speaking with a VERY IMPORTANT editor and her associate on the phone about my little book did not lend itself to me being funny at all. But when she went on to describe one of the scenes in the book and was actually laughing about it on the phone, I realized that she was right. I am funny and if I can make a seasoned editor laugh, maybe there’s something to writing funny and maybe it’s something I should embrace and hone.
So I did. I wrote SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE to be honest and funny and capture the truths of a twelve year old girl.
And here it is something like two and a half years later and my book came out a month ago and I’m hearing things like “If I were to use a single word to describe Small Medium at Large it would have to be hilarious.”
And “What helps this book to stand apart from other middle grade novels is its ability to combine both supernatural elements with realistic fiction with a healthy dose of humour along the way.”
So yeah, I think I found my voice***. And it’s funny. And that’s a good thing.
So you – have you read any books that had great funny voices? If you’ve been around for a while, you know I love Christopher Moore’s LAMB, but I’d love to hear more about your picks for humorous voices in fiction.
*(So I turned away from writing this post just now and did some more Googling and found this: “Voice is style, plus theme, plus personal observations, plus passion, plus belief, plus desire. Voice is bleeding onto the page, and it can be a powerful, frightening, naked experience.” And yeah, that kind of sums it up really nicely.)
**Despite wanting to and meaning to—soon I’ll pick up one of her books, I promise.
***I also found the ability to sob over really amazing reviews—thank you to all the amazing people who have read and reviewed SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE (including my fellow Debs). I wish I could list all the reviews here, but I’m blushing as it is and don’t want this whole post to seem even more narcissistic than it already is.
8 Replies to “The Voices in Deb Joanne’s Head Are Funny Ones”
“Voice” IS tough to pin down. I think it’s one of those “I can’t define it exactly, but I know it when I see it” things, like “art” or “pornography.”
All I know is, I LOVE your voice in SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE. No surprise, since I’m definitely a fan of the funny. 🙂
Thanks, Linda. And that’s a funny comment about art and pornography-you’re right and I think agents and editors fell the same way. They can’t tell you what to do to make it work, but they know it when they see it.
And thank you so much for the compliment and you’ve got a pretty kickass funny voice yourself, which the world will discover VERY soon! I can’t wait!
Joanne, Lilah’s voice is so crystal clear in SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE–you nailed it, and indeed, made the whole cryptic journey of finding voice look easy, my dear.
Like Linda says, it’s one of those things you know when you read it, but it’s nearly impossible to describe–and maybe why we writers “search” for it for so long…
Thanks, Erika. And I think you’re right that writers do search for it, though I think you have to look inside to find it–one of the things that Anne Lamott goes on to say in her chapter about voice is how a lot of beginning writers try to emulate other writers’ voices and it never comes off right. It’s like a fingerprint that’s so personal and you can’t fake it to be like someone else.
So, how do I write a comment about ‘VOICE’ (other than the fact that mine get’s me in trouble sometimes, there is your laugh for the day Debs).
I am not a writer who is able to comment on writing and the intricate details of it, to all of you I give you all large ‘KUDOS” for your wonderful talent.
Yes I agree with Linda and Erika that your voice in your character LILAH in SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE (great, wonderful, funny the best)okay stop rolling those eyes J I am going to sign off now, before you see my head, I mean VOICE and fingers get me into trouble.
Have a good week Deb’s and I look forward to hearing about YOUR VOICES.
Hi Mom, yes, sorry, today is a very writery topic, but glad you managed to still find a way to gush about me and my book. That’s real talent, right there. And believe me when I say you have a very distinctive voice yourself. Right ladies?
I’ve been struggling with voice lately. I used to have a somewhat dark humor, shock factor thing going but I think blogging has diluted me to the point of sounding like a robot. Too much people pleasing. I either need to quit blogging or find a new audience. What I really need to do is get back to writing my own stories and I need to look for your book!
Hi Maery, it’s very true that Blogging and other writing can absolutely dilute your voice. People pleasing can be very dangerous when talking about writing stories (and if you have Bird by Bird that I talk about above, there’s more about that in there, too), and I commend you for recognizing that you need to make a change. I get why a lot of writers step back from the internet when they’re actively writing and I bet a lot of it has to do with this very reason. And, you know, deadlines and stuff.
Thanks for stopping by!
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