Thursday, September 25, 2008

Conference Notes: Martha Mihalick: What is Voice?

My first workshop was conducted by Martha Mihalick about voice. What I found helpful was how she used different works of literature to show voice—a method that really spoke to the literary analysis part of my mind.

Voice, essentially, is what makes your book stand out from the rest. Voice is an instrument, the "medium through which every other part of your writing filters through." Mihalick broke voice down into segments, and then talked about each individually.

  • Language: your vocabulary, syntax, rhythm, tone. This is, basically, the actual words you write, and they have a huge impact on how your voice sounds in the work. Her example of good language in voice was A Northern Light.
  • Structure: plot, dialog (amount, types, sound), characters (types of characters, number of characters), pacing. This is the way you used those words in your language to make a story. Her example of good structure in voice was Love that Dog (a book which I now plan to buy).
  • Imagery and themes: metaphors, similes, hyperboles, other literary devices, symbolism, emotional themes for characters/story, world view. An example of this is something that your characters care about—Mihalick read from Ida B to show how the main character's concern for the environment came out in the voice of the text.

There are also two kinds of voice:

  • Authorial Voice: Your voice as an author shines through in every book. You can't help it—you wrote the book.
  • Narrative Voice: This exists even in a 3rd person POV book. It is the "voice of the book." Mihalick used Robin McKinley's two versions of the Beauty and Beast story: Beauty and Rose Daughter to show this. The author is the same, the story is the same, the scene is the same, but each sounded very different. That difference is the narrative voice. Some of the differences were straightforward, such as 3rd person vs. 1st person POV, but there was also a difference in narration vs. dialog, allegory vs. practicality, complex vs. simple language, lofty word choices vs. more grounded word choices, etc.

The narrator of a work must have a voice, even in a 3rd person POV work. Neil Gaiman once said that the narrator of Stardust is a person sitting at a desk with a fountain pen. It doesn't need to be any more specific than that—but the narrator must be some sort of a character.
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