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VOICE—An Introduction

Monday, February 12, 2007

Last week, I wrote about my experience attending the touring show of The Rat Pack—Live in Las Vegas at the performing arts center here in Nashville. Although I loved the show, I was disappointed in the fact that the Dean Martin impersonator, while doing wonderfully at the body language and spoken parts, sounded nothing like Dean when he sang. His voice was too bright, too nasal, his pronunciation/enunciation too sharp (not slurred enough) and flat (more eh and less ah)—and don’t get me started on his Italian lyrics! For people who are perhaps familiar with Dean’s songs but don’t really spend a lot of time listening to him, they might not have noticed. But for me, it was obvious from his first note . . . he could not imitate Dean’s unique voice.

Before the days of caller ID, it was necessary for us to identify ourselves when the person we were calling picked up the phone. Even since then, it is still the polite thing to do. When I worked at the newspaper, I had caller ID on my phone, but it showed only the phone number of the person calling if they were calling from outside the building. There were so many times when I had to ask someone to identify him- or herself after they launched into whatever it was that they needed to tell me because I did not recognize the voice. Yet with other people with whom I am more intimately acquainted, a simple “Hey, it’s me,” is all I need to hear to know who’s talking.

(And now for a final analogy.) I cannot stand it when film producers cast Americans in roles as Brits, or Brits in the roles of Americans, or Aussies in the roles of either (well, there are some exceptions—loved Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander so much that he had a cameo appearance in Ransome’s Honor as Captain John Mason). Anyway . . . whenever I see a movie that has cast Renee Zellweger as a Brit, it makes my skin crawl. She has one of the worst fake British accents I have ever heard in my life. I saw previews for a movie that Leonardo DiCaprio did where he was speaking with what sounded like a South African accent and it made me laugh. Though I ended up enjoying him in the role, when I first learned Donald Sutherland would be playing Mr. Bennet in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice I was appalled. As a viewer watching people I know don’t have the accent they’re putting on, it pulls me out of the story—mostly because the actor is so focused on getting the accent right that they lose some of their ability to perform the role well. There are so many wonderful actors from those countries with real accents that could have been cast instead.

When we first start writing, we are like that Dean Martin imitator or these actors trying to put on a fake accent. We start out by imitating what we’ve read, and how we wrote changed throughout the years based on how our reading preferences changed. When I started writing as a young teen, my reading material was primarily YA historical romances—in fact, the first writing I did was to write the “sequel” (or continuation of the story) of my favorite Sunfire Romance, Victoria. Though I could imitate the phrasing, the vocabulary, and style of the author (Willo Davis Roberts, one of the best YA authors I’ve ever read), what I wrote was flat, it lacked the sparkle of her prose.

Why? Because of her unique voice as a writer.

In the past ten years or so, sequels to or novels “in the style of” Jane Austen’s published works have proliferated on the market. I’m not ashamed to admit that I consider myself an Austenite. As mentioned and expounded upon so many times in this blog, I have gained both inspiration and valuable research information from studying her novels. Yet I have found very few of these modern imitations that I have been able to read (the main exception being Pamela Aidan’s Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman trilogy that retells Pride & Prejudice from Darcy’s point of view). It’s not because these authors are trying to use Jane’s characters or settings. It’s because they’re trying to imitate her voice so much that their own writing suffers for it. One of the reasons I liked Pamela Aidan’s books is that, though her stories take the settings, characters, and situations so familiar from P&P, she wrote it as if it were her own story. It is Pamela Aidan’s voice that makes the FDG books come alive.

A writer’s voice, like the voice of our favorite singer, the familiar person on the other end of the phone, or an actor using his or her own accent, is something that is easy to recognize and nearly impossible to define. So let’s explore it. Let’s see if we can define what voice is and then figure out how to go about cultivating our own unique voices as writers.

  1. Vicki T. permalink
    Monday, February 12, 2007 10:02 am

    Great intro.! I’m so hungry for this info., I’ve been reading about it all over. Just read B. Collins’ 2 posts. One thing that confuses me is that it sounds like if you develop your author’s voice (AV)…a good thing…you can also start making all of your characters sound like you…a bad thing. So, how do you show your author’s voice without obliterating your characters’ unique voices?


  2. Georgiana D permalink
    Monday, February 12, 2007 7:43 pm

    I’m excited for this series! I devour anything to do with voice and all the exercises that go into developing it. Can you see me rubbing my hands together in anticipation??


  3. Carol Collett permalink
    Wednesday, February 14, 2007 4:52 am

    I’m excited about this series. I’m completely lacking in this area.


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