Ya hearin’ me?
Posted June 3, 2010on:
An exchange about voice this evening on Twitter, as well a post on Cynthia Reese’s blog, got me thinking about… well, my voice.
What, exactly, is voice? It’s the sum total of many choices we make as writers. What words to use, how we string them together. It’s the tone we set for a story, and whether it’s shared through narrative, exposition or dialogue. It’s the point of view we choose, but it’s more than just ‘style’. Style can be imitated, but voice is unique. Voice is how we can distinguish among Stephenie Meyer’s, Charlaine Harris’, and Laurell K. Hamilton’s vampires, or tell Agatha Christie’s detectives from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s.
In other words, voice is really a representation of how we, as writers, sound on paper.
And right there, I’m ill.
I’m pretty sensitive about my voice, or more specifically, my accent. I was born and raised in New York, which sounds more like New Yawk the way I say it. In my day job as a software technical writer, I was recently asked to narrate several YouTube videos and nearly broke out in hives just thinking about it. A few months ago, after my computer crashed, I was venting about all the software errors I’d received when my cubicle neighbor starting chanting, “Era!”
That’s what he thought I’d said.
A few years ago, a former boss told me I sound “thug-like and uneducated” and suggested I invest in accent eradication therapy. A few years before that, another boss ridiculed me in a staff meeting because of how I pronounced the word drawing. (It sounded like drawer-ing.) So, yeah. The thought of representing how I sound on paper fills me with dread.
I don’t want all of my characters sounding like Fran Drescher, or worse – “thug-like.” I don’t want them droppin’ all their Gs or saying “fuhgedaboudit” at every opportunity. I’d hate to read a book that sounds like this. In fact, I think the reason I’ve always been so drawn to writing was because it hid my real voice.
In my early writing, I’d tried consciously to remove all evidence of my New York voice by never writing phonetically, never using slang. All of my characters sounded identical. Then, I went through a period where everything I wrote sounded just like the last book I’d read.
Yeah. Crashed and burned. I’ve learned voice can’t be imitated. When I narrated my day job product videos, I saw (heard?) this lesson proven. The more I concentrated on correct pronunciation, the less natural and more boring the videos became. I’d noticed I have the most trouble with OR sounds – words like explore and four sound like explaw or faw. I often changed those words in the script to something I could say more smoothly. But the product name is “D2D.” I couldn’t change that, even though it sounded like I was saying “dee da dee.” So, I had to do my best to pronounce my trouble words as a non-New Yorker might.
I came down with a cold during the project and had to rush the recording of about ten videos in a single afternoon. I didn’t have time to worry about word choices and accents and sounding ‘thug-like.’ It was enough to simply not stutter and clear my throat. And you know what? The finished videos sounded better when I relaxed instead of tried to be ‘voice neutral.’ (You can check them out here.)
In my writing, I’m still finding my voice. Yeah, it’ll probably sound New Yawk.
But that’s what’ll make it mine.