Voice Spotlight: The Penderwicks

I wanted to talk about a good middle grade book, so I chose The Penderwicks.

Middle Grade has a lot of cute books, which makes it fun. On the other hand, I get a lot of submissions for middle grade projects where it feels like the author is talking down to the reader. I and a number of agents and editors I know find this very off-putting. But Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwick’s series has all the charm and cute and fun an MG book should have without ever feeling like she’s talking down to the reader. Probably my favorite example of an authentic, fun middle grade voice.

penderwicks

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Voice: Word choice

Just as a heads up, my linguistics nerdiness might show in this post a little.

As I was thinking about how I wanted to organize this series of posts, I decided it made sense to work from the micro level to the macro level. So we’re going to start by talking about the smallest units of voice, aka word choice.

You don’t need to be a linguistics student to know that different people use different words. For instance, you might anticipate that words like thong mean something entirely different to your grandmother than that teenager who lives down the street (for my grandma, a thong is a sandal).

That may seem obvious. Teens use more slang and are more adept at incorporating new words (or neologisms if you want to use the linguist jargon). A teen will know if something is basic, bae or on point. They sometimes have so many feels that they can’t even.

What factors other than age affect our word choice? How about geographic location. Does your main character drink soda, pop, or coke? Do they line up or queue? Do they use a jump drive, a flash drive, or a usb stick? Likewise economic class can affect what words you use and how you say them. Do you say vase with a s sound or a z sound at the end? Gender can affect word choice as well. Studies have shown that women are more likely to distinguish colors than men (a woman may say something is navy blue, royal blue, or robin’s egg blue, but to a man it’s just blue).

The point of all this is that it can be hard to accurately use words the way somebody from a different social group than you would. I have a professor who sometimes tries to mimic the way teenagers use the word like and it just sounds wrong. It takes a lot of work to sound authentic, but the first step to sounding authentic is being aware.

Here are some fun resources you can use to explore words. I’m not sure how useful they will be. But like I said, my linguist is going to town on this post.

Word and Phrase: This site was developed by one of my professors. I experimentally pasted some text from various members of my writing group. I found that I used more lower frequency words than my group members (which isn’t to say my writing is better. It’s just a stylistic difference).

Wordle: See what words you’re using most frequently.

Word Spy: This is just sort of a fun way to see what new words people are using.

Secret Life of Pronouns: Do with this site what you will. I just think it’s sort of interesting.

Voice Spotlight: Me Before You

Me Before You, Jojo Moyes

First of all, I adore this book on so many levels. You should read it. It will make you feel things.

One particular thing I liked, though, was the voice. This was interesting to me, because in a lot of ways Lou Clark isn’t that interesting as a character. She’s been a waitress her whole working life, she doesn’t have a lot of ambition, and her relationship with her long-time boyfriend is lackluster at best. Her life is fairly unremarkable. And yet Moyes is still able to give her a voice that is engaging.

me before you

Voice: Why character is so important

I feel like I’ve harped on this a lot, but understanding your character is CRITICAL to creating good voice. Your voice needs to match your character. I think this is true even if you’re writing in third person, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

The point is, voice is all about sounding like a believable, unique individual. And before you can sound like a a believable, unique individual you need to be well acquainted with said individual. Otherwise, it would be like trying to do an Elvis impersonation without ever having seen Elvis perform (I don’t know what rock you have to be living under not to have ever seen Elvis, but I think the metaphor still works). In the next couple of posts we’re going to be getting into the mechanics of voice, all of which rely on knowing who your main character is.

What about third person (I told you we’d talk about it). If you are writing in third person, your voice still needs to match your main character. Quite often, the third person narrator will sound a lot like what the main character sounds like. If not, the narrator needs to have a distinct voice, almost as if they were a character. Either way, the narrator voice needs to compliment the character.

Okay, I will stop beating this very dead horse. Just remember. Character needs to happen.

Character Exercise: Setting Swap

Try placing your character in a completely different setting. If you really have a grasp on their personality, you’ll be able to successfully transfer them into a new environment. Reimagine your high fantasy character as a modern high school student. Put your contemporary MG hero in a comic book and think about what type of superpower they’d have. Rewrite your period romance character in a science fiction environment.

When you change the setting for your character, you may be forced to consult aspects of their personality you might not have to otherwise. Asking “What would this character study in college?” forces you to consider the character’s interests and skills. Probably this has come up in your original setting. If not it probably should have. This exercise is a good way to check that you’ve figured it out.

Examples:

If Hamlet was a college student, he’d major in philosophy. For Halloween he’d dress up as a skeleton.

If Emma Woodhouse was on a starship, she’d be in charge of communications. Half the crew would be in love with her.

If Don Quixote was in a horror novel… I’m actually not sure on this one, but I’m pretty sure it would be simultaneously hilarious and terrifying.

What is Voice?

Agents everywhere are always saying they’re looking for voice, but they can be annoyingly vague on what they mean when they say that. For the next few weeks on my blog, I’m going to be focusing on voice. I want to start off the discussion by talking about what exactly voice is.

The simple way of putting it is that voice is the thing that makes the narrator of the story sound like a real, distinct person.

One time I stumbled across a blog by my friend. It sounded exactly like him. So much so that I read it in his voice. When a story has good voice, I read it in the character’s voice rather than my own. I can think of a scenario and imagine not only what they would say, but how they would sound saying it. That’s good voice.

Good voice is powerful, because it makes the reader feel like they know a character personally, an impressive feat since the character isn’t a real person. Because character is such an important part of voice, we’re going to be focusing a lot on character development as we talk about voice. Check back for characterization exercises and examples of voice from published books.