"One Voice in a Million:
A YA Novelist and His Editor Speak Out on Voice"
by Kelly Milner Halls
(An interview excerpt from the 2002 Edition of
Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market)
From the free flow of popular fiction to the staunch rigors of academia, one elusive quality makes or breaks a writer’s ability to connect with a reader—voice. And yet definitive direction on that subjective magic is nearly impossible to find.
What is voice? How is it mastered? What makes one writer’s voice more spellbinding than the next? Perhaps it’s impossible to define and answer these without a waver. Perhaps our worship of words, when it comes to voice, does not allow for absolutes.
If explaining voice requires near mystic wizardry, successful writers and their editors are our best hope for accurate divining. So open your minds and your spirits to two of the finest professionals in the young adult universe, as they explore the wonders and weaknesses of a writer’s most intimate tool—the authorial voice.
John H. Ritter softly took his place in the world of YA literature when his debut novel, Choosing Up Sides (Philomel, 1998) won the 1999 IRA “Children’s Book Award.” It’s the remarkably focused story of a left-handed preacher's boy forced by his family's religious beliefs to go through life right-handed. Set in 1921, Southern Ohio, the novel examines the struggle between an obedient son who wants to play baseball and a father who truly believes the left hand is sinister.
John's follow-up novel, Over the Wall (Philomel, 2000), also explored the parallel wonders of adolescent life and baseball. This time it’s in modern day Manhattan with the dramatic retelling of the parable of The Good Samaritan—with a John H. Ritter twist. In this anti-war novel, the angry teenage boy in a family suffering from non-combat post-traumatic stress disorder plays all five roles in the parable, including the attacker and the attacked. Philomel Senior Editor Michael Green partnered with Ritter on both books, having been guided, after ten years of editorial experience, by his own mentor, Patricia Lee Gauch.
Both of these respected artisans were asked the same eight questions. Their responses are represented—unedited—side-by-side, as you see them here. With faith and careful study, perhaps a little of their collective magic will rub off. Perhaps you’ll capture a glimpse of your own writer’s voice between their well-considered lines.
Question: If you had to define "voice," how would you define it?
Green: It's the sensual climate that greets a reader the second he enters through the door of a book. It's the current--fast and strong, or gentle and cradling—that carries the reader past the landscape that is the author's story. It's the author's persona, the most direct link he has with the reader. It is perhaps the most imperceptible element of a story, yet it is the most important. Strong voice can breathe life into a dull story, while weak voice can render even the most exciting of tales limp and tasteless.
Ritter: To me, voice is a combination of rhythm, attitude, and personality. Just as in singing, it comes from phrasing, pacing, tone, timbre, and heart. The difference is that the vocalist generally uses the same, recognizable voice for all songs (think of Neil Diamond), whereas a good writer is more like a good method actor (think of Meryl Streep), who changes voice to suit the character and the story being told.
Question: What makes one voice stronger than another?
Green: Creativity and aggressiveness with language certainly help. Consistency does, too. Some people confuse dialect with voice, but a dialect can't mask a passive voice, and it can easily overwhelm the author's own voice and feel artificial if over-used. I suppose the ultimate answer sounds a bit subjective: What makes one voice stronger than another is its hold on the reader. What some may find poetic, others may find too flowery. What some may find powerfully succinct, others may find blunt. It is my job to make certain the author's voice feels authentic at all times, and that it works in unison with the story as a whole.
Ritter: Again, as in singing and acting, the strength comes from how distinct, vital, and accurate the storyteller’s voice is for that particular story.
Question (to Michael Green): What is it about John's writer's voice that makes it so distinctive?
Green: John is a true chameleon. His first novel, Choosing Up Sides, was
a period piece set in a small-town world in the heartland of America. John knew he had to affect a dialect, but the results curl around the reader so naturally that no effort is used in getting used to it. And he found subtle ways to use that dialect to reflect his characters' personalities and build story atmosphere. Take the following excerpt from early in the book, a scene between 14-year-old Luke and his young sister, Chastity:
“Can I help?” Chastity swung upside down on the porch rail. Her blonde braids swept the deck boards I was aiming to mend.
“You can help most,” I said,“by getting out of my way.”
She puffed her cheeks out like a pouting chipmunk. “I will if you be nice to me.”
That kid could sure nettle you, but she got her feelings hurt easy if you yelled at her. “Okay, okay. Look, Chassy Bird, I’ll tell you a riddle. Just one. Then you skedaddle, you hear?”
Not your typical older brother/younger sister interaction in young-adult novels. In just a few lines of text, John has shown the reader that Luke has a genuine affection for his little sister. The image of the pouting chipmunk is a cute one, and the nickname Chassy Bird is clearly one of endearment. Meanwhile, John's use of phrases such as "I was aiming to mend" and "that kid could sure nettle you" place his story clearly in another time and place.
One more example from the same book:
No one coughed. No one stirred. Pa smiled and looked us over.
"Then the Devil flew Jesus to the top of a giant mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world at once."
Now Pa's voice rose and the sugary coaxing was gone. "And the Devil said, 'I will give you all these riches.'" Pa swooped his arm. "'I will give you all this power and all this glory, if you will fall down and worship me!'"
He sucked in a quick breath and kept going. "And Jesus shouted, 'Get thee be-hind me, Satan! For it is written, thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and Him only!' " He slammed his hand down on the pulpit, louder than a gunshot.
Pa let the echo wave through the empty church, let one lady squirm and cough into a hankie, then he softly added, "And Him only."
Can you hear it? Can you picture yourself in that church? Can you feel the energy of the preacher's words? Can you hear the silence that resounds after the preacher strikes the pulpit? That is the power of voice.
In John's second novel, Over the Wall, he set his story in contemporary New York City, a world and a lifetime away from the setting of Choosing Up Sides. What made his voice so successful this time around was the voice of his story's teens. The scenes in which they merely hang around and shoot the breeze bring the novel clearly into focus. Take the following scene, in which 14-year-old Tyler watches a baseball game while absorbing the local culture in Central Park:
I turned to a kid nearby, about my age, leaning on his own bike. "Don't any of these guys use metal bats?"
"Nah, they don't let 'em. Too dangerous. These guys hit too hard."
I nodded. I gave his bike a quick glance. Tricked out and lowered down to the max. A big, balloon-tired Schwinn with chrome everything. Handlebars, chain guards, spokes, and fenders. Out of the black, spongy handle grips flared bushy, brown foxtails. Behind the wheels hung black rubber mud flaps spangled with orange-and-red dime-sized reflectors.
"Nice bike," I said. "Took some time to do all that."
He grinned. "Yo, tell me about it. Like two years. And I'm not done yet." He touched the frame. "All this gets repainted this summer. Cherry red metallic lacquer."
"Cool," I said. "Be sweet."
He bobbed his head in agreement as we both turned our attention to the hiss and sizzle of someone sliding up the walkway on rollerblades. A girl.
"Hi, Hector," she said to the boy with me. Her head was covered with a blue-and-white Puerto Rican flag-scarf tied flat across her forehead, pirate-style.
He lifted his chin at her. "Angelina."
The tall girl skated by, her feet floating on pink neon.
John uses his narrative voice to convey the feel of the scene. The hiss and sizzle of the rollerblades. The proud bobbing of the boy's head as Tyler compliments his bike, and the way he lifts his chin to give a one-word reply to the girl, "Angelina." The scene is casual and tactile. A summer's day in the park. Like I said, John is a true chameleon.
Question: What are the most common mistakes new writers make when it comes to voice?
Green: Overwriting. They feel they have to cram in every bit of narrative exposition and physical descriptions, rather than letting the information reveal itself naturally.
Ritter: Inconsistency. Often a writer tries too hard, especially at the beginning of a story, then the voice lapses later on. That’s okay in early drafts, because an author has to discover and refine the voice as the story progresses. But it’s important for the writer to go back and ensure that the voice at the end is the same voice that began the story. Another mistake is trying to be too cute or too clever. This one is harder for the author to spot, and so one has to rely on good, honest feedback from other readers or an editor. Again, it has to be worked out in the earlier drafts.
Question: Are there any classics in YA literature that stand out as being exceptionally strong in "voice"—books new authors could study?
Green: This may be the hardest question to answer. So many authors have done a good job when it comes to voice. A few that come to mind include: A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck, The Giver by Lois Lowry, and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher. I just finished an adult novel that I found to have a lovely voice: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden.
Ritter: Off the top of my head, I’d say, Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, and any of the Alice books by Phyllis Naylor.
Question: Does voice have anything to do with the rhythms of human language and translating them to the written page?
Green: Certainly a strong voice mirrors these rhythms when it comes to dialogue, but that isn't always the case when it comes to narrative. Sometimes the best narrative voices are the ones that sound fresh to our ears, rather than mimicking the ones we hear every day.
Ritter: Partly, yes. But voice is more than that. It also comes from the rhythms of motion, of interaction, of gesture. Voice is something that is best learned by observation. It’s song, it’s rhythm, it’s nuance. It’s not something you’d get out of an academic book. Voice is something you get from walking in the hills or down city streets, from lurking dockside watching a team of stevedores unload twenty-five tons of coal. You get it from listening. From the whistle of a meadow lark, from the rhyme patterns of a river delta blues, from the hard, breath-bursts of a girl in soccer silks darting after a ball. It’s poetic in nature, musical, and it’s pure right brain. It doesn’t come from having lots of knowledge. It comes from having a good ear.
Question: What tips do you have for writers struggling with the understanding of voice?
Green: 1) Be natural. 2) Don't think of yourself as writer; think of yourself as an observer, recording the world around you. 3) Read your work aloud. Often you will hear quirks in your own writing that you would otherwise miss.
Ritter: Again, I’d stay away from trying to understand it. You learn to hit a ninety mile an hour fastball by having someone throw you hundreds of sixty, then seventy, then eighty mile an hour fastballs. You learn to hit a high “C” two or three octaves above middle “C” by working your way up to it, expanding your range. Same thing with your authorial voice. I’d say, start easy. Get out of your critical mind a little bit, see how that works. Then go a little further, expand your range. Become goofy, become gentle, become stern. But most of all, realize that building a writer's voice is an organic process. It takes time.