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Voice as Background and Foundation

By Jean E. Karl

Recently a manuscript was sent to me that had a good story that was well worked out and told in a clear, straightforward way that made it easy to read and engaging. But the material will never find a publisher, at least not in its present form. Why? Because the voice-the language used to tell the story -is not consistent with the story and is not consistent in itself.

Authors strive to find a style, to arrive at a way of expressing themselves that feels comfortable. This is good. This is necessary. But just as one style of costume does not fit all occasions, so one style, unaltered (no matter how good), does not fit all stories. One does not wear to a fancy dress ball the same sort of costume one wears to the beach. Each demands its own form of clothing.

A Natural Style Each person's choice of costume for a given occasion, however, generally fits that person's overall approach to dressing, their style, if you will. Similarly, each author must adapt personal style to the material that is being written. One author might write, over a period of time, a wilderness adventure, a science fiction tale, a historical novel, and a baseball story. For each of these, the author's approach to language must differ to frame the events of the story.

The language of telling is, in effect, a background to what is being told. This does not mean that an author must change the approach to writing each new book in some drastic way. The author's basic style remains the same. But the emphasis is different, the word choice different, the rhythm of the sentences and paragraphs may differ. The wilderness adventure would stay in the wild-put the reader into the thoughts and vocabulary of a person who might be caught up in its train of events. The science fiction might not use current idioms but invent phrases that fit the situation and the people who are living the story. The language would seem to belong to a future that was real but not like our time. The historical novel would use the speech patterns of the day in which it was set. The baseball story would have its own kind of dialect and pace.

Yet in each case, the author is in control and directs the overall style into patterns that match the book being written. None of this should be done in a way that calls attention to itself, that seems artificial and staged. The style must seem to be the only way in which what is being said could be said. The necessary background voice is suggestive, not extreme.

Carving Out a Voice If the author is immersed in the events of the book, is living the events as they happen, has done enough research, and has thought deeply enough about the shape of events, then that author's style may automatically take on the necessary shape to bring the book and its writing style to complement each other. But not always.

Sometimes an author needs to consider very carefully the voice in which the story will be told, and the exact quality needed does not come easily. Then the author needs to ask: Who are my characters and how would they talk in their situation and setting? How would a peer of these characters describe the action? What special elements of language need to be present to convey a sense of time, place, and specific persons? What is the least I can do to incorporate all of this in my telling so that the material is accessible to the largest number of readers? When these questions have been answered, then a proper voice may gradually develop.

In Fact These principles and process apply to the voices of nonfiction writers and their books as well. The voice must fit the subject matter. A skilled author would not write a poetic piece about a butterfly in the garden in the same voice as a chapter about a lion cub learning to hunt. A how-to book on building a bookcase does not have the same voice as a biography of Beethoven.

Each book needs its own approach. Every author needs a style. But every author needs to learn to vary that style to fit the material being written at the moment. A book is a whole and it must present itself as a whole. Everything in the book, including the language of telling, must express the ambiance of that book. How you write, when it comes to selling a book to a publisher, is as important as what you write-maybe even more important.

Jean E. Karl founded Atheneum Books for Young Readers, wrote her own children's books, and was the author of How to Write and Sell Children's Picture Books. Permission to reprint this article was received from the estate of Jean E. Karl.

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