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During ConCarolinas 2013, I added a panel where David B. Coe promised provided a series of writing challenges to help those in attendance develop tone, dialog, and voice skills. This is the third of three postings related to the challenges. Posting one is available here and posting two is available here. These stories were written while I was poking around in the Shifter watch world – the title for the flashes created by these writing exercises should be “Muin and Me”.
From David B. Coe: “Now, for voice. During my panel I distinguished between different levels of voice. Stylistic voice is a combination of authorial style and genre characteristics. Every author sounds a bit different. To take a more extreme example, you can tell a book by Hemingway from a book by Fitzgerald simply by style. They just sound different. Many of us bring our own reading tastes to bear in our styles. I know that my style has been influenced by Guy Gavriel Kay and Ursula LeGuin, Stephen Donaldson and Anne McCaffrey. Others might be influenced by a different set of authors. And, of course, we all have our stylistic tendencies. Taken together, our writing sounds like us; it’s unique. That’s authorial voice.
You can also tell the difference between an epic fantasy, with its sweeping tone and high language, and, say, an urban fantasy, which tends to be grittier, sparser, with a noir feel. That is genre voice. Authorial voice and genre voice combine to create stylistic voice.
Then we have what I call ambient voice. This relates back to what I said earlier about word choice. When you write a book in a certain setting, your writing — your descriptions, your analogies and metaphors — begin to take on the characteristics of that setting. If you’re writing a light story, your narrative voice sounds different from how it would if you were writing dark stuff. That is what I mean by ambient voice. Each project sounds a bit different, each books has its own unique tone, and sometimes it can take us some time to find that voice in our work.
We are helped in this regard by the final, and probably most important level of voice: character voice. This is the voice of your point of view character or characters. It is a blend of the character’s particular way of expressing him- or herself — literally the character’s speaking style — and his/her emotions and wit and intellect. In the Thieftaker books, Ethan Kaille is my sole POV character, and his voice — the darkness of his past; his wit, biting at times; his morality and earnestness — all of these help to shape the way the narrative reads. In my Winds of the Forelands and Blood of the Southlands books, I had many point of view characters, and I tried (with mixed success) to make each of them sound unique.
I should note here that it is not always easy to separate these various levels of voice. Each influences the others, and they all combine to make a book what it is. But I find it helpful to think of those different levels: Stylistic Voice (authorial and genre), Ambient Voice, and Character Voice.
And so with those in mind, here are a few voice exercises.
3) Using a character from your WIP — not a POV character please — write a scene in which this character encounters you. Write it from his or her POV in first person. Make sure he/she doesn’t sound like you. No dialogue necessary, better without. Wordless interaction, eyes meeting. Be in his/her head, observing you. What does s/he see?”
I stand on the bottom step, off of the landing and back from the door, in order not to frighten whoever answered. Six foot ten and three hundred pounds could be intimidating up close. Quiet steps padded through the house. Someone didn’t wear shoes while at home, unusual without carpet.
A mildly overweight woman in a loose T-shirt and biking shorts opens the front door, but not the screen. A caution I approve of. She glances at me, running quick eyes over me, and then out at the car buried in her ditch. And then back at me with an upturn smile, half sympathy and half amusement.
“Thought I had heard something.” Her voice sings between high soprano and low alto, with a little growl giving character and maturity. “Took the turn a little tight after the rain, eh?”
Middle-age was treating her kindly. Silver threads shimmer among the wavy brown hair. Tiny wrinkles touch her eyes and her lips, more visible with the smile, though matched by a few vertical worry marks carved where her eyebrows would meet. My eyes drop from her ice blue ones, disappointingly reduced in size by the strength of her prescription bifocals. Those eyes could have inspired poets in her youth.
I blush. “I might have at that, but I will say in my defense, someone coming the other direction was drifting into my lane.”
“Dangerous section of road. I get to pick up parts in my yard all the time, though you are the first to succeed in a full ditch.” She smiled again, showing teeth for a second. Nothing threatening. Her scent didn’t carry either fear or malice. “I suppose you will be needing a cell phone.”
“My phone does not seem to be working and I would like to call for a tow.”
“It’s the power lines. About half the companies don’t get signal here. Wait here.” She closes the door and I hear a click.
Doesn’t trust me, but that doesn’t feel right. Confident. Self-assured. I tried to find the right taste to describe the female. I step off the front porch step into the yard.
Before I can pin down the exact mystery, the woman comes around from the side porch. She had put sandals on and carries a cell phone in her hand. She closes on my large form without hesitation. I smell a single whiff of anxiety. She is old enough to understand stranger danger, but fearless enough to ignore it. I think I could like this woman. (words 421)
4) Now, go back and write the same scene from your point of view, but in third person.
Someone knocked lightly at the front door. Erin pushed herself away from the computer grateful for the break. Two hours and the writing exercises she was attempting still struggled to find their way from her head to her fingers. David B. Coe was a sadist. Five, did he really have to assign five exercises?
After unlocking the front door, she jerked it open. The door didn’t get used much. A man stood on the bottom step. She quickly took in his large form, well set off by a business suit including a jacket and crooked tie. She glanced around looking for his car and saw it bumper deep in the ditch. The curve had claimed another victim.
“Thought I had heard something.” She said suppressing a laugh. “Took the turn a little tight after the rain, eh?”
Erin looked closer at him. Hard to see if the eyes were dilated, but she didn’t see any blood. The face looked a bit red, likely from the air bag being deployed. He was lucky not to have two black eyes.
A deep voice like molten dark fudge flowed, explaining his situation. “I might have at that, but I will say in my defense, someone coming the other direction was drifting into my lane.”
Oh, she did love a beautiful bass.
“Dangerous section of road. I get to pick up parts in my yard all the time, though you are the first to succeed in a full ditch.” She smiled again, unable to stop a bit of flirting. No harm, people liked to feel good and right now the guy could use some emotional buttressing. “I suppose you will be needing a cell phone.”
His hand reached to rub the back of his neck, shifting the jacket wide. The man was a brick wall and his stomach was flat. Erin’s thoughts drifted a second, wondering just how perfect his six-pack was. “My phone does not seem to be working and I would like to call for a tow.”
“It’s the power lines. About half the companies don’t get signal here. Wait here.” She closed and relocked the front door. Quickly moving through the house, she slipped on her sandals and grabbed her cell phone before exiting out the side door, down the safer, re-mortared side steps. She really needed to either remove the front porch or put up a warning sign.
Whoa, Erin thought a second, as she approached the man. Now they were on level, she saw just how big he was. He actually was bigger than some of her cousins. Handling over her phone, she looked him over some more. Her first aid training was a decade old, but rooted deep. (words 451)
5) Finally, write a new scene between you and this character — POV is your choice. But try to make it sound like a different subgenre. So, if you’re WIP is high fantasy, write this scene as if it was an urban fantasy. If you’re writing urban fantasy, try doing this scene as high fantasy.
Dying red light spikes through the trees of the neighbor’s wooded lot by the time the delayed tow truck arrives. I had been squatting blood-thirsty mosquitos while having a pleasanter than expected dialogue about past accidents and mishaps with the woman who had provided me the cell phone. Although kind enough to keep me company for the hours of waiting, she still hadn’t given me her name. Caution and paranoia may cling to her closer than I thought.
“They’re here.” I grumble.
“At long last.” My benefactress agrees with the ever-present slight smile touching her mouth.
Aches from the accident, including an unexpectedly sore nose, revive as I stride out to greet them. The beat up hulk had veered into the woman’s open field next to my beached Volvo and blocking her driveway. Pretty much the only choice with the active two-lane road. The partially shattered windshield didn’t let me who was in the truck until the men spilled out, pulling guns.
Rushing back, I spot the woman diving behind the bricked side porch. Whoever was coming after me didn’t care about witnesses. Neither were they good shots. Two misses chuck earth.
The third bites my leg. Not full on. A graze. Shelter behind the bricks finds the woman calling 911.
Brick chips fly over my head. I grab the woman’s arm and drag her around the house. A glimpse shows the men splitting, one going around one side of the house and the other two following us more directly.
“Think you can run?” I pant staring at the open acreage between us and the next building, a business of some sort.
“Nope.” Her voice didn’t even quaver. “Never could.”
“Ready to fight?”
She picks up a brick from a small pile beside her side porch. “I can think of something.”
“If you hold off the one, I’ll take the two.”
“With what?” Sarcasm touched her rich voice.
I briefly consider the bricks, but decide on my natural talents. The house hid me from the busy road. I wasn’t breaking too many rules.
The jacket is tossed and I kick off my shoes. “With this.”
I release my skin. (words 362)
(First published 2/8/2013; republished in new blog format 4/25/2017)