Hearing Voices

200-1I’m sure you’ve all heard the advice to put your manuscript in a drawer for a few months before tackling the next revision. Getting some distance allows you to see things you otherwise can’t because you’re too close to it. I imagine we all have our Achilles’ heels – the things we have trouble seeing and fixing. For some it’s plot, for others dialogue. Maybe it’s even different for each book you write. For my young adult book, it’s been the voice of my teenage protagonist. “Strong character voice” is what I hear YA agents are looking for. Think Holden Caulfield. Hazel Grace Lancaster. Eleanor and Park.

When I began my YA book, I first focused on plot and structure. As a result, in my early drafts, 17-year old Chloe’s voice sounded more like an adult’s than a teenager’s. As drafts progressed, I paid more attention to making her voice sound younger and distinct, but it’s been a long process and it’s still my biggest struggle.

Fast forward to this past November. I attended a weekend writing retreat in Jackson, New Hampshire with a group of Novel Incubator alumni and our teacher Michelle. We took over a quaint country inn, devoting our days to writing and discussion of craft, and evenings to reading scenes aloud to the group for critiques. The first night I read the first four pages of my book. The group generally agreed that the scene was well-written and compelling, and ended on a good cliffhanger, but that Chloe’s voice disappeared in all the action. Michelle advised going through the scene and rewriting every single sentence to reflect the way Chloe would see it and describe it. I spent the entirety of the next day reworking those first four pages, trying to inject more of Chloe’s voice into them.

That afternoon I went for a run. I happened to have The Girl on the Train loaded onto my iphone. I’d heard the buzz when it first came out and, though I don’t usually read mysteries or thrillers, I figured it would be a good, light book to listen to in my car and while running. The audiobook uses three different actresses to read the parts of the POV characters: Rachel, the disgruntled alcoholic ex-wife of Tom; Anna, Tom’s meek second wife and new mother; and Megan, the bold, attractive blonde with a secret.

As I ran around the village of Jackson, I listened as each woman related her version of the story. I noticed something that may seem obvious, but became crystal clear hearing the voices out loud: each one was unique, with its own rhythm, pauses, word choice, syntax, and way of thinking. Each stood out as distinct from the others. It’s not that this was such a surprise. It’s how it affected my writing that surprised me.

With these voices fresh in my head, I turned to my four pages. Even though Rachel, Anna, and Megan are adult characters, something new happened. I felt freed up, able to try new things with Chloe’s voice. I heard her speak to me in a way I hadn’t before. I was able to rewrite many of the descriptions and observations in that opening scene from Chloe’s unique point of view.

I decided to see whether listening to a YA novel would have the same, or an even stronger, effect on my writing. I chose Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, in which actress Mandy Siegfried brings the spunky teen protagonist Melinda Sordino to life. It was a revelation to actually hear what this teenage girl sounded like. Again, I returned to my manuscript and rewrote much of Chloe’s observations and inner thoughts, using a more, well, teenagery, voice.

I’ve seen plenty of movies with teen characters, but maybe because movies are all dialogue, they never seem to help me with my character’s inner voice. I’ve read many YA books, paying close attention to teens’ voices for inspiration. Reading a variety of voices can be helpful, certainly, but it’s not the same as hearing them out loud, having them actually talk to you, complete with the range of confidence, insecurity, daring, fear, sarcasm, and excitement that teens feel.

If you’re having a similar struggle with your character’s voice, give it a try. And let me know how it works for you!

4 comments

  1. Maggie Smith

    This is excellent advice and advice I haven’t heard before. I’ve got a character slightly older in my WIP (24 years old) but do feel like I’m either making her sound too old or conversely, too young. I think I’ll get a book on tape with a protagonist around this age and listen – I think you’re spot on – hearing the dialogue spoken sounds like it will open up my thinking. Any suggestions anyone for a good 24 year old young adult woman that’s in a current novel?

    • I’m so glad you found it helpful, Maggie. I haven’t come across too many 24-year old protagonists in books. More often they’re either teens/still in college or full-fledged adults. I’m currently reading “Fates and Furies” by Lauren Groff and, at least in the early pages, the protagonist husband and wife are in their early 20s, so you might want to check that out. Also, Meg Wolitzer’s “The Interestings” follows a group of friends from the time they’re teenagers into adulthood, so covers the time they’re in their early 20s. Good luck!

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