Yesterday, I was discussing voice with a writing friend. She’s just begun a new novel and was anxious because she didn’t have the voice down. I reminded her of my favorite quote about first drafts, “A first draft is a celebration of everything that can go wrong on a page.”
But then, we began to discuss voice in more depth. She mentioned that when she writes short stories, the voice is always there at the beginning. And as I thought about it, I realized that when I write shorts, I always start with a voice. But when I write a novel, I never start with a full-formed voice (although with sequels it’s easier because the voice is already established).
Then the ten thousand dollar question is “Why.” What’s the difference? I think because a short story is so focused around the narrative voice, everything (plot, character, etc.) flows from that voice.
But novels are altogether different. Even the simplest novel, is a series of “clashes” between character, plot, tone, and voice. Not only are the characters refined as they bump up against each other, but the characters are sharpened by the plot. And the plot is honed by the tone and voice, which in turn influence the characters. And not until you get all of these ingredients into the cauldron of the novel, does the magic elixir of voice finally rise to the top.
I’m not saying that there isn’t some sort of voice at the beginning. I think you do start with an immature voice—you have to. After all, the voice helps to control where the story goes. But I think when you start a novel with a “little boy’s voice.” It’s squeaky and cute, not what you want to end up with, but it communicates and sets the arc of the story.
As the novel matures through revision, the voice changes. It takes on nuance and inflection. It deepens, much like the little boy whose voice goes through puberty to become a wide ranging tenor or rumbles in a bass profundo.
What about you, writers? Is this your experience of voice? Or do voices come to you fully formed and mature? (If so, I’m really, really jealous.)