March 16, 2011

What "Rings True"?

Voice comes from within the characters themselves, the kind of person they are, the values and insights they have, as well as the way they tell readers about their experiences. If the storytelling works, reviewers give such praise as “rings true,” “authentic,” “believable.”

Of course, it’s the author who gives the characters (the chance to use) their voice. I’ve heard acquiring editors at workshops suggest authors consider: Why is this your story to tell? What makes you the best person to tell it?

As I read back over Nancy Wick’s earlier postings on voice and point of view, I found a variation of this in the quote from Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life: “If your imagination takes you somewhere and you know the ground, go for it. Otherwise, don’t go barging in where you don’t belong.” Nancy followed up with advice for a man who might be writing in the voice of a 25-year-old woman: follow her around (with her permission!).

But adults do have some advantage in the YA arena: we’ve been teens, we’ve made it through teenhood. Slang, clothes, entertainment, even societal expectations change (and here’s where following a teen might come in). But emotions are constant.

YA author K.L. Going, in research for her book Writing and Selling the YA Novel, asked a panel of teen readers what made a teen voice in a novel sound fake to them. “The most common response to this question had to do with an author’s use of language—either an improper use of slang, or trying too hard to sound like a teen and not pulling it off. The other answers that came up again and again were when authors use stereotypes and when authors overexaggerate.”

The voice of the novel is heard in the dialogue and the inner thoughts of the character. It’s the narrative voice as well, in describing the actions and reactions, setting, physical appearance, down to clothing choices and the way the character walks through the hall to get to the next class.

So who is the narrator in relation to the story? Is it the main character? Another character in the story observing the main character? A voice outside the story? The answer leads to choices about person and tense.

First person is wildly popular in today’s YA fiction. You’ll find an interesting discussion about first v. third person in YA fiction at the Absolute Write Water Cooler. Most of the participants felt it helped them slip into the main character’s head more completely. One said while she preferred writing in first person, as a reader she didn’t care as long as the book was good. Others thought writers should do what works best for them. However, one author said she was in the midst of changing a work from close third person to first person at the advice of a couple of agents who felt that would help her get the voice across better. Another’s editor said to use first person unless there’s a good reason not to.

K.L. Going has some cautions about first person, observing that “it’s easy to write sloppily while using it.” The narrator can resort to telling the reader what happened, relying on an “oh-so-witty” style rather than using dialogue and action. It can read like diary entries: I did this, then I did this, then I saw this, then I thought this. James Cross Giblin, in The Giblin Guide to Writing Children’s Books, has another caution. Though first person can be more intimate, more engaging, more conversational in tone, it limits the language to the main character’s observations, experience, intelligence, and perception. 

Should you advise an author to use first person? Take into consideration things like the importance of setting, context, the role of other characters in the story. Using first person because it’s trendy is not the best reason. Though if you have concerns about the authenticity of the voice, suggesting the author write scenes in first person might be useful, even if the project ends up in third person.

The YA field seems to be wide open when it comes to voices, views, and viewpoints. It’s far more experimental than other categories of children’s literature.

Novel in first person, present tense: Printz Honor Book Stuck in Neutral, by Terry Trueman. 

Novel in second person: Damage, by A.M. Jenkins. There’s an interesting discussion of this “you” in the narrative at Verla Kay’s message board

Novel in IM: Lauren Myracle’s ttyl and l8r, g8r. has a challenging discussion of this in “Instant Message Novels: The Prose of the Future?” 

Novels in free verse: This has been another popular format. Check out lists at the Austin Public Library’s Connected Youth and Read in a Single Sitting

Novel with unreliable narrator: National Book Award finalist Inexcusable, by Chris Lynch; Liar by Justine Larbalestier.

Multiple-voice novel: Wish You Were Dead, by Todd Strasser; praised at the above Water Cooler link, panned at Dear Author

Two-voice novels by two different authors: David Levithan’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson, written with John Green, and his Dash & Lily's Book of Dares, written with Rachel Cohn 

Author Mindy Hardwick had another experience with how editorial input influenced a revision decision for a YA novel that might be useful:
    I started my two-voice novel during my fourth semester of Vermont. So . . . let’s see . . . six years ago. I had been told over and over that my boy character had the stronger story, and yet, I kept insisting that my girl character had a story too. Then, I stumbled on the unreliable narrator idea when I read Lost by Jacqueline Davies. She presented a workshop on unreliable narrators, and I emailed her for the notes. Immediately, I realized that my girl character was lost in her romantic fantasies, and this obsession makes her very unreliable. And it gave me a twist for the ending.

Knowing the range of possibilities might give you additional suggestions for your author to consider. 

1 comment:

  1. I love this list of books, Pamela! I've several times gotten inspiration from reading a book that my client admires or that has something in common with the manuscript I'm working on. Picking apart the techniques used in one book versus another -- such as how first-person present tense is written -- can help me come up with different ideas or more varied suggestions. I'm glad to have this resource for YA.