Stealing, Tweaking, Voice
Recently, I had a fabulous conference critique on a new picture book biography. It left me smiling for days, mostly because of two words: “great voice.” It’s taken a long time nail the concept of voice. If you’ve been writing as long as I have, you know how ambiguous the subject of voice is. I mean, how do you define it? Good luck explaining the term to a ten year old, to your spouse, to a new writer. It’s like describing a new flavor. Usually, you just know a good one when you taste it. As a picture book writer, it is the ultimate compliment. It doesn’t come easily. And writers aren’t the only ones who struggle with it.
The day after our ASCBWI conference, I was fortunate to spend a workshop morning with famed illustrator E.B. Lewis. He spoke about the relationship between words and images. He addressed the illustrators in the room by encouraging everyone to “steal” from other works. Not, in a plagiarism way. He meant by copying the color of the sky in one painting, the shape of a shoulder in another, the shadows, hands, flow in yet another painting, and on, and on. By extracting ideas from established works, artists can create something fresh and unique to them. In fact, this is how music has been composed for centuries, too. And it’s how my wedding dress came to be.
I know, you’re now asking what a wedding dress has to do with voice. Well, maybe you remember being a bride-to-be, shuffling through racks of puffy white gowns, pouring over the thick wedding magazines, clipping pictures of dresses, and veils, and glittery things. I certainly did that, but I never found THE perfect dress. I liked the sleeves of one dress, the bodice of another, the neckline or beadwork of another, the scalloped train of yet another, and so on. I took images of these disparate pieces to a seamstress, tweaked the whole with my own personal tastes, then voila! I walked down the aisle in a dress that was uniquely me. My own style. If my wedding could be defined in terms of voice, that dress was it. Though each piece was inspired by others’ creations, it came together as my own original design.
Back to writing. I think there are two kinds of voice. There’s the overall voice set up by the narrative style, and there’s each character’s individual voice. They can’t be forced. Voice to a writer comes from reading, reading, reading, and writing, writing, writing. Though we may not always physically clip phrases, words, sentences from pages, our readers’ mind somehow records it. First, maybe we imitate a writer we admire. In time, like my wedding dress, we process component parts, add our own personal spin and voila! Our written voice comes more naturally.
I’m still smiley about this editor’s kind words about the voice of my manuscript. It reminds me of how very far I’ve come as a writer. I have a whole lot of established authors and their fine books to thank for it. And there’s so much more to learn. Which means it’s time to hit the books again.