Saturday, August 21, 2010

Reading Like a Writer: Voice

The revisions on Forgiven are done (for now – there’s always more to do!) and now on to “Reading Like a Writer” (RLAW, for short.)

Before I start, with Tell Me A Secret (Holly Cupala) and The Sky is Everywhere (Jandy Nelson), I’d like to point to blog posts by my friend Bethany Hegedus, who began her own RLAW segment not long ago (her first post: ). Both Bethany and I are graduates of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in writing for children, and these analyses are a kind of standard ritual, and one of the ways we hope to improve our work.
There seems to be a thing in books for teens lately about dead sisters. Tell Me a Secret and The Sky is Everywhere share that theme (along with a number of other books: Jane in Bloom by Deborah Lytton and Losing Faith by Denise Jaden are two that come to mind.) Secret and Sky are both contemporary novels written in first person, both protagonists are grieving, and both – Miranda in Secret and Lennie in Sky – go through a “thing” with their dead sisters’ boyfriends.
Yet these two novels, which in my opinion are among the best of this year, have strong, distinctive voices and that’s what sets them apart. So in this segment of RLAW, I’d like to start with voice.
There is authorial voice (the way you phrase things every time you write; for example, I’m very fond of parallel construction.) But the voice of your character is unique to the work.
In Secret, Miranda speaks in past tense with an urgency that drives the narrative:
“We sat together in the silence, time passing like the stream of cars whizzing beneath us on the highway. Another wave of pain threatened to engulf me, and I isolated it in my mind. It began the size of a marble and swelled into a watermelon, pink and fleshy and throbbing. Giving in would mean going back, something I wasn’t ready to do yet. Not until I knew everything.”
Miranda’s emotional edge is driven by her secret, which is captured in the image of something “pink and fleshy and throbbing;” the narrative voice is evocative but terse. Time is Miranda’s enemy, and her deadline (which we know about right from the start) looms. Cupala chooses a sentence structure that is elegant yet straightforward. She often ends her paragraphs with simple declarative sentences: “Maybe fear did, too.” “We each had a little of both.”
In Sky, Lennie’s voice couldn’t be more different: dreamy, languid, with unique and expressive vocabulary:
“I realize something that scares me: I’d be happy, but in a mild kind of way, nothing demented about it. I’d be turtling along, like I always turtled, huddled in my shell, safe and sound.
"But what if I’m a shell-less turtle now, demented and devastated in equal measure, an unfreakingbelievable mess of a girl, who wants to turn the air into colors with her clarinet, and what if somewhere inside I prefer this?”
Nelson chooses complex compound sentences and elevated imagery (“turtling,” “turn the air into colors”) that are exactly right for Lennie.
Miranda is an actor – she may be conflicted, but she’s constantly on the move, taking things in hand (not always successfully, which is the source of the novel’s tension.) Lennie is a dreamer – processing slowly and carefully, through words (poetry), and the tension here is driven by her inability to act at the right time. And these two disparate personalities are expressed by the unique voices given to them by Cupala and Nelson.
I’m sure I could go on, but I’ll turn it over to you. What unique voice have you read lately, in which the language used by the writer perfectly mirrors the personality of the protagonist?

1 comment:

Meg Wiviott said...

Thanks for this post, Janet. Jandy's book is on my TBR Again pile. But I am not familiar with TELL ME A SECRET. Thanks for the suggestion.