A guest blog by Jo Zebedee: Changing Voices
I’m delighted to post here a guest blog by Tickety Boo author Jo Zebedee, whose new book Abendau’s Heir is almost published. I asked Jo to write about the topic of prose voice, and so, with no further ado, here she is…
I have a writing voice, right. Of course I do. It’s zippy and Northern Irish, and my sentences are short and have more than a few swear words (I did say it was Norn Irish, after all.)
Hold on, though. Not everything I write is quite that way. The heir to a distant space empire doesn’t tend to call people eejits. He doesn’t, actually, swear that much. He’s prone to thinking, too. To musing. And to using long sentences with colons and semi-colons and dashes, of the M and N variety.
It always surprises me, when I shift from work to work, how much my writing changes. It’s on a subtle level. The books all still feel like me, but each has a different cadence: Abendau has long, flowing sentences. It’s more reflective. Inish Carraig is fast and pacey, with pithy asides. Waters decided to become descriptive and almost poetic in places (which is what I get for stealing my title off the genius that is WB Yeats.)
The contrast is even more marked in short stories. I write young people, and not-so-young. Sometimes they want to talk like an American, which I hate because I can’t nail the idiom just as easily. Sometimes they’re from down the road. In one notable instance they spoke with a nice old-fashioned BBC-best English accent. Quite sexy, that one.
I’m now embarking on something new (in between edits andd submissions and queries and many, many blogs not to mention life,) which has already decided to have its own voice (somewhere between the flowing Abendau and the poetic Waters, with little regard for descriptive prose to date). Which made it timely to think about the thorny subject of voice a little further. I suppose what I wondered was which came first – the setting or the voice?
Sometimes it’s easy. In Inish I wanted a Belfast setting, with hard voices and black humour. We Norn Irish talk fast. Very fast. (Anyone ever googled The Wee Man From Strabane? Do it. Give yourself a giggle. And then try to imagine capturing that in a sci fi book for mass appeal and still make sense…) So the people I was depicting led to the voice I used. (Did I mention that I actually hear my characters’ voices? I’m not sure what, exactly, that says about me except, possibly, I need to get out more.)
But why then did I end up with a pacy space opera with long flowing sentences? Surely that makes no sense? Except that the characters are deep thinkers, by and large. They juggle a lot to think about – big themes, an epic scale, much angst. Here, the characters shaped the language to capture the feel of the book. And once captured it filtered into pretty much every aspect of the book.
I’m not the type of writer who sits and deconstructs what I write. I write, and read, for flow. I’m as likely to enjoy a literary classic as a nice shoot-em-up. I like a range of voices. So for me finding a definitive answer is hard. Except, perhaps, this: If the voice is wrong for the book, it stands out. If your characters have the wrong sentence style, a drawl where it should be quick and pithy, your inner critic will nag and nag until you fix it.
When you find the book flowing when you read it back, when you don’t second guess if it sounds right, then you know you have the voice in place. Even if it’s not the one you expected, and it’s different from the one in the book edited last week.
But watch for bleeding between voices – I’ve said it once, and I will again – a space emperor with a Norn Irish accent is just plain wrong. Unless it’s Liam Neeson, of course. But he makes everything right.