Monday, July 8, 2013

I hear voices

There's nothing I love to read more than a distinctive writer's voice. 

Some writers have it.

Some writers don't.

I believe that writing can be good - even great - without a distinctive voice. A great story - a skillfully developed plot - perfect dialogue, well-drawn characters.

But the voice is what sets one author's writing apart from another's.

It's like the blindfold taste test - can you read a passage of unidentified writing and know who wrote it?

Maybe lots of writers could write the same story, but only a writer with a distinctive voice can write it THAT way - that particular way - that way that tells the reader - "This is clearly HER writing. I'd recognize it anywhere."

For me, distinctive voice usually involves rhythm and word choice. It also involves the ability to write about ordinary things in an extraordinary way, so that small things become more important. And last, distinctive voice is the ability to show the perfect emotion.

The writing voice I love most in the whole world belongs to
Cynthia Rylant. She can weave together concrete, detailed description with perfectly described emotion and the words just flow together so flawlessly. Like this from Missing May:

Whirligigs of Fire and Dreams, glistening coke bottles and
chocolate milk cartons to greet me. I was six years old and I had come home.

And she can drop in a heartbreak of a sentence when you least expect it:

May was gardening when she died.

Or this:

When May died, Ob came back to the trailer, got out of his good suit and into his regular clothes, then went and sat in the Chevy for the rest of the night.

Next up? Linda Urban. Ooolala....that distinctive voice. Linda's got the gift of making the ordinary extraordinary - and for nailing emotion.

From The Center of Everything:

Ruby is an underreactor, Lucy says. So they are yin and yang -
which are not the names of twin zoo pandas, like ruby thought at first, but two opposites that fit together.

Lucy is dramatic; Ruby is calm.

Lucy is impulsive; Ruby takes time to figure things out.

Ruby does what she is supposed to do, and Lucy? Well, "I count on you for balance," Lucy always says.

Which is why they are friends, Ruby thinks.

And which is why she hasn't told Lucy how out of balance she felt since Gigi died. Instead, Ruby pretended things were normal. That she was normal.

And it worked.


Until yesterday.

"We're supposed to be best friends!" Lucy had said. Yelled, really. Her eyes had been slits, her voice as loud as it had ever been on the Hungry Nation Youth Theater stage. "I tell you everything and you didn't tell me anything!"

Ruby's stomach hurts remembering what she had said back. "Mind like water."

"This is not a stupid pebble, Ruby Pepperdine! This is a meteor! You have hurled an enormous meteor into the lake of our friendship. You've caused a tsunami!" Lucy had balled her fists and dashed away, and Ruby was left bobbing stupidly in her wake.

Bobbing stupidly in her wake?  Really? Love that.

I don't own a copy of Hound Dog True. Why? Because I am lame, is the only reason I can think of. So...I can't offer up an example. But here's what you must do: Go immediately and get a copy of that book. Then immediately turn to the scene where Mattie is in the cloakroom (coatroom?) and a classmate steals money from backpacks and mispronounces the word ogre. OMG! I'm kicking myself for not writing that scene before Linda did. Dang! (But then, I couldn't write with her distinctive voice, of course.)

Ordinary turned to extraordinary.

Kirby Larson. Sigh...what can you say about Kirby's writing voice?
Here's a word that comes to mind: perky. I know, kind of a stupid word choice. Maybe lively? Upbeat? I'm sure there's a better word but I can't think of it. All I know is that her writing voice sings. You'll get my drift with the examples below, from Hattie Ever After:

I needed to find my own place in the world. My own true place. And something in me believed that place was connected to the working end of a pen, not a plow. And certainly not a polishing cloth!

And this - which I adore:

As I scrubbed, two voices whispered around me. Hattie Go spoke into my right ear: "Don't you see? This is your chance to do something Grand."

Hattie Stay buzzed in my left ear. "What about Charlie? What will he think if you move even farther away?"

"He'd want you to have that adventure," urged Hattie Go. "Want you to pursue your dreams."

"He wants you to marry him!" protested Hattie Stay.

"The Pacific Ocean!" sighed Hattie Go. "Think of it!"

See what I mean about lively? Hattie Stay and Hattie Go? (Not to mention those dialogue tags.)

Here's one more:

It was him, too, who'd given me Mr. Whiskers, that sassy old tomcat. I don't know how Charlie knew that that bundle of fur and purr was just what a lonely orphan girl needed, but he did.

What about Rita Williams-Garcia? Her writing voice is just pure personality. I've never had the good fortune to meet her, but I'm sure I would love her. Her personality JUMPS off her pages.  

Only she could write the following (from P.S. Be Eleven): 

"Delphine." The "Del" pulled down low and quick and the "phine"
had no choice but to follow like a shamed child.

I love this:

You put on a smile and say it again. "That's nice, Pa. Very nice," because none of Miss Merriam Webster's words will show up in time to save you. You remember how Mrs. Peterson forbade the use of the word very in book reports because very was fine for fourth graders, but too lazy for fifth graders. Yet here you are, getting ready to start the sixth grade using fourth-grade words. You can't help yourself and add another very. "Very, very nice, Papa."

And only the character of Big Ma could use words like ooga mooga and some-timey friend and a grand Negro spectacle.

Such personality! Rita! Call me! Let's do lunch.

Now who could talk about distinctive writing voice without
mentioning Kathi Appelt? Not me. Her voice is melodic, like a song. Only Kathi can write sentences like these (from The Underneath):

She sniffed the air. It was wrong, this place. The air was heavy with the scent of old bones, of fish and dried skins, skins that hung from the porch like a ragged curtain. Wrong was everywhere.

Who else could write that sentence: It was wrong, this place?

Who else could write: Wrong was everywhere?

Who else could write: Hatred, like sweat, coated his skin.

Or this: Glory, glory, the warm dry sun bounced onto his silver fur. It sank right in. He walked farther into its goldy beams.

 Goldy beams? Really? *fist bump, Kathi*

That book is just so full of bluey blues and greeny greens and piney woods. Lovely.

Sara Pennypacker has a super duper funny dang voice. She has a wonderful way of dropping little unrelated nuggets into a sentence or paragraph that provide a great glimpse into the main character (for instance, those ceiling snakes in the second example below). I also love the way she varies the length of her sentences - some long and run-on - some short and choppy.  

From Clementine:

While Margaret was looking under the bed for Mascara, I accidentally touched her lamp, which is a china poodle with an umbrella that Margaret calls a parasol because she is a show-off. Margaret turned around fast, but my hands jumped into my pockets even faster.


If they had a special class for gifted kids in art, I would definitely be in it. But they don't, which is also unfair - only for math and English. I am not so good at English, okay, fine. But this year I am in the gifted class for math. And here is the bad surprise - so far, no gifts.

I told Principal Rice about that problem when she got back from calming down Margaret's mother.

"So far, no gifts," I told her, extremely politely.

Principal Rice rolled her eyes to the ceiling then, like she was looking for something up there. Ceiling snakes maybe, just waiting to drip on you. That's what I used to be afraid of when I was little, anyway. Now I am not afraid of anything.

Okay, fine, I am afraid of pointy things.

[And notice that she didn't say the ceiling snakes were ready to DROP on you - she chose DRIP. Perfect. *fist bump, Sara*]

Since this blog post could become the longest in the history of the internet, I'll only add one more: Kerry Madden. What I love about Kerry's writing voice is her great word choices. A perfect word sprinkled here and there, like this from Jessie's Mountain:

No wonder I can't sleep, worrying over spiteful letters saying PAY

Don't you just love that word spiteful? 

Two-year-old Appelonia races straight into Louise's arms and starts crawling up her like a tree frog.

A tree frog? How perfect is that? 

Though I can't help but feel a sadness that she's throwing her life away marrying Mr. Pickle. Maybe I ought to sing "Single Girl, Married Girl," an old Carter Family song, to her today to get her to rethink her plans of disaster.

Plans of disaster? Love that.
The plum sky is filled with crystal stars.

Those words plum and crystal = perfect. 

In the end, it's Uncle Buddy who gives us the miracle we need. He does something so terrible, so generous, and so unexpected that nobody can believe it. He has himself a heart attack on a moonshine run somewhere over in East Tennessee. 

I love the combination of the words, terrible, generous and unexpected. (Okay, I have to do it here...*fist bump, Kerry*)

I could add lots more but then you will get tired of reading and click over to TMZ to find out what The Biebs is up to. So I'll stop here.


Leslie Davis Guccione said...

What a great blog to start a writing week. A joy to read these. And re-read these.

proseandkahn said...

Great examples Barbara. I have to say that whenever I try to give examples of distinctive voice, I include your books. The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis occupies a large place in my heart.


Barbara O'Connor said...

Thanks, y'all!

Sharon Creech said...

Great post, great examples!

Kristen Kilpatrick said...

I love when I begin to hear voice in my student's writing. It takes a talented writer to do that, you are one of them as we'll.

Barbara O'Connor said...


Kristen Kilpatrick said...

I love when I begin to hear voice in my student"s writing, it takes talent. You are one of those talented writer's as well.

Carol said...

Great examples! This post would make a perfect mini-lesson on voice. Except I'd have to start with a couple of chunks from HOW TO STEAL A DOG.

Stephanie J. Blake said...

LOVE all of these authors.

How to Steal a Dog and The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis are two go-to books that remind me that voice counts.

Barbara O'Connor said...

Thanks, Steph

Anonymous said...

I love this post! Wonderful examples and wonderful authors!

Kirby Larson said...

Barbara-- this made me weepy! Thank you! But, my dear friend, everything I learned about voice I learned from you.i

Barbara O'Connor said...

*grabbing hanky* *sniffing crying* Thank you, Kirbs.

barbara bottner said...

You made me remember why I bother at all. and why I bother other people to bother, so thanks for that.

Hung said...

This is great!