August 5th, 2010


Striving for vocal mastery even if you can't carry a tune

Before I got into writing, I was very interested in visual arts. When I took drawing in college, especially life drawing, it used to frustrate me when teachers would look at my drawing and say, “Don't copy the model!” It made me want to scream, “Then what the hell is she sitting there for, if I'm not supposed to copy her!” I finally said, thankfully calmly, “Okay, if I'm not copying her, what am I doing?”

“You're making a drawing,” the teacher said. “A pleasing arrangement of lines and shapes.”

Finally, a goal! I won't say I always achieved it, but at least I knew what I was supposed to be doing.

In writing, one of my goals is to achieve control of my voice. I can achieve a distinctive voice for some of my characters, but I don't have as broad a range of voice as I would wish. Snarky is easier to do than nice, somehow. I wonder why that is? -)

A writer I really admire whose works illustrates perfect control of voice is S.J. Rozan. She writes mysteries with two detectives, Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. Lydia is young, female, and first generation Chinese American. Bill is older, male, and white. Rozan is, I think Jewish (I'm guessing based solely on her real name, which is Shira Judith Rosan), and except for growing up and living in New York City, she doesn't seem to have much in common with either Bill or Lydia, background-wise, but she nails the voice for both of them. Rozan alternates POV characters not chapter by chapter but book by book. The first Bill and Lydia book was China Trade, which is narrated in first person by Lydia. The next book, Concourse is also first person, but it's told by Bill. I think there are more Lydia books that Bill books, but only slightly.

The books are all good mysteries, and they all have a strong sense of place (some have to do with buildings, because Rozan was an architect), but it's the voice that stands out for me. I don't think I'm alone in that feeling because the series started in 1995, and it looks to me like they're all still in print. I would take that track record any day.

So, what writers do you think have the best range for voice— not just writing with a strong voice but being able to do different voices?

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