Quick, Catch That Voice!

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

My current WIP uses a first person perspective which is new for me. New, not only because I usually write in third person (a close third person voice I grant you), but also because this time the first person narrator is a seventeen year old. Oh and living in 1914. So last week I just rewrote the first chapter for a third time – not because I’m anal (well…) but because I hadn’t nailed the voice yet.

For any novel I think voice is important but when dealing with a first person narration it’s critical – as far as I’m concerned a reader has to fall in love, has to inhabit the ‘body and soul’ of the narrator, right from the first page or (I fear) the novel is doomed to fail.

Why did I chose the first person POV for this book? Well, almost all YA novels adopt this perspective and I think wisely so. The journey normally taken in a YA novel is, after all, a journey of self discovery, one we want the reader to identify with as closely as possible . However, once I adopted the first person it was much harder than I had anticipated to get the voice just right. I’ve had a ‘challenging’ few weeks…and the process I went through to try and establish the ‘voice’ of my protagonist Maggie Quinn was far from perfect, but here’s what I did…

  1. I reserved and read as many YA historical/paranormal books I could. I took note of how the authors approached the issue of voice and how they appeared to achieve making that voice as authenticate and compelling as possible. The best YA book I read so far was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (an awesome book which is also illustrative of the fact that great YA books are really just great adult books with strong YA characters and themes).
  2. I started compiling a backgrounder for Maggie and brainstormed ideas about her inner self – delving even deeper perhaps than I have done for other characters in previous books (but then again that may also be because my husband is convinced Ursula Marlow is actually me!).
  3. I then walked around for a week or so with Maggie in my head, ruminating on how she would act and react to things.
  4. I drafted a prologue and first chapter.
  5. Read it. Realized the voice was not there.
  6. Got despondent. Decided perhaps I should focus on research for a day or so…
  7. Tossed the prologue – don’t need one!!!
  8. Rewrote chapter one. Wrote snippets of key parts for chapters two, three and four (as an outliner I already had these place marked:))
  9. Read second draft…realize I have no talent for writing whatsoever (shit!). Got even more despondent.
  10. Watched teen movies. (John Hughes, come back!)
  11. Did more historical research….
  12. Walked around a bit more with Maggie in my head. Still despondent.
  13. Rewrote chapter one again…and then a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Maggie is finally taking form. (hmm…is that ‘lucky’ number 13??)

So how do you approach the issue of voice? How do you know when you ‘have it’ or you don’t? What challenges do you see for someone attempting a first person POV – any advice on the do’s and don’ts? I’m already realizing it’s limitations but believe it or not, I think I’m starting to finally enjoy it…until next week when I reread chapter one and decide Maggie’s voice (and my writing) sucks once more.


7 thoughts on “Quick, Catch That Voice!

  1. Clare, I love first person. It’s the most intimate POV, and when done well (e.g., Chandler) it’s hard to imagine the novel any other way. I really like your approach, too. Great steps you took!

    I think the main strength in FP is attitude. That has to be apparent from the start. The view of the world inherent in the voice, captured on the first page. As in Catcher in the Rye or Mickey Spillane or the best chick lit. We need to know the narrator has ‘tude.

    The main danger in FP is to run on and on about tangential things. If done well and in small bites, as in a Travis McGee, some opinion works, but it can be a temptation to go too far with it.

    But I have to say I enjoy a good FP novel, perhaps more than any other. Can’t wait to see what you come up with.

  2. Jim is right. FP is the most intimate voice. It’s also the most believable. Of course, unless you use a mix of first and third, there are some fairly tough restraints to overcome. But writers do it everyday. I’m reading a Harlan Coben mystery right not in which he does a good job of mixing both.

  3. Love this post, Clare! I’m stuck somewhere between step 6&9. Getting the voice is the major hurdle for me right now. I have a very distinctive voice for the Fat City Mysteries, and now that I’m writing a thriller, the voice has to be completely different. Plus, it’s not in the first person, so that’s another change. I’m experimenting with several approaches, and have rewritten my first chapter about 5 times!

  4. I had a very strong voice in my Annie Seymour mysteries, and when I started writing my new protag in the tattoo shop mysteries, I realized I needed to convey another tough woman with an edge but in a different way. I worried that she’d sound too much like Annie. So the first thing I did was take away the cussing. Surprisingly, that worked. I found a lighter voice but still with an edge.

  5. Getting the voice for my first person PI stories was easy: the character was essentially me, and I was ripping off Chandler.

    When I moved into a multi-POV story, I spent weeks writing and re-writing the first few chapters, trying to get the voice, until it occurred to me such a story may have a style, but doesn’t necessarily need a unified voice, if using close third person, as each chapter should reflect the POV character’s voice as a way of setting the characters apart, and of keeping the reader better informed than any one character. It was till hard work.

    The current WIP is also close third, mulit-POV, but I moved the characters into a ficitonalized version of my home toen, so the voice flows much more naturally.

  6. Thanks for such terrific insights! – It’s great to see how a FP POV can get readers in close. It sounds as though attitude is a great way to really think about it – and some of the best detective novels have pulled that off in spades (pardon the pun!). Like Kathryn this is a new experience as its a new voice – but hopefully I’ve captured it – at least for now!

  7. Interesting I’ve never tried first person but have thought about. Some writers seem to do it very believably, others not so. Having just read three books in a row in that perspective I am tempted to try.

    I will be interested to watch your process as you move ahead.

Comments are closed.