Those of you who have been following my writing career, or lack there of, will probably remember that I’ve been struggling for a time, now, with the subject of “voice.” I’ve had two or three agents who have told me they didn’t think my “voice” was strong enough in my old novel “The Bridge Beckons.” So, now, with my latest novels, “GERTA!” and “Sweet Revenge,” I’ve decided I need to figure out what I’m doing wrong.

Actually, most people who have read parts of “GERTA!” have commented that my “voice” in that book is great. But then, it’s written in first person, and I think that’s key to solving my problem. “The Bridge Beckons” was written in limited third person.

A lot of you, and others, have sent me links to articles that have tried to explain “voice” to me, but few of them really told me much more than the difference between first person and third person points of view. Mind you, I do appreciate the help, and even more your concern. However, more than anything I think what has helped me is writing examples some of you have given me, taking the first chapter of my latest novel “Sweet Revenge,” and rewriting it for me as an example of how it could be better. One writer also recommended I read “Ender’s Game,” by Orson Scott Card. It is supposed to be a textbook in how to write third person POV with strong “voice.”

I read that book, and though it is science fiction, which I am not fond of reading, I did enjoy the book, somewhat, but more, I think between that and the rewrites of my chapter, I’ve begun to understand what makes for strong voice in third person.

First, let me say that rewriting that chapter in first person helped some, but much of the strong voice was lost as soon as I re-translated it back to third person. People still complained that it seemed as though they were viewing the main character from a distance through a telescope.

So, it was back to the proverbial drawing board. I struggled with the concept until I reexamined the rewrites of my opening scene and how Orson Scott Card did it in his book. Now, finally, I think I’m beginning to get it. I know, I’m pretty dense, but once I get something it becomes internalized, so for my friends who are part of my critique group “The Writer’s Pen,” and my friends at “Razor’s Edge Writers,” you can expect me to be commenting on this from time to time.

Basically, let’s say the difference in third person with weak versus strong voice is in the way the character thinks and talks. For example:

BAD EXAMPLE: John didn’t like school. Staring out his front room picture window at the birds in the trees, he realized they were chatting noisily, chasing each other around, a lot like he did to girls on the playground at school. Maybe on second through, school is not all that bad, he thought.

GOOD (BETTER?) EXAMPLE: I hate school, John mused as he stared out his front room picture window. A sparrow, chattering and jumping from branch to branch in the old elm tree caught his eye. Soon another, then another, scampered about, the female birds being chased by the males. He thought of the girls he liked to chase on the playground. Maybe school isn’t all that bad.

I don’t know if these off-the-top-of-my-head examples are good ones or not. The idea is that we need to see what the POV character sees and feel what he feels for as long as his POV is current.

More later, as I try to define it better in my own mind.
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About Paul West

Paul West is a freelance writer and novelist. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Paul claims to be a "Prune Picker," though he now makes his home in Taylorsville, Utah.

You can follower him on Twitter: @PaulWWest

Published: Tuesday, July 10, 2007

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