We all fall in love with books for different reasons. But without a strong, consistent voice, no matter how great the story, readers won’t connect at that love-level. As fiction writers, and especially as novelists, we need to establish our voices on the first page, and then keep them consistently engaging, or our readers will lose interest.
I prefer a voice that sounds confident, one that ushers us inside the fictive world with a strong, sure hand. That doesn’t mean the character has to be confident or even trustworthy–far from it! But I will follow a strong voice anywhere.
Take Gina Ochsner’s amazing debut novel, The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight, which I just finished reading. Her style is concise yet richly poetic. Through the perspectives of four characters, she invites us into the chaotic, depressed and sometimes ridiculous world of post-Soviet Russia. What’s happening in the falling-down apartment complex at the heart of Ochsner’s story is layer upon layer of misery. And yet she approaches the dark material with a sense of humor–a lightness, even. It’s the voice that makes us believe, fully and wonderfully, in the deceased Mircha returning as a ghost with advice for his neighbors. In a newspaper office described in terms of its many absurdities. In a war-damaged man who would much prefer life as a fish.
Yes, I totally fell in love with this book.
Here’s another example. My friend Lisa has launched a blog about getting in shape, Fitness Forsaken. She has a great concept–“a blog for the folks the fitness mags have left behind”–and shares information about her own personal quest as well as interviews with personal trainers and other exercise experts. While these things would make her blog successful, it’s her voice that really makes the information pop.
Think about the blogs you read regularly. The ones that offer information in a bland tone of voice aren’t as compelling as the voicey ones, right? Here’s an excerpt from Lisa’s debut post:
“I spent a number of years working in gyms. I’ve worked with trainers who had contests to see who could make their client puke first….but I’ve also worked with trainers who are consummate professionals, love what they do, care for their clients, and truly work to make their clients’ programs match with their current fitness level, goals, and abilities and continuously push them farther and farther from the starting line. If there’s one thing I can tell you from my own experience, the trainer who makes you puke or works you out so hard during the first session that you need a team of oxen to get you out of a chair the next day is not doing you any favors.”
See what I mean about voice? It’s honest, funny and compelling. Even if I didn’t know Lisa personally, I’d want to learn how to better my body from a woman like that. She’s qualified to write about this subject, as a former gym employee, but more importantly, she’s engaging her readers with voice. And earning followers.
Here’s a final example, this one a memoir. I just started reading Wendy Burden’s Dead End Gene Pool. It starts with a prologue filled with genealogy, as Burden is the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Genealogy? Sounds like it could be dry, brittle, detached, slow, right? It’s quite the opposite. Burden’s first chapter is extremely entertaining. It’s fully of pithy comments, snarky observations and personal involvement. Take her very first sentence: “It’s a testament to his libido, if not his character, that Cornelius Vanderbilt died of syphilis instead of apoplexy.”
Doesn’t that make you want to run out and buy a copy of Dead End Gene Pool? Burden’s voice so far (I’m midway through chapter 3, “Gaga in the Jungle”) is confessional in tone and very honest. I trust her as a narrator as she guides us through her wild, affluent upbringing. Even though I’m not a big memoir reader, I’m loving this book.
What books or blogs stand out for you because of their strong voices?