Sunday, February 13, 2011

Voice and the Valentine

On Saturday, I had lunch with some chapter mates from the Washington Romance Writers. The subject of “author’s voice” came up – what elements go into crafting a story so that a reader knows who the author is after reading a single page. We agreed it was in part a series of choices an author makes from vocabulary to core story to setting to how a hero and heroine relate to one another.

Over lunch, I mentioned I was thinking of writing a vignette about two teens and their high school Valentine’s Day dance for my blog post today. As I sat down to write it, I started to wonder how some of my favorite authors might take this situation and make it their own. What elements would they combine to infuse the story with their voice?

Betty Neels would have made our heroine a bit of a wallflower, possibly bullied by her beautiful step-sister, and resigned to the prospect of staying home the night of the dance. The afternoon of the dance, our plucky heroine, in her practical anorak, would have rescued a starving kitten or a drowning puppy. The hero would have arrived just in time to help and later would make it clear to the evil step-sister (and the harpy step-mother) that our true-blue heroine was his intended and they’d just have to lump it.

In Jayne Ann Krentz’s hands, our intrepid and determined heroine would have pestered her reluctant hero into taking her to the dance so they could break into the office of the crooked high school principal. She’d be certain that the principal used his psychic talents against her cousin who went missing at the beginning of the school year. Our trusty heroine would know on a deep metaphysical level that, with the help of our brooding hero, their combined psychic talents would save the day, the dance, and her cousin.

Linda Howard’s bad-boy hero would make a point of coming to the dance in his torn jeans, maybe even roaring into the gym on his motorcycle. He’d lay a hot, sexy kiss on our smart-mouthed heroine and ride out, leaving her to get on with her life (and occasionally to wonder what-if) for the next decade before he comes rumbling back into town as an ex-Special Forces officer on the same Ducati bike, looking to rekindle their relationship. The make-up sex will be hot, hot, hot, but our heroine won’t make a permanent reunion easy for him as they race to stop the bad guys from winning.

Each of these authors has an extensive body of work that makes this exercise relatively easy to do. Betty Neels wrote over 90 books, mostly capable and compassionate heroes who recognized the true worth of often overlooked, overworked and underappreciated heroines. Jayne Ann Krentz (also writing as Amanda Quick) has developed a successful paranormal romantic suspense series in which her protagonists must work together as equal partners in order to overcome the bad guy. A Linda Howard hero is always the alpha in the room, if not always Special Forces, and her heroine does her damnedest not only to hold her own against him but to forge a link between them that is more than just passion. In the end, I still don’t have a great definition of voice. But I definitely know it when I read it.

I never did get to writing my vignette. But I’m pretty sure my heroine’s heart flutters whenever he’s around. She watches him when he’s not looking so her crush is not completely obvious. My hero’s hands sweat just a little when he’s in the same room with her. He teases her relentlessly so she’ll notice him but not guess just how into her he is. What, besides the standard teenage approach-avoidance tango, keeps them apart? A centuries-old blood curse.

Yeah. My voice tends toward the paranormal. Also often the quirky, the sentimental, the flowery, the obvious, the comic and the visceral. This is, in turns, deliberate, instinctive and subconscious. But always distinctly mine.

So, given this set-up – teenaged not-quite-lovers and the Valentine’s Day dance – how would you or your favorite author spin it? A happy ending? A dose of the macabre? A mystery to unravel? A peril to escape and defeat? Curious minds want to know!


  1. Great post, Keely! Really makes you think about voice, what it is and what your readers might (hopefully) come to expect after reading a number of your books. What you describe, though, is close to theme, no?
    My voice and theme would run along the lines that at least one of my protagonists would be from another place. They wouldn't be accepted easily by all, but the other protag. (hero or heroine) would love them anyway, just for who they are.

  2. Merry - good point about voice and theme - I think they definitely overlap - but two authors could have the same theme (say like yours "strangers in a strange land") and still approach them in their own unique way. So is that voice = theme + x, y, and z?

  3. Fun post, Keely. Lots to think about. I love your twist on the scenario and what your fav authors would do with it. And stop pulling out the Algebra. It makes my head hurt. ;0)

    Seriously, though, those themes go back to our own core stories, which are totally hardwired into our voice and the choices we make when we write. Fun stuff.

  4. Great post, Keely. You had my mind haring off all morning to think of how my Valentine's Dance story would go. Very distracting! And very fun!

    Merry has an excellent point about voice and theme. I think of them like this:

    Theme is what you say.
    Voice is how you say it.

    What say you?

  5. How would I spin it?

    John approaches Mary in ever-tightening circles, almost waltzing through the crowd of kids.

    Mary, unconsciously, retreats in ever-widening ellipses, closed curves of dreams that almost haunt.

    They never intersect at the dance but their friends do notice.

    The rumors circulate for a week, finally bringing John and Mary together...

  6. Candy - I think you're right - voice is a lot about core story. I think that's what makes this exercise so interesting - like giving three artists the same still life to draw. In the hands of three masters, the results will likely be three utterly distinct pieces and we'd be able to tell immediately who drew which (think Picaso, Rembrandt, Grandma Moses) because those artists knew their style (voice). The same exercise in a beginning art class might instead net you a round of rather bland and literal interpretations with small hints of individuality because the newbies don't have their "voice" honed yet.

  7. Nic - thanks! I like how you state the difference between voice and theme. I think that's part of what I was trying to control for (sorry, Candy, more math allusions!) in imagining a single scenario through multiple author POVs. Not sure that's the best methodology to examine this, but...

  8. Alexander - I *love* it! The choices you made in those few short lines already tell me something about your voice, I think. Poetic, romantic, lyrical - as though I could really see Mary and John in their teenaged pas-de-deux. Terrific imagery and just a bit angsty. Way cool.