Tone of Voice

It’s not just what you say – it’s how you say it. Sometimes you can find your tone of voice in a single line I think, other times you can write for a thousand lines without ever finding it.

428px-Old_violinIt’s a crucial thing to have in a story or a book that distinctive tone of voice, a vital thing, but it’s also a slippery customer to pin down – hard to define. It’s how the story should sound – just the right words, said in the right way, to summon up a person or a mood or a feeling, something. A voice which gives the reader a way into the narrative and makes it ring uniquely for them. Like finding the right notes on a Stradivarius.

Thinking about tone of voice reminded me of a line from an old movie I once saw where a young intern at a big city newspaper was asked to define irony.

“I don’t know,” she said, “But I know it when I hear it.”

Though the formal definition of irony is a figure of speech where the actual meaning is the opposite of the meaning implied, I like her version. “I know it when I hear it.”

And that’s true of tone of voice – you know you have it right when it rings true for you. Stumbling across it can be something which happens when you find a phrase or a line which strikes you in just the right way.

I’ve rewritten whole stories once I’ve found that line – sure now that I know the way they ought to be written, sure of the voice which has to speak them.

Often I think it helps if I have someone in mind speaking as I write – a single person or an amalgamation of them, the memory of not just how they spoke, but how they rubbed up against the world.

The reason it’s so important to get this right is it’s one of the things which makes your book uniquely, distinctly itself – the thing which sets it apart from any other. In this sense, pretty much any famous book has great tone of voice, that certain quantity of specialness in the writing which picks it out from the crowd.

So here are a few examples of books I think have an amazing and distinctive tone of voice. I’ve included just the first few lines from each because I think that’s enough for us to hear how unique, how distinctive the voice is in each :

sfiveSlaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut Jr

Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.

vernonVernon God Little, DBC Pierre

It’s hot as hell in Martirio, but the papers on the porch are icy with the  news. Don’t even try to guess who stood all Tuesday night in the road, Clue: snotty ole Mrs Lechuga. Hard to tell if she quivered, or if moths and porchlight through the willows ruffled her skin like funeral satin in a gale. Either way, dawn showed a puddle between her feet. It tells you normal times just ran howling from town. Probably forever. God knows I tried my best to learn the ways of this world, even had inklings we could be glorious; but after all that’s happened, the inkles ain’t easy anymore.

nights circusNights at the Circus, Angela Carter

‘Lor’ love you sir!’ Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids. ‘As to my place of birth, why I first saw light of day right here in smoky old London, didn’t I! Not billed the ‘Cockney Venus’, for nothing sir, though they could just as well ‘ave called me ‘Helen of the High Wire’, due to the unusual circumstances in which I came ashore – for I never docked via what you might call the normal channels, sir, oh, dear me, no. but, just like Helen of Troy, was hatched.

Share your favourite books with a strong tone of voice in the comments!

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Running off at the mouth

Here’s something I’ve noticed. Or here’s one of my learnings, as the narrator would say in Vernon God Little (I’d definitely recommend that book by the way, it’s a good ‘un – top tip).

Writers are also runners.

Not all of them obviously, that would be a remarkable coincidence, but lots of them. More, I would be confident in saying, than in an average sample of the population. And you can, of course, be sure that I am basing this assertion on bone headed instinct rather than peer reviewed scientific research, I mean pah, who needs that right?

So writers are runners, according to me. And why is this? What causes this mysterious, and completely unproven, link between two disparate activities?

Me at Tower BridgeWell, I write, as you know. And I also run – sometimes. I’ve been a bit useless and lazy with the running of late, but I did complete the London Marathon in a crap time in 2010 (to prove it here’s me at Tower Bridge) and I’ve done maybe 15 or more half marathons around the UK over the years.

And I would say there is a link between running and writing. They have similarities.

Firstly, they are both endurance events. It takes a long time to run a marathon and it takes a long time to write a novel. Training for one and writing the other are activities best suited to those who have an eye for the long-perspective, for people who can defer their gratification.

Secondly, they are both lonely activities.
One of the most elegiac pieces of writing about running was Alan Sillitoe’s short story The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. And let us not forget the long distance writer, for she or he is lonely too, smuggled away in her quiet box room, staring at notebook or screen while the cool kids are out clubbing.

Thirdly, they both give you sore nipples.
Oh no, sorry, that’s just running.

Anyway, lots of us solitary, self-absorbed authors seem to run, and I think there is another reason we are suited to it too. Time to think. And not just time, but vintage time when there are no distractions and we are often in a heightened, almost hypnotic, state of mind in which thoughts flow through our brains which might not on other occasions.

I’ve written before about how a generation of writers, now recently passed, all seemed to be drunks – functioning alcoholics with a pen in one hand and a glass in the other. I would say that what sustenance they were getting from hitting the bottle many members of the current generation of writers seek out on the road or the trail.

It’s not just peace and quiet a writer finds while running, it’s not just an uninterrupted flow of thought. It’s also that chemically induced buzz which causes ideas to pop into your mind, or link together in unusual ways, which doesn’t happen at other times – except when you are just waking up from sleep, or are half drunk.

I have hatched countless stories while out on the road. Including The Runner, which won me the Bridport Prize and started life purely as a yearning to write about what it felt like to run.

Many scenes in Song of the Sea God were also born when my synapses sparked in unusual ways while I was running. It works – I think that’s why we do it, on some level we know it works.

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.