When I am engrossed in a crime novel/thriller it is usually the story that is making me turn the pages; there are exceptions, when the prose in beautiful and the characters are intriguing enough to make me want to keep reading, but if I am turning the pages at 3 a.m. the plot is the driver. Good books have at least two of these three done well (plot, prose, character) and really good books have all three: The Secret Place by Tana French and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn jump to mind. Girl in a Train by Paula Hawkins seems to have done just as well (certainly very well) on the charts as Gone Girl and better than Secret Place (at least in Australia) but for me it fell a little short—because of voice.
Voice—the conversations of your characters as well as their internal thoughts—is critical to make your characters jump off the page and feel authentic. It was probably the one key (if there can be one only) to the success of The Rosie Project: Don Tilman has a unique “sound” and is totally consistent throughout. In Girl on the Train Hawkins set herself a tough task—she writes in first person, female, from several POV (it’s a while since I read it and I can’t recall how many, but I think three). I found them all blurring and had to keep reminding myself who was who—I couldn’t tell from the page.
Voice can be problematic, for some readers (like me), if it’s too specific—I don’t like reading things “written” with an accent, and with my hero Liam, I opt to occasionally have him amp his the “Irish” for a sentence or two, and then leave it off for the reader to imagine a light lilt. When my husband is editing early drafts, it’s often the main criticism—“everyone sounds like you”. Certainly as I am writing and caught up in the prose and story, voice often gets lost (except perhaps Natalie’s, whose head I am in)—I have to reread and rewrite the dialogue, from each main character’s POV.
I am currently at that stage with the third in the Natalie King series (Dangerous to Know, the 2nd is out March 23rd), This I Would Kill For. But as of the end of this week, I am putting that aside for three months and concentrating on Left Right, a romantic comedy I am co-authoring with husband Graeme Simsion. We will be re-walking the Camino which it is set on, and taking notes about place (a later blog on this perhaps), but I am primarily going to be concentrating on voice. And I haven’t made it easy for myself. Zoe, my character (from which I will write first person) is going to be American. I have lived in NY…but Zoe is Californian via Colorado or somewhere Midwest. Last night at dinner I found myself nearly falling out of my seat eavesdropping on the next table…from Seattle I discovered. Right coast at least. Putting aside spelling differences which will be dealt with by the publishers should it be bought by the USA, there will be real language differences at multiple levels; how many times can she say Have a Good Day?, no ‘bloody hells’ and will she understand the words that Brits and Aussies can use interchangeably like trucks and lorries? Then of course there will be the minor characters from multiple nationalities, some easier to grasp than others.
At least it won’t be a dull—and it might take my mind off throbbing knees, sore feet and aching shoulders…over all of the 1900km from central France to Santiago on the West coast of Spain.
Great post, Anne. Voice is tricky. I’ve written two novels with the same protagonist, and now working on a third book with a new main character I often have to pull myself up for slipping back into the voice of my previous character. Enjoy the walk. Can’t wait to read DANGEROUS TO KNOW.