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People will try to take your voice away.

They will try to make you shut up if you are different than them, if you have a different opinion than them, if you are engaging with an idea that makes them uncomfortable, if you are a woman, if you are below a certain age or above a certain age, if you have a darker skin color, if you are gay, if you belong to a different religious or political group, if the things you believe to be important are not the same things that they believe to be important.

People will try to take your voice away.

They will mock you, harass you, and make fun of you and what you are trying to say. They will tell you that women are inherently not as smart, talented, important, or fill in the blank as men. They will ask you why you have to think the way you think, why you have to ask the questions you’re asking, why you have to pick everything apart. Leave well enough alone, they tell you. You’re reading too much into it, they say. Be grateful for what you have. As if gratitude for the good requires a blanket of silence. (Anyone who tells you that you should be grateful has an agenda, and it’s not one that involves being particularly kind to you.) They will say that you are whining or bitchy or too negative.

People will try to take your voice away.

They will reward you for your silence. They will reward you for smiling, for agreeing, for not bringing it up, for being the nice one or the good one. You will get to avoid conflict and uncomfortable silence (until you start to realize that uncomfortable silence is not really all that bad a price to pay in order to refuse to be smothered). You will feel like one of the group, you might even be able to pretend that these people are your friends. (Except real friends will not try to pressure you into silence. They might change the subject or say they prefer not to discuss a specific topic, but they won’t try to make you feel small. And if they slip up, they will apologize.)

People will try to take your voice away.

They will feign ignorance, or maybe they genuinely will not understand how toxic they are being. They will be doing it for your own good. They will mean well. They won’t even notice. They will do some nice things for you, and you won’t realize your voice has died down to an inaudible whisper. Eventually you will internalize their voices and be harsh with yourself for doing positive activities like engaging in critical thinking. Their attempts to keep you quiet will become your own attempts to silence yourself.

People will try to take your voice away. But you don’t have to let them. You can keep talking, keep writing, keep singing, keep questioning, keep engaging, keep thinking, keep pushing out of your comfort zone. You can keep asking why: Why does the new Dove ad campaign make you uncomfortable? Why are you being criticized for doing something you didn’t do? Why do you like what you like and dislike what you dislike?

In both singing and writing, finding your voice is so important. Once you’ve found it, cherish the discovery and don’t let anyone take it away from you.

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What is that elusive concept in writing known as voice? Plot, character, setting, world building, theme: all of these aspects of fiction, while complicated in their own right, are at least fairly simple to explain as basic concepts. But for me, voice has always been trickier to talk about in an intelligent way. I know it when I see it, but what is it that I’m noticing?

First, I’d like to differentiate between authorial voice and narrative voice. By authorial voice, I mean a way of writing that is unique to the author, so that you can read a story by him and know who wrote it by how it is written. Ernest Hemingway has a particularly distinctive authorial voice. So does Herman Melville. By narrative voice, I mean the voice of the protaganists in the story. In first person, this voice completely permeates the text, but even in close third, the descriptions and prose will be affected by whose point of view we are in. (Don’t take these definitions as a golden standard, by the way; the internet disagrees about what these terms mean, so I’m merely sharing my own personal definitions so we can understand each other.)

When we talk about voice in YA, the voice we are usually talking about is narrative voice, not authorial voice. The narrative voice will change from novel to novel and story to story by the same author (except in series). For example, the narrative voice in M.T. Anderson’s Feed is very distinct from the narrative voice in his Octavian Nothing novels.

What does the world look like through her eyes?

So what aspects contribute to a specific narrative voice?

1. Vocabulary and word choice, aka diction: What is this character’s likely vocabulary? What words does this character use that may be unique to her world? How much slang is used? How can the choice of words reflect this character’s reality?

2.  Range of language: Possibly a subset of word choice. How does this character speak differently to different sets of people? How does this character’s thoughts differ from what he says out loud? Does the range of language change over the course of the story in reaction to external events?

3. World view/perspective and experience: The perspectives of the character reflect themselves in the voice. This includes her backstory, her priorities (look at how obsessed with food Katniss is in The Hunger Games, for example) and views of the world.

4. Psychic distance (a term coined by John Gardner): This refers to the distance the reader is held from the story and is related to POV. In YA, this distance tends to be close and  immediate, which is why first person is so popular in the genre.

5. Syntax/sentence length and pacing/density of prose: YA tends to be less densely packed than some adult fiction; to see what I mean, compare Ian McDonald’s Planesrunner (MG, but still a good example) to his adult The Dervish House, or Paolo Bacigaluipi’s Shipbreaker with his adult The Wind-up Girl. Pacing in YA tends to be on the faster side, although there is plenty of adult fiction that is paced just as fast or faster (and there are the occasional slow YAs). Boy books in particular tend towards the fast paced.

6. Maturation of voice over the course of the narrative: Because most YAs are, at least in part, coming of age stories, the voice generally changes as a consequence of maturation and realizations. The change is often subtle.

7. Emotional urgency: YA highlights emotional urgency. Everything is a big deal or the end of the world because the protaganist lacks the experience to see things differently. Speculative YA often literalizes the metaphor and deals with the actual end of the world or life and death situations.

8. Dialogue: The dialogue in fiction directly illustrates the characters’ personalities and way of speaking. It allows us to experience their actual out-loud voice.

9. Interior monologue: This is a critical component of voice in YA. It is used to convey a character’s reactions, emotions, judgments, perspective, and sense of humor. It shows how a character feels about herself as well as the world around her. It allows the readers to understand and feel for the protagonist. (And according to agent Krista Marino, this is the aspect of voice that is most often missing from YA manuscripts that she reads.)

As you can see, voice and character are inextricably linked. In order to be effective, the narrative voice must fit the character, sound like the character, and reveal the character. The better you the writer know the character, the more likely an authentic voice will emerge in your work. (Or conversely, sometimes you may grow to know the character through his voice, depending on how you work.) YA voice in particular is very close to the protagonist(s), very emotionally immediate, and reflects the unique experience of a person in her teens. The voice in YA often changes and matures over the course of the story, and spends time focusing on the internal dialogue of the protagonist as well as the external dialogue.

What did I miss? Please feel free to weigh in.

Further Reading/References:

Perfecting Your YA Voice Part 1, by Ingrid Sundberg

Perfecting Your YA Voice Part 2, by Ingrid Sundberg

Evolving Voice in the Young Adult Novel, by Swati Avasthi

YA vs. Adult: Do You Have the Voice?, by Heather Howland

Narrative Voice and Authorial Voice, by Ruth Nestvold and Jay Lake (This article talks about both narrative and authorial voice, but while I’m a bit unclear as to its actual definitions of the terms, I believe they are different than the definitions I use above.)

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