“To uncover and refine your own writer’s voice, you need to do a lot writing. It won’t come pouring out the first time you tap a keyboard.”
Katherine Catmull is the author of Summer and Bird (Dutton Young Readers/Penguin), one of Booklist’s 2012 Top Ten First Novels for Youth and a TLA Spirit of Texas Reading pick for 2014-2015, and the YA fantasy, The Radiant Road, which has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal. She is one of four co-authors of The Cabinet of Curiosities (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2014), a collection of scary short stories. Catmull is also an actor, freelance arts writer, and a produced and published playwright.
Katherine is teaching a class for the Writers’ League of Texas called “Finding and Strengthening your Unique Writing Voice” on Saturday, October 8 at the ACC Highland Campus. This class will help writers implement strategies for finding their own unique voice. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.
Scribe: Your class is on building voice. Is this something that is already present in a writer’s sentences and simply needs to be accentuated? Or is it something that’s built from scratch?
Katherine Catmull: Well, first: there’s that tricky distinction between the writer’s voice—the authorial voice that links all a writer’s works—and narrative voice. In theory, they’re not the same. In the real world, of course, there’s often a good deal of overlap.
A writer’s voice has already been built from scratch, you might say, but the process was unconscious. It’s your writing style, which is deeply influenced by your lifetime of reading, but it’s also who you are, all the bits and bobs and experiences of your life, what you’ve undergone, what you’ve felt, what makes you laugh.
That said, to uncover and refine your own writer’s voice, you need to do a lot writing. It won’t come pouring out the first time you tap a keyboard.
The narrative voice of any single work is built from scratch, consciously. We’ll talk about that in the class.
Scribe: What novels would you point to as great examples of narrative voice?
KC: Holden’s voice in Catcher in the Rye. Huck’s voice in Huckleberry Finn. Humbert Humbert in Lolita. You’ll notice those are all novels in the first person—that point of view seems to free writers up to create strong voices.
But you can also have a vivid, high-personality narrative voice in the third person—think of the dry, ironic narrator of Pride and Prejudice or the simultaneously passionate and removed voice of Cormac McCarthy’s books, which sometimes sound to me as if they are being told by an anguished ghost. Or the loopy, slightly mad, confiding voice of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
Scribe: Has there been a novel or story of your own where you’ve struggled to find the voice? What helped you find it?
KC: Sometimes in short stories I can catch a voice right away, but in both my novels it took a lot of work, a lot of revising.
For one thing, you need to decide first off on point of view. For my first novel, the omniscient POV came quite naturally (the voice of the narrator took more work). But in my second novel, I began writing in first person, found it too confining, and ended up having to rewrite the first 40%.
I tend to spend a lot of time (too much?) in the first five or ten chapters of a book, working and reworking until the voice stops sounding bad to me. Sometimes I’ll think I’ve got it, and then six weeks later will settle in for a re-read and I HATE it, and it’s back to the grindstone.
Scribe: You’re a playwright and actor as well as a writer. This seems like it would be great experience in building voice. Has the stage helped you craft a narrative voice on the page?
KC: That may be true. I have an actor’s tendency to see words and immediately hear myself saying them! And that’s probably all mixed up with the fact that, as some people do, I always hear a voice in my head while I’m reading—even when I’m reading some un-actably dry article on economics. Apparently that’s a reading error, as it slows you down.
But it’s my favorite part of reading, that sense I’m being read to, so I don’t plan to fix it. It probably does make me more fond of and more sensitive to narrative voice. It’s hard for me to stick with a book when the voice feels wrong or flat.