Ya hearin’ me?

Posted Jun 3 2010, 2:57 am in

An exchange about voice this evening on Twitter, as well a post on Cynthia Reese’s blog, got me thinking about… well, my voice.

What, exactly, is voice? It’s the sum total of many choices we make as writers. What words to use, how we string them together.  It’s the tone we set for a story, and whether it’s shared through narrative, exposition or dialogue. It’s the point of view we choose, but it’s more than just ‘style’. Style can be imitated, but voice is unique. Voice is how we can distinguish among Stephenie Meyer’s, Charlaine Harris’, and Laurell K. Hamilton’s vampires, or tell Agatha Christie’s detectives from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s.

In other words, voice is really a representation of how we, as writers, sound on paper.

And right there, I’m ill.

I’m pretty sensitive about my voice, or more specifically, my accent. I was born and raised in New York, which sounds more like New Yawk the way I say it.  In my day job as a software technical writer, I was recently asked to narrate several YouTube videos and nearly broke out in hives just thinking about it.  A few months ago, after my computer crashed, I was venting about all the software errors I’d received when my cubicle neighbor starting chanting, “Era!”

That’s what he thought I’d said.

A few years ago, a former boss told me I sound “thug-like and uneducated” and suggested I invest in accent eradication therapy. A few years before that, another boss ridiculed me in a staff meeting because of how I pronounced the word drawing. (It sounded like drawer-ing.)  So, yeah. The thought of representing how I sound on paper fills me with dread.

I don’t want all of my characters sounding like Fran Drescher, or worse – “thug-like.”  I don’t want them droppin’ all their Gs or saying “fuhgedaboudit” at every opportunity.  I’d hate to read a book that sounds like this. In fact, I think the reason I’ve always been so drawn to writing was because it hid my real voice.

In my early writing, I’d tried consciously to remove all evidence of my New York voice by never writing phonetically, never using slang.  All of my characters sounded identical. Then, I went through a period where everything I wrote sounded just like the last book I’d read.


Yeah. Crashed and burned. I’ve learned voice can’t be imitated. When I narrated my day job product videos, I saw (heard?) this lesson proven. The more I concentrated on correct pronunciation, the less natural and more boring the videos became.  I’d noticed I have the most trouble with OR sounds – words like explore and four sound like explaw or faw.  I often changed those words in the script to something I could say more smoothly. But the product name is “D2D.” I couldn’t change that, even though it sounded like I was saying “dee da dee.”  So, I had to do my best to pronounce my trouble words as a non-New Yorker might.

I came down with a cold during the project and had to rush the recording of about ten videos in a single afternoon. I didn’t have time to worry about word choices and accents and sounding ‘thug-like.’  It was enough to simply not stutter and clear my throat. And you know what? The finished videos sounded better when I relaxed instead of tried to be ‘voice neutral.’  (You can check them out here.)

In my writing, I’m still finding my voice. Yeah, it’ll probably sound New Yawk.

But that’s what’ll make it mine.



16 responses to “Ya hearin’ me?”

  1. Bill Cameron says:

    Wow. This is a lovely and profound statement on what a challenge voice can be, and how our insecurities only add to the challenge.

    Whatever else you may feel, I will say this much: based on this post alone you clearly have a strong, confident written voice. And to hell with anyone who gives you crap about your New Yawk accent!

  2. Matt Delman says:

    I’m a transplant from Upstate NY (Binghamton, in case you’ve heard of it) to Massachusetts, and one of the more interesting things I hear out here is “drawah” instead of “drawer.”

    One of the things I want to mention is that I’m confident worrying about our voice is one of the surest ways to destroy any individuality we might have. I’m with Bill — who cares if you pronounce things like Fran Drescher (and didn’t she make her accent sound worse on purpose?), if it’s your voice then it’s your voice. Own it, love it, and you’ll be better for it.

    Also: Those bosses were both jerks and you’re well rid of them.

    • Patty says:

      Thank you, Matt. I agree; the more I obsessed over my voice, the worse it got. When I was finally just Patty, the narration came out great and I see the same thing in my writing. I think you’re right about Fran; I’d heard she really camped up that accent for the sake of TV but I’ve never heard her give an interview. Hmmm.

      As for the bosses… I’m in violent agreement with you there. I left that job (the drawer guy) because of that boss and transferred out of the other guy’s department. I am better because of both decisions. Thanks for your kind words.

  3. I love this post, Patty! It’s so true that natural is best. You can make corrections to something that already has fire, but it’s hard to inject life into something perfect but dead.

    • Patty says:

      Exactly! I should read my writing out loud and see if I find the same problems in WIPs as I did with the day job videos. Flat and lifeless or “Me!”

  4. I’m with Bill Cameron — your voice is a treasure. Don’t change a syllable! It’s what makes you the wonderful you that you are … and tell that old boss who wanted to eradicate your accent, “fuhgedaboudit!”

    And this post tells me that you have already made a distinct discovery that so many writers take years to figure out — that your voice is the sum total of your experiences and your exposures to various cultures, in other words, YOU.

    And you? Well, you’re just fine, thank you. I like you JUST THE WAY YOU ARE. :-)

    • Patty says:

      Thanks so much, Cynthia… I am ashamed to admit this, but I actually did seek out a speech pathologist’s opinion on accent eradication. Her proposal was three times a week for several months during which I’d have to be retaught how to say vowels sounds. It was a four figure estimate that I handed my boss, expecting him to approve it.

      He told me to invest in my future.

      I transferred out of his department about 8 months later.

      And. *wipes tear* Thank you. Really.

  5. Linda G. says:

    Love this post! Being true to your voice–such a valuable lesson for all writers.

    BTW, I adore NY accents. If anyone ever described me as sounding “thug-like” I’d be tickles pink. :)

  6. I must agree with everyone else – Be yourself and your writing will be great! Unless you’re putting a dialect spin on the words, your writing voice will reflect your personality much more than an accent.

    My husband struggles with accent insecurities as well. He was born and raised in Alabama and hates his accent. He’s a major liberal, skeptic, and one of the smartest people I know. Not your typical Alabama stereotype! But I just encourage him to be himself and forget about his accent. People look past that quickly when they find out what a great guy he is.

    Same will happen with your writing. You write beautifully on this blog and I’m sure the writing in your work is the same!

    • Patty says:

      Isn’t it sad how a few know-it-alls with less-than-kind intentions can do to a person’s confidence? And thank you for the sweet compliment.

  7. Kelly Breakey says:

    I am ashamed to say I am behind on my reading, so I am trying to catch up. That being said, DON’T YOU DARE CHANGE A THING. The thing that makes you…you is the honestly you put in your writing which in fact is translated into voice. I hear you crystal clear when I read your posts and while I didn’t grow up in New York, I did grow up on Baltimore, so when I left to pursue my dreams, it never occurred to me that I had an accent.

    I now live in the south, and while I haven’t taken to saying things like Y’all and such, I love hearing it. Of course I think everyone here has an accent which they find hilarious. The real kicker is when I am told I have one. Really water should be spelled warter.

    Doncha know?

    • Patty says:

      haha… the way people pronounce “water” is typically a dead giveaway that they’re from NY.

      I marvel at Robert Pattinson’s ability to turn off his British accent without voice coaching. It just amazes me.

      I enjoy learning regional idioms – like how folks from N’orleans call each other “cher”, how the Brits curse “bloody” this or that, and the Canadian “eh”. It’s flavor. (um… that’s “flava” for me) I just hate when it’s perceived as a negative thing.

  8. jeanniemoon says:

    This is wonderful, and all I can say is “don’t lose your own voice.” Your New Yawk gives your characters credibility because they are your characters. Love the post.

    • Patty says:

      Thanks! I agree; it’s a tough lesson because of all the negative feedback I’ve collected over my years, but still true – don’t lose our own voice.