Voice – what a book “sounds and feels like” – is, essentially, glue. It holds the words together so that the book feels whole and strong; and it holds the reader to the page. If your voice slips, you break the spell that keeps the reader listening. That’s the same for fiction and non-fiction, but there are also differences.
1. Voice gives authority In fiction, it makes the reader suspend disbelief, summons the authority to say, “You know I made this up but you will believe it as if it were true.” In non-fiction, the authority says, “This is true and you will trust me that it is so.” It is not enough for aspiring non-fiction writers to be expert in their subject-matter. They must also create an engaging voice which feels authoritative not just because of the information but also because of communicative quality of that voice. Because it is, for non-fiction especially, about effective communication.
2. In non-fiction, the writer is allowed to let his or her own voice be explicit. People usually say they hear my voice in my non-fiction but very rarely in my fiction. We are now – though not in previous generations – even allowed to say “I”. In fiction we are supposed to keep our views hidden or at least shroud them subtly within a character’s voice and not show whether we personally speak through that character or not, though the reader may like to guess. In non-fiction, we are allowed to intrude ourselves into the book, not just opinion but also timbre of voice. (This does depend to some extent what type of non-fiction we’re talking about.)
3. Non-fiction is just like talking, but with the leisure to edit our words to be more crystalline than they could be if we were actually talking. My aim is that the audience or readers know what I mean and enjoy listening to or reading it. I know they don’t want me rabbiting on self-indulgently so I search for a form of words that gets the message over and keeps them listening or reading. And I edit ruthlessly, killing my darlings if they get in the way of communication.
4. Moreover, the same elements work in a non-fiction voice as work for public-speaking: humour (when appropriate), clarity, organisation of material, occasional surprise, and eye contact. Yes, I try to feel I have eye contact; I try to imagine that I’m looking and smiling – or frowning, if appropriate…
5. With non-fiction, we must think specifically of the reader. Actually, I do that in fiction, too but I do it even more in non-fiction. With non-fiction it’s all about getting the message to the reader, and you can’t do it if you don’t have a strong sense of that reader, tune in to their tuning in, know what they want to know and what they already know. Interestingly, for Blame My Brain the intended readers are teenagers but adults seem to love it, too. But then, teenagers are not a whole different species from adults and very often enjoy the same books. If I were talking to them face-to-face I wouldn’t do it much differently.
I think the key is being passionate about the subject but being equally passionate about getting the words right so that communication works. You know how people who are passionate about their subjects can often be appallingly boring to listen to, because they are so wrapped up in their subject that they’ve failed to tune in to the audience? And they don’t know when to stop? Well, that! Don’t do it!
And with that, I’ll stop.
There’s a fun Blame My Brain competition running on Nicola’s blog at the moment.
Opportunities for schools and individuals of any age to win books, have their questions answered and learn about the fascinating thing that is the teenage brain!