Monday, February 21, 2011

Who Says What and How Often?

I've written other blogs about voice, but I'm a bit obsessed by the subject this week.  For one thing, I don't have much of a voice myself right now.  Normal speaking tones feel like shouts in my throat.  I tried to sing along with the song "Yesterday" on the radio last week.  Paul McCartney could sing higher than I could.  The longest I ever had to wait for a body part to heal was 6 weeks (a broken toe).  I'm told my speaking voice will likely take 3-4 months to heal, and my singing voice could be 6 months to 2 years.  And patience isn't one of my virtues.

Besides that, I've also been thinking about the way people speak because I'm working on rewrites for FEAR ITSELF.  These particular revisions are the easiest kind--the sort where the proofreader tells me that I used certain words too often.  All I had to do was search for those words, then decide if the word could be changed in each instance.  Words repeated too often are a common problem of any first draft manuscript.  While your brain is trying to get the story down, you don't always notice that you, for instance, put the phrase "even so" three times on one page.

But this time--since I have "voice" on the brain, and since one of my online mystery groups was discussing the overuse of cuss words in some books--I began to think of too-often used words and phrases in character terms.  Not everyone in a book should curse and the ones who do shouldn't use the same words or phrases. Otherwise, it's difficult to tell characters apart.  Shortened versions of certain words, like 'em for them, or 'cause for because, or 'til for until?  Each of those might also be uttered by only one or two characters, to make the voices clearer and not overuse the words.

Unique phrases, especially, ought to be reserved for one voice.  Tony Hillerman often used "so forth" at the end of a sentence after a comma (with no "and" before it).  This never bothered me until he had more than one character say it.  I'd come to think of it as the unique speaking trait of the detective.  When another character said the phrase, I was pulled out the story.  What if Agatha Christie had given "mon ami" to both Poirot and Hastings?  It wouldn't have worked.  Yet Poirot alone can say it often and it doesn't seem odd.

Even so, mon ami, peace, so forth,

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