on voice

At ChiZine Publications’ Chiaroscuro Reading Series last night I encountered something rare and wonderful: a writer who voices her own work when she reads. Lesley Livingston may write her fantasy/romance novels specifically for young adults, but thanks to her voicing, her reading managed to win over the event’s older, primarily sci-fi/horror-fan crowd.

What does it mean to voice your reading? Most obviously, it’s about dialogue: choosing a different voice for each character who speaks, and maintaining this difference throughout. You don’t need to be a method actor to do this; even the slightest inflection or change in pitch does the trick. Lesley can do a decent British accent, but I know from other readings that a poor one, or a wholly invented one, will aid listeners’ suspension of disbelief just as well.

But voicing works in subtler ways, too. Lesley’s focalizer in Once Every Never is a disaffected teenage girl named Clare, and the story emerges from a blend between Clare’s observations and a slightly more “literary” and mature governing perspective. This means that Lesley’s narrative voice is different than her “real” voice, and you can hear this difference when she reads. To the words on the page she adds whatever’s called for in the scene she’s conjuring: expressive pauses, flabbergasted stuttering, ironic brow-lifting, upspeak, hand gestures and the occasional embarrassed giggle.

Bringing the actor’s skills to bear on a reading might sound like too tall an order to some writers. Some of us are introverts and quail before a crowd. But many more of us simply want to detach ourselves from our work when we present it, in case it’s not well received. Or we’re worried about sounding too smitten with our own words; we want the writing to speak for itself. This don’t-shoot-the-messenger impulse results in a reading voice that aims for neutral and dispassionate but very often comes off as mechanical and mumbly. Listeners have to concentrate intensely to follow and often end up with their eyes closed. It’s every public speaker’s worst nightmare to look out at a snoozing audience, but the only safeguard against it is to animate your voice!

It comes down to commitment. Can you take your own work seriously enough to risk bringing it to life? Can you throw yourself into it? Lesley Livingston sure can, and the rising success of her career proves that the effort is worth it!

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