Probably the most frequently asked question of an editor by an aspiring writer is this: What kind of book are you looking for? Inevitably, the answer goes something like this: “I’m looking for a compelling story, told with a fresh, appealing voice.”
So what is voice? I think of it as the personality that resonates with the telling of a story. Voice is created with a variety of elements: vocabulary, syntax (the order of the words in the sentence), grammar, idiom (expressions whose meaning might not be understood outside of a particular group or region), and the rhythms of the sentences. Voice in writing develops over time as the writer increases her vocabulary, as she learns to write concisely and vividly, and as her worldview changes.
“Mosquitoland,” a new young adult novel by David Arnold (Viking Books for Young Readers), is narrated by sixteen-year-old Mary Iris Malone (“Mim”), whose marvelous voice is one of the great rewards of the book. Intelligent and well-read, Mim handles herself in a self-assured manner. She’s observant and insightful, and by turns biting, funny, nearly always fascinating — and appealing.
Mim’s father has left her mother, married a new wife Kathy, and dragged Mim from her home in Ohio to the “wastelands” of Jackson, Mississippi, which she has dubbed Mosquitoland.
Overhearing that her mother is ill, and convinced that her dad and Kathy have conspired to keep her mother away from her, she steals Kathy’s money, hops on a Greyhound, and heads north to save her mother. The book is her journey. She meets a variety of people along the way, two of whom join her: the good-looking Beck Van Buren, and the homeless kid Walt with Down’s Syndrome. Beck and Walt travel with Mim all the way to Cleveland, where her mother lives.
Mim rages against her dad, longs for her loving mother, fears madness, and attempts to “round off the sharp edges.” She grows as a character, marvels at the joy that is Walt and her own tender feelings toward him, and she falls in love with Beck.
Like the Pied Piper’s music, Mim’s voice is what keeps the reader following her. At the beginning of the story, she cautions us that she, like every great character is multidimensional.
“Remember this when I describe the antics that follow, for though I am not a villain, I am not immune to villainy.” She is able to admit to manipulation. When she “unloads” on Beck, telling him why she ran away, she tells us, “I hate admitting this … but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t wearing my cute face the entire time.”
And she is reflective about the turns in her life: “I float in the silence, watching the final touches of this perfect moonrise, and in a moment of heavenly revelation, it occurs to me that detours are not without purpose.”
Anyone who aspires to write a character with a “fresh, appealing voice” would do well to study Mim.