I played a rousing Zoom-hosted game of Ex Libris last night with some dear friends on the opposite coast. Do you know that game? It is so fun, so writerly, and really a fantastic exercise in voice.
I’ll tell you how to play in a minute, but first let me define what I mean by voice.
Voice is the metaphysics of style. The prose style you create for a book has a tone and personality all its own. It’s why a sentence of Jane Austen is distinguishable at a glance from a sentence of Tolkien. You’ll never answer the phone and think Salinger is talking when, in fact, it is Hemingway.
Word choice, sentence and paragraph rhythms, the kinds of details chosen, the way of seeing the world that is conveyed by what is said — all of these are part of voice. Together, they add up to a quality all great writing has: the unmistakable feeling that there is an actual, living personality on the other side of the page. That you, Dear Reader, are not alone. You are with someone as you read.
Hence my use of the word metaphysics. Creating the illusion of consciousness is heady stuff! Yet voice in writing is made of words and punctuation marks, just like everything else we writers scribble.
Experienced editors say voice is what makes them fall for a manuscript. The thinking is that plots can be fixed, prose can be trimmed, but voice is either there or it’s not.
They’re not wrong, but they’re not fully right either. Your “voice” as a writer is a bellwether for your overall level of writing craft. If your writing is cluttered with all the usual maladies untrained writers fall prey to — generic descriptions, bloated prose, a too-distant point of view — that sense of consciousness is buried beneath the blankets. It won’t be able to rise off the page and charm its way into the reader’s brain.
The reader is left all alone. The book is deemed boring and tossed in the corner, but what the reader really feels is lonely.
TIP: Voice is not something you have. It’s something you do. Invest in developing your writing craft so your voice can truly shine.
How to play Ex Libris
In Ex Libris, the players compete by writing plausible first or last lines of real novels, obscure or well-known (but not so well known that the first and last lines are common knowledge!).
After the reader for each round gives the title, author, year of publication and a brief synopsis, a coin is flipped. Heads means first line, tails means last. The players get to work writing and submit their creations privately to the reader. The reader then reads all submissions aloud to the group, and each player votes for the one they think is real.
A point is awarded to those who correctly guess which is the real line, and also to those who wrote something so convincing that other players voted for their imposter! It’s great fun and works perfectly on Zoom (we used the chat function to share our submissions privately with the reader for each round). You can learn more about Ex Libris and how to play it here.