Wednesday, April 04, 2007

That Elusive Thing Called Voice

Chances are, whether you heard about it in sophomore English class or in a workshop at a writing conference, the term "voice" is not a foreign one. But what is it? And, more importantly, how do you find it? I've been writing (seriously writing) for more than four year now, and voice is still one of those sketchy areas of the publishing world that everyone throws around and nobody know how to explain, least of all me. Along the way I've learned a few things. has no specific definition of voice that relates to writing, but the one that comes closest is as follows: a range of such sounds distinctive to one person. In other words, your voice is that thing that makes you sound, well, like yourself. The classic examples are Janet Evanovich and Stephen King. There's hardly a single sentence in any of their writing that, taken completely out of the context of their books, couldn't be identified as their writing.

So, if voice is what makes you sound uniquely like you, then how do you know what you sound like? Let me tell you how I found my voice (or at least as far as I've found it so far).
  1. Write in different genres. The first book I wrote was an historical. Then I switched to chick lit. Then young adult. The thing I realized as I did my genre hopping was that: a) the tone of my writing never changed very much, and b) contemporary settings were so much easier to write. My critique partner and I did a workshop once on finding your voice. We did an activity where we passed around pictures we pulled from magazines and asked attendees to write about the scene in that picture in a genre they had never written in before. Let me just say the results were amazing. It gives you some distance from the writing so you can look more objectively at what makes your style unique. Try it and let me know what you come up with.
  2. Write like you talk. Okay, this might not work for everyone (especially historical authors, and maybe some fantasy/paranormal stuff) but I have definitely found that my writing rhythm is the same as my speaking rhythm. As in--as devoted BuzzReaders might possible have noticed--I like to write with interrupted sentences. Anyone who's ever met me knows that I speak the same way. (Usually with entire paragraphs and/or stories inserted into the middle of a sentence--much to the utter confusion of the listener.)
  3. Talk to your agent. Or critique partners. Or get feedback from contest judges. I was just talking to my fabu agent yesterday about that historical proposal I've been working on for, oh, millennia. After three rewrites and replottings and re-everthinging, we came to the conclusion that my voice was just not historical. "It seems like you're trying too hard," she said. "Like your trying to force your voice to be historical." Ding, ding, ding. That's a major warning bell. When you get feedback like that--especially from industry professionals who know what they're talking about--it's like a big flashing neon sign pointing to your voice.
Calling all writers (aspiring or otherwise)... Have you found your voice? How?

[who is thankfully writing this on her good-as-new laptop]
Growing Up Godly, Summer 2008
Dutton Children's Books

what I'm reading ... Spying In High Heels by Gemma Halliday (part of my quest to read as many RITA-nominated books as possible before they are awarded in mid-July)


stephhale said...

Ah, yes, voice. I think I've found my voice, I guess through practice. But then this opens up a whole new can of worms for me when I begin to think that everything I write sounds the same! But I guess in a way it's supposed to.
Congrats on your new baby!

TinaFerraro said...

First of all, good for you, TLC, for trying to read as many Rita-nominated books as possible! Like seeing all the Oscar-nominated movies before the telecast--I always wanted to do that.

About career took a sharp turn in the right direction when I changed from Third Person back to First Person. My prose livened up, I felt funnier, more confident, and suddenly, doors started opening. The truth is, in Third Person, I don't know who I am, and it comes across. But when I turn to First, I become that person, and suddenly, the words flow.

So for anyone who is struggling to find their literary voice, I do recommend playing with tenses and seeing what feels most natural.


Dona Sarkar-Mishra said...

Lucky girls who have found your voice! I always feel like I found mine, but then I go on to the next book and it's totally differnt and thats when I think I found my voice again. :) Hee.

I think I tend to write in my character's voice actually. My heroine is always the one speaking and the core personality of the heroine always changes book to book.

Maybe I'm doing it wrong and one day I'll see see that I've found my voice, but I'll just keep on writing till then :)

Me said...

Steph -- Just because something "sounds" the same doesn't mean it "is" the same. When you talk your voice always sounds the same, no matter what you're saying.

Tina -- I totally didn't think of it, but I switched from third to first, too. Now that I'm trying to convert that historical I've been working on into a contemp, I automatically switched to first. I heard somewhere that you can try writing your first draft in first and then switching on revision so that you get inside your character's head.

Dona -- The crazy thing about voice, I think, is that you can have it and not know what it is! I'm sure there's some stylistic consistency in everything you write. The key is trying not to work against that natural style. =)

Authorness said...

I also switched from third-person to first and - la-la-la! - I found my voice. It feels much more natural and intimate. In third person, my narrative coughed and spluttered.

I'm even overhauling an old, unloved manuscript by changing to first-person (a massive job, I know). It's made a huge difference already.

Marley Gibson said...

Great advice, Tera. I think a lot of times new writers try to force the voice that isn't really true to them. I've read some contest entries in the past where the writing is good, but the voice seems faked to me, like the writer is trying too hard. It's like a's unique and it's yours, but it's how your book will stand apart.

And funny...I've been writing first for so long, but my books that are coming out next year are all third person and I'm loving writing them!

Marley = )

Heather Davis said...

Hey guys,

Voice is elusive. It's funny though, when you find it, it seems like it's always been with you in a Wizard of Oz kind of way... You had the power all along, ya know?

One of the things my editor said about my sold manuscript was that she was hooked from the first line. She said the voice in the first twenty pages especially was so sure, it drew her in. I was like, what? Really? I did that?

You can't tell someone how to find their voice, but when it comes out true, it gives you goosebumps.