QUESTION: What is a writer’s voice and how do I get it?
One of the most talked questions amongst writers is voice. What is it, where do I find it, how do I use it? When you receive the inevitable rejection letters, sometimes agents or editors will comment on its presence or lack thereof. If you’ve got it, readers flock to the shelves like children clambering to hear one of Grandma’s stories. Some of us have it naturally and others have to work for it. Out of eighty-some rejection letters, I was often told my voice was strong, but my story was not for them.
Luckily, like the craft of writing, your voice can be cultivated. When it comes to singing, a voice teacher might hone your pitch or help you work on your breathing techniques. You might practice for years, wailing your heart out, and chances are your singing will improve, but you’ll never become a contestant on American Idol. Here’s the good news! You don’t have to have the best voice to engage readers! But finding the true quality for you is important. So how do you do that?
A writer’s voice is the pitch and tone, a style that feeds your words a particular feel. When people read your words, they’ll hear a subconscious whisper in the back of their minds. The most important thing to remember is that your story is an interpretation of the world seen through your eyes.
Yes, your hero or heroine’s points of view are important, but first and foremost, you’re translating this story. No one can tell it but you. If your writing partner attempted to tell the same exact story with the same plot, characters, and conflicts, she’d tell it differently. Because the words are filtering through her brain. She’s giving it her stamp in new ways because she loves the color purple and she broke her arm rescuing a kitten from a tree and she’s a mother. To create voice, your unique traits will shift into sound, beat, rhythm.
Here’s an exercise I often do to warm up, especially if I’m starting a new manuscript or I’ve been away from my work-in-progress too long. Block out ten minutes, get your booty in your chair and open a blank document. Then start typing. Don’t type with a direction in mind. Just let your muse wander. Talk about the curtains in your office, the damn phone that rings too much, or the shirt tag that feels itchy on the back of your neck. Don’t you dare edit! And who cares about typos, run-ons or grammar? Just type. It will sound something like this:
The trees are black and icy with arms reaching toward the midnight sky. Tiny drops of need pulsing, racing, climaxing in the veins of a depressed elephant trainer who needs more money and more work. But there’s no work in the business for elephant trainers. She needs a home, a family, but will she get it? Probably not. She only has this big fat grey hide in front of her, and it’s a big block in her life. The biggest she can imagine. Like the gorilla in the room, she has an elephant. (this was impromptu and unedited).
See? Sounds crazy, huh? Where did the elephant trainer come from? No idea. My muse went off on a tangent. But that’s not the important part. Did you hear my voice in there? Voice helps set the mood and creates stronger characters. Often writers get nervous about voice because any scrutiny cuts us and feels like a personal attack. Don’t let that hold you back. If your voice is coming through, people will like it or not, but that’s the point. You’ve connected with a reader and given them strong emotion—she likes it or doesn’t.
Another thing to remember is there are many different sides of you. Your voice isn’t going to sound flat and one-dimensional because you aren’t. You’re a wife, mother, co-worker, sister, leader of the Benevolent Order of Basket Weavers. Whatever. As writers, we already have multiple personality disorder. Let those tones shine through the writing clouds and illuminate your words.
Also, though your POV’s and characters will change, your voice will stay pretty constant. Your evil rapist villain won’t sound the same as the cherubic child of your heroine, but we’ll still know it’s you telling the story.
Searching for voice takes some time for most people. Don’t get frustrated. Keep playing with your words until you find a rhythm. Exercises will help greatly, just as a vocalist practices scales. Write a scene of action and dialogue. The quick pace might unleash your inner tone. Write in an unconventional POV—a witness to a crime, an unseen narrator, or a minor character. Tell us about your heroine’s sexy encounter with her boss in the broom closet. And try that ten-minute sprint.
Unleash and let your mind go. Your voice is probably hidden beneath the rubble of rhetorical devices, punctuation, and formatting. Searching for it is very important, but I know it’s in there. And your readers are dying to hear it.
Thanks for stopping by!