Voice may be the number one thing editors want to see in a manuscript. But what exactly is voice? Linda Pratt, Literary Agent, Wernick & Pratt Agency, explains, “Voice is the personality and really whole life history of a character that when done effectively emanates from the page through that character’s word choices, points of reference, context, and actions.”
Agent Jill Corcoran of the Herman Agency says, “Voice transforms a manuscript from an ‘author speaking to a reader’ to an ‘author immersing a reader in a story’.” She identifies three types of voice in every manuscript:
1. “The Author’s Voice – We each look at life differently so when we write, we write from our own individual style, abilities, personalities, experiences, reactions, world-view, etc. Voice should be natural and unique, just like each one of us when we are not over-thinking but are living in the moment.”
2. “The Manuscript Voice – the voice of this particular manuscript be it first or third, slapstick or sarcastic, literary or commercial, etc. Authors will not choose the same manuscript voice in every book they write but if they are writing authentically and naturally, they hopefully will have a recognizable author voice.”
3. “The Characters’ Voices – dialog, ticks, actions, and most importantly, reactions, etc.”
Perhaps this is why voice is so hard to define and teach: it comes in many forms. So how do we know if we have a good voice? And if not, what can we do about it? Often the novels held up as examples of great voice have a literary, poetic voice: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo. Does that mean we all need to be more poetic?
We All Have Voice
Let’s start with two basic truths:
|Voice develops over time|
First, all writing has voice. It may be a slow, boring voice; a clunky, confusing voice; a straightforward, fast-paced voice; or a beautiful, poetic voice. “Literary” novels have voice, but so do “commercial” novels, genre novels, picture books, easy readers, and nonfiction.
Second, different readers like different voices. Few people would like boring or confusing voices, but many people prefer a straightforward, fast-paced voice, others like a poetic voice, and some readers enjoy both. Your personal taste as a reader should be what you strive for as a writer. Why try to write something that you wouldn’t enjoy reading?
Voice is often seen as a matter of style, but clearly it’s broader and deeper than simply using interesting language. Your voice is reflected in:
· The kinds of characters you create – awkward loners, fun-loving tomboys, silly adults.
· Your plot and pacing techniques – action plots, quieter stories, use of cliffhangers, paragraph/sentence lengths.
· Themes you revisit – finding oneself, what makes a family, important life events such as the first day of school and first romance.
· Types of settings – urban, suburban, rural; familiar or exotic; at school, at home, journeys.
· Proportion of all the above – character driven, plot heavy, lots of setting details.
|Adventure is part of my voice|
Finding Your Voice
Identifying and developing your voice may take experimentation. Read a lot and pay attention to what you most enjoy. Eavesdrop on conversations and think about what dialogue, actions, and gestures tell you about people. Try interviewing your characters or writing diary entries in their voices. Write a scene from one character's viewpoint, and then from another person in the same scene. How do the characters’ age, sex, and other elements affect how they perceive and react to what's happening?
Small Improvements Add up
Many basic writing techniques can also contribute to your voice. These techniques alone won’t make a strong and fresh voice, but polishing your skills can ensure that your voice isn’t clunky or slow.
For example, you should be comfortable with first-person versus third-person point of view. But POV is also about the character’s experiences and how they see the world. Is your character a city girl, farm girl, or suburbanite? Rich, middle-class, or poor? An athlete, musician, or artist? Each of these elements affects the way someone interacts with the world around her – where she’s comfortable, what she notices, what she cares about. For example, a musician may be tuned into sounds and rhythms and use metaphors relating to music. Getting inside your character’s head with a close point of view helps readers connect better with that character. (See my posts on POV.)
|Editing can improve voice.|
To avoid having a slow, boring voice, learn to eliminate wordiness. Several sources offer lists of words and phrases to eliminate, such as very, really, just, kind of, sort of, a little. That doesn’t mean you can never use those words, but every manuscript will improve by getting rid of unnecessary words.
Tips on writing tactics abound. Show, don’t tell. Minimize your use of adverbs. Use active verbs. Make sure your character names don’t all start with the same letter, to avoid reader confusion. The list seems endless, with some quick fixes and some skills requiring months of practice. If you study each technique in turn, eventually most will be second nature, if not during your first draft then at least during editing.
For some writers, technical rules may seem too practical, too pedestrian, for something as mysterious as voice. But the first step in building a strong voice is to get rid of the weakest elements of your writing. Then you can explore subtleties that are appropriate for the age range, genre, and topic of each manuscript.
Your writing voice is like your appearance, where part is what you are given (gender, height, coloring) and part comes from your choices (clothing, hairstyle, attitude). Voice is made up of your natural expression – the way you see the world, based on all your experiences – plus technical skills you can develop. Practice the external elements that make for generally strong writing, while tapping into your heart and soul. Over time, your unique voice will develop naturally and shine through.
To Find Your Voice
|Nothing wrong with a silly voice!|
What are your favorite books – not necessarily the ones you think are the best-written or that you most admire, but the ones you most enjoy?
What do you like about the style? Humor, pace, great characters, language?
Try typing out scenes from your favorite authors to get a feel for their rhythm and word choice. Study what they do, but don’t try to copy their voice. Understand their techniques so you can be yourself.
What is your natural style? When you tell a story to friends, is it funny, tragic, suspenseful? What elements can you see in your manuscripts?
What do you love about your writing or have critique partners praised? What weaknesses do you see in your work or have others mentioned?
What would you be proud to produce?
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King
Style, Pacing & Voice: An Editor’s Guide to Writing Powerful Fiction, by Jodie Renner
Finding Your Voice, by Les Edgerton
Rivet Your Readers with Deep POV, by Jill Elizabeth Nelson
Advanced Plotting, by Chris Eboch
Jordan McCollum offers downloadable free writing guides, including one on Deep POV
Janice Hardy’s Fiction University blog has a lot on these topics. Check the listing for “Show vs. Tell," "Trimming Words," or "Point of View," or simply browse.
Jodie Renner often covers POV, pacing, and more.
Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.
Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.