Here’s a WriteOn Con riddle for you: Publishers want it, readers love it, authors seek it. Nobody can define it, but everyone can recognize it.
Okay, I admit it. That was a terrible riddle, completely unsolvable unless you read the title, in which case you know this is a discussion on voice.
Voice is the sound of your writing; your unique use of dialogue, description, characterization, and syntax. If it were a song, voice is the music, the rhythm, the beats upon which each sentence rises and falls.
A common mistake for beginners is writing the way they think will sell their story. Some browse the thesaurus for fancy words, others bloat their sentences with filler words, and occasionally a writer lifts scenes from her favorite authors but changes out minor details. Ultimately, these strategies betray the writer as an amateur, because none of them lead to the authentic voice all editors crave.
Okay, you say, I sorta get it. Sorta. Here are six tips to help you identify your voice.
- Study other voices. As you read, try to distinguish the unique sound of the author’s words. Why does Kristen Cashore sound different from Scott Westerfield who sounds different from Dan Wells? The better you are at spotting voice for others, the more clearly you’ll see your own.
- Learn all the writing rules. And then forget them. All writers should know the rules of grammar, punctuation, syntax, and rhythm. Learn the rules of your genre, the conventions of characterization and exposition, and the common pitfalls in a story. You must know these rules, so that you know how to break them. If everything you write conforms to a standard English textbook, you’re probably doing something wrong.
- Know your characters. Just as each writer has a unique voice, every character in your story should have their voice too. The better you define your characters, the stronger your writing of them will be.
- Try a different genre. I once had a critique partner who wrote adult crime novels. They were okay, but not publishable. Then one day he heard an old frontier story and decided to fictionalize it. His YA historical had a brilliant voice, and might’ve been the story that broke him into the market, but in the end, he gave up because he insisted he was a crime novelist. Maybe you are exactly the writer that you think you are, but there is no shortage of examples where someone finds their voice in a very different place than where they thought they would be.
- Know your stuff. Personally, I’m not much for the “write what you know” philosophy. I prefer, “write what you love” because when you love a topic, you want to know all about it. Voice often suffers in a manuscript when the author doesn’t have a firm grasp on the details. For example, if the character is riding a horse, the author should understand enough about horses to bring authenticity to the scene.
- Write for yourself. In the wake of any big novel, editors are flooded with copycat manuscripts. Many of them are brilliant books in their own right, but many are quickly rejected because it’s obvious the writer is only offering a cheap imitation of the original. Write the story that is in you, the way only you can tell it.
If you want samples…
“This time of year, I live and breathe the beach. My cheeks feel raw with the wind throwing sand against them. My thighs sting from the friction of the saddle. My arms ache from holding up two thousand pounds of horse. I have forgotten what it is like to be warm and what a full night’s sleep feels like and what my name sounds like spoken instead of shouted across yards of sand. I am so, so alive.” – The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
“Food is important in the burg. The moon revolves around the earth, the earth revolves around the sun, and the burg revolves around pot roast. For as long as I can remember, my parents’ lives have been controlled by five-pound pieces of pot roast, done to perfection at six o’clock.” – One for the Money by Janet Evanovich
“There were heavy shadows, like smears of ash, under Dad’s red-rimmed eyes as he turned to me. For a second it was like he was looking at a stranger, but then he pulled his lips into a grin and slapped me on the knee.” – The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch
And if you’ll forgive this blatant act of self-promotion…
“I’d never attempted roast thievery before, and I was already regretting it. It happens to be very difficult to hold a chunk of raw meat while running. More slippery than I’d anticipated. If the butcher didn’t catch me with his cleaver first, and literally cut off my future plans, I vowed to remember to get the meat wrapped next time. Then steal it.” – The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen
Exercises to Help Find Your Voice:
- Write a brief description of someone you know as if you were a psychiatrist, a criminal, and an artist. Then write their description as yourself.
- Write the scene you’ve always secretly wanted to write. Not to be published, edited, or even seen by anyone else. Just let the self-indulgent words flow and see what comes.
- Read your work aloud, and try to feel when your words are not authentic. If you’re forcing out the words, then you are not staying true to your natural voice.
Remember that “voice” doesn’t develop in your first month, and in most cases, not your first manuscript. The more you write, the closer you come to finding it. So get writing!
Jennifer A. Nielsen was born and raised in northern Utah, where she still lives today with her husband, three children, and a dog that won’t play fetch. She is the author of The Ascendance trilogy, beginning with THE FALSE PRINCE; of The Underworld Chronicles, beginning with ELLIOT AND THE GOBLIN WAR; and will write the sixth book of the Infinity Ring series. She loves chocolate, old books, and lazy days in the mountains.
Jennifer is giving away a signed copy of THE FALSE PRINCE, and a first chapter critique!! Comment on this post to enter!
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THE FALSE PRINCE by Jennifer A. Nielsen: In a discontent kingdom, civil war is brewing. To unify the divided people, Conner, a nobleman of the court, devises a cunning plan to find an impersonator of the king’s long-lost son and install him as a puppet prince. Four orphans are recruited to compete for the role, including a defiant boy named Sage. Sage knows that Conner’s motives are more than questionable, yet his life balances on a sword’s point — he must be chosen to play the prince or he will certainly be killed. But Sage’s rivals have their own agendas as well.
As Sage moves from a rundown orphanage to Conner’s sumptuous palace, layer upon layer of treachery and deceit unfold, until finally, a truth is revealed that, in the end, may very well prove more dangerous than all of the lies taken together.