How unfair is it that one of the most important skills a writer can have is also one of the most vague? VOICE. It seems like almost every agent is looking for "voice" and if you've ever been told you need "more" or "better" voice, you might be feeling kind of....huh? Some people believe that "voice" can't be taught, and that's sort of true. In many ways, good voice is synonymous with good writing and natural talent does play a part. But I believe that people can "find" or enhance their innate writing voice. And here are a few ideas:
1) Think of your character's voice, not your voice - So does "voice" mean the voice of the character or the voice of the writer? Well, really it's both. But a good writer can alter their "voice" based on the chosen character POV, genre and age-level they're writing in, flavor of the novel, and so forth. Different novels may have different voice, even if it's the same writer. So to simplify things, when thinking of voice, think of the voice of your character and the particular project you're working on.
2) Write in multiple POV - If you write your novel from more than one character's point of view, it forces you to make the voice of each section distinctive (at least it should!). Unless you're writing in an omniscient distant POV (which I don't recommend) each character's section should have word choice and personality specific to that character. If you don't write multiple POV, you can do this as an exercise by writing "deleted scenes" from another character's POV or trying suggestion #3.
3) Rewrite scenes from another perspective - Take a scene in your novel and write it from another POV. When you're done, the scene should be more than different in content, it should really feel like it's from another character's perspective. Each character should speak, act, think, and view the world slightly differently.
4) Don't make yourself the MC - In both of my major manuscripts, I have started writing from the perspective of the leading lady and both times I decided to switch to the perspective of the leading man. And when I did, it was almost magical how much my writing improved. Does this mean I'm secretly a dude living inside a woman's body? I'm not sure, but I'm going to go with no. I think it works because I'm writing as someone different than myself. At least for me, writing as someone whose voice is not like mine, makes it easier for me to notice it and make it stand out.
5) Exaggerate voice - This would only be for a voice exercise, not for your final draft MS, but if you're shaky on voice, try going over the top to flex your muscles. It might make for ridiculous writing, but it will help you discover what voice is and how to make it work.
6) Write as a crazy character - This is similar to #5. Choose the most wacky, over-the-top, exaggerated character in your novel and practice writing some scenes from their perspective. Or create a character just for the exercise. Again, choose someone absolutely nothing like you.
7) Turn off your internal editor - This one was important for me personally. In my first attempt at a novel, I was so insanely focused about following rules like not using passive voice and using active verbs that I basically edited out my voice. Now I'm not saying you shouldn't follow good writing practices, but try writing your first draft like you've never heard of these rules. It may help to lower your inhibitions and let your voice shine. You can always edit later.
8) Check your work - Write two scenes with the voice of different characters, and make sure you remove any obvious give-aways, and have someone who knows your novel guess whose voice is whose.
Use two scenes from your novel with the voice of different characters and have someone who doesn't know anything about your novel tell you what they think are the characteristics of each speaker.
9) Be yourself - I've been telling you this whole time to be your character, so what I mean by this is, is loosen up. Like when you're going out on a first date and someone tells you to "just be yourself". Voice is the FUN part of writing. It's the creative, artistic part. And that's what we're good at right? Don't try to write like anyone else. Be fearless and trust yourself. If necessary, write a few scenes drunk. I'm only half-joking. Obviously if you're under 21 or a recovering alcoholic, don't try this at home. But if recreational drinking is something you do anyway, try writing a scene a two with a buzz. I've done this before with a sex scene I was nervous to write. I obviously had to do some editing later sober, but I think the fearlessness still shined through.
10) Make sure you understand what "voice" is - So maybe this shouldn't be number #10, because it's pretty important, but this section takes up a lot of space, so I put it down here. :)
Here is my definition:
Voice is the personality of the writing.
Types of voice:
Voice is like snowflakes or cow's spots, no two are alike, but to give you a general sense, here are some broad categories of voice:
-Age specific (writing for MG, YA, NA, etc.)
-Genre specific (literary, commercial, romance, etc.)
Okay, so I'm going to be a little egocentric here and use my own writing as an example of voice. :) Mainly because it's easiest for me and it's mine to use. Here is a somewhat random excerpt from my forthcoming novel, THE CHARGE.
It was and still good and dark, so he couldn’t determine the weirdness level of
just yet. The highway was extra smooth from recent repair and they had new California green highway signs alongside the old Texas Empire blue ones. Eventually he had to pee, so made his first stop on Texas Empire soil. The gas station sold guns and liquor, plus a lot of Texas Empire themed knick knacks which were either to entice tourists or frighten them into turning around. One T-shirt had the entire North American continent colored in with the U.S. flag and said “We’re coming for you.” Another one said simply, “Screw you, Texas .” Other than being verbally abused by T-shirts, peeing at a Texas Empire gas station wasn’t that different from peeing in an American one. They had M&Ms and Doritos and Coca-Cola and Purell dispensers in the restroom. America
With less voice:
It was 5am and still dark, so he couldn't tell what California was like yet. The highway was extra smooth from recent repair and they had new
Check my work as I suggest in #8. From the first excerpt, what can you tell me about my main character and novel from this section alone? How old is he? What time period does he live in? What is his world like? What is he like? How do you know? What do you learn from the voice example that you wouldn't learn from the less-voice example?
Vocal exercises and definitions from other people: