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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Voice lessons for the writer

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.

With voice:

It was 5am and still good and dark, so he couldn’t determine the weirdness level of California just yet.  The highway was extra smooth from recent repair and they had new U.S. 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 Texas flag and said “We’re coming for you.”   Another one said simply, “Screw you, America.”  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. 

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 U.S. green highway signs alongside the old Texas Empire blue ones. He needed a bathroom break, so he made his first stop in the Texas Empire. The gas station was different because it sold guns and liquor and Texas Empire themed souvenirs. One T-shirt had the entire North American continent colored in with the Texas flag and said “We’re coming for you.”   Another one said, “Screw you, America.” Other than the different T-shirt messages, the Texas Empire gas station wasn't that different from an American one. They had the same types of snacks and sodas.

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:



tfwalsh said...

Voice isn't the easiest thing to get.... I found with my current story, the more I just wrote, the more my character's voice came out... it took time and perseverance... but it worked in the end:)

Charity Bradford said...

Excellent post, and thanks for the links!

#4 can be hard because in order to write well--more show than tell--we have to do some internalization on the part of our MC. We need to be in their head. THEIR head, not ours as you said. Sometimes its hard to tell the difference, but with practice it will happen.

#7 I did that. I edited out almost all of my voice trying to keep all the rules in my first revision. We need to follow the rules, but sometimes voice means breaking a few every once in a while. Don't kill your voice because the rules say sentence fragments are bad. Used sparingly they can add some punch or emphasis to a situation.

I love the idea of #8 and will have to try it!

LD Masterson said...

Good post. I'm hanging on to this one to go back to.

mshatch said...

I'm guessing he's old enough to drive plus his thought process seems more mature than a teen so I'm guessing male, early twenties, maybe? Obviously this is a different probably future version of a divided America and one in which not everyone is friends. Cool excerpt and #9 lol

Ink in the Book said...

I loved this article. Sharon, it had more insight on how to find your voice and how to write with that voice than I have ever read. Excellent article. This is exactly what I needed, but you probably already knew that from the contest:)

Sharon Bayliss said...

Thank you all so much! I'm glad it was helpful.

Freya Morris said...

Brilliant post - spot on again! Took me ages to figure out what "voice" was and like you say, there isn't much help out there for people who don't.