by Sabine Berlin
(with Heidi Brockbank and Angela Eschler doing backup)
Okay, I’ll admit it: I love NBC’s The Voice. It might be because of the amazing talent that presents itself on stage each week. It might be because of Adam Levine. Either way, if it’s on, I find myself dropping everything and listening. I can’t sing for the life of me, but I can imagine what those contestants must be feeling as they get on stage, hoping that one of the judges will pick their voice.
As a writer, each time you send out a query, it is your own personal The Voice audition. Readers, agents, and publishers all want the same thing—a book they connect to and can’t put down. And most often, that means a book with voice. You’ve read it on agent page after agent page: “I’m looking for a fresh, unique voice.” “I love a totally original, hilarious voice.” “I want to represent stories that have an emphasis on voice-driven narratives.” “I love strong voices.” All those quotes are from actual agents who are currently seeking clients. The bottom line? It’s all about VOICE!
What Is Voice?
Let’s look at four distinctions that can help you figure out what voice is, how to find it, and how to mold it for the purposes of your book:
- Style: To be clear, style and voice are not the same thing, although they often influence each other. Style, as the dictionary puts it, is a “distinctive manner of expression.” It relates more to your words, the syntax you choose and reject, the way you compose your sentences, and the order in which you string the sentences together. Style (and, consequently, voice) can be short and to the point or long and flowing, flowery or blunt, conversational or formal. The audience to which you are writing helps determine the style. A gunslinging western will likely have a much different style than a YA vampire romance.
- Voice: Voice, on the other hand, is the unique point of view through which you see the world. There are many ways to qualify that sentence—and debate it. Is it your quirky personality inadvertently coming through? Or is it a deliberate lens you apply to a particular story? For example, you, through your narrator, might frame everything from a skeptical or cynical point of view. Or you might see everything through a lens of hopefulness, a viewpoint that will come out in the narration—expressed, of course, in the style (the words and word relationships you choose). There may be a combination of whimsical or humorous or stoic or pragmatic or a million other permutations that flavor your personal paradigm and the lens your narrator uses. To avoid a semantics debate and focus on what’s useful, know that either view of voice (the deliberate lens or the inadvertent personality leak) will get you where you want—just focus on those unique points of view that creates a colorful narrative.
- Character voice vs. author voice: Since voice springs from deep within the author, it will influence, often at a subconscious level, the characters’ voices. That being said, it is important to note that an author’s voice and a character’s voice can be different. Your character does not need to talk like you do. Well-drawn characters will have their own personalities, as well as their own unique worldviews, but your point of view on life will influence how that unique character expresses his or her unique point of view (yes, dizzying)! For instance, no two authors will give the same voice to a thirties-something, dark-haired female accountant who loves sushi.
- The angle: Another way to look at the lens or point of view is to call it an angle. This is easiest to grasp in terms of nonfiction. In nonfiction, the fresh angle or lens through which you look at your material is often more overt than in fiction. If you are writing about the health of the body, for example, are you looking at it with a humorous, entertaining, thought-provoking lens, or with a more scientific approach? Or are you focusing on the facts and the applicable changes one could make to his or her health? Your agenda—your purpose for writing—will largely affect your approach to the material and your choice of style. This combination of style and approach/angle can make for “a new voice.” A good fiction example is The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. She takes a much-covered topic in fiction—slavery—but examines it through the eyes of early female abolitionists who were also early feminists. The exploration of the connection between abolitionism and feminism (and slavery as it applies to the body and mind) is a fresh angle, and the character POV lens through which the story is told is also unique. Even more exciting, Sue Monk Kidd has a distinctive author voice that permeates all her books, even though the voice of each character is highly differentiated from all others she’s written (I call it her “quiet-power-poetic-wisdom” voice, and it is recognizable through her writing style but also her world views that emerge from each book). Her books would be great to study if you’re trying to understand the ins and outs of voice. Watch for patterns in her authorial “voice” (across her fiction and nonfiction) and then note how she uses fresh angles to create a compelling and original voice for each character and book.
How Do You Find Your Voice?
1. Embrace What Makes You Extraordinary.
Part of finding your voice entails learning to appreciate your individuality. “We are all, each and every one, unique in the Universe. And that uniqueness makes us valuable” (James A. Owen, Drawing Out the Dragons). James has it right. The more you come to understand that, the closer you get to understanding your voice and how to use it most effectively. There are many talented authors out there, and sometimes, as you read an amazing book or story, you may feel that spark of longing to create something just as moving for someone else. Too often, we think the only way to do that is to sound like the author who inspired us. But as much as an author speaks to your heart and mind and soul, remember: the world already has that voice. What it doesn’t have yet is your voice. Get to know yourself—pay closer attention to what engages your curiosity, intellect, passions, and so on. Have others tell you what interesting, quirky, endearing, and annoying qualities they notice in you. Write down snippets of thought you have about the world around you.
2. Discover Your World.
Your voice is shaped by what you know and what you experience, so get out and learn. I don’t mean that you need to move to Fiji or climb K2 (unless you want to, of course). But visit the world around you, from museums and plays to natural wonders and sports events. Take a class. Try an activity totally outside your comfort zone. If you typically spend the weekend tailgating, attend the opera—and vice versa. If you get the chance, live in another state or country, even for a short while. Volunteer. Travel. Serve. Study. Work. Play. In short, live. Exploring—and challenging—your views and experiences will expand your voice and allow you to vicariously tune in to others’ views, enabling you to write characters with their own unique voices.
Read history, travel, psychology, mythology, economics, business, biography—read anything and everything. Reading not only expands your world but your knowledge about the world. Learn to look at things differently, and then experiment with showing that in your writing. Find authors you love and study them. What do you admire about their voices? Are you drawn to humor? Maybe there is a natural comedian in you just waiting to get out. Do you love the probing, expansive qualities of deep nonfiction? If you love it, it is probably because there is some of it inside of you.
Author Sarah Beard (Porcelain Keys) said, “I think I found my voice about halfway through my second round of revisions on my first novel.” I’ve also heard it said that you have to write four or five novels before you find your voice. And then there are people who just have a natural voice right out of the gate. No matter what camp you fall into, you will never find your voice unless you’re writing. If you’re struggling to find it in your story—or simply to recognize it—try some writing prompts. There are dozens of books and sites out there that will give you ideas for pushing your creativity from its comfort zone. This is the space where insights are most often born. (Do them with a friend and compare how your voices—your unique points of view—differ.)
Finding your voice might be one of the hardest things you have to do as a writer, but don’t make it harder than it needs to be. The most effective way to kill your voice might be by trying to make it something it isn’t. Be yourself. It’s your voice; set it free!
Do This Now
- Read what you’ve written and ask, “Does that sound like me?” If there are places where the answer is no, then fix them. Next, pay attention to how you talk. Are there certain things you say that are just you? I can’t hear the words I know, right? without thinking of my oldest daughter. If you need to, record yourself. If you still can’t hear your own unique vocabulary, ask others what they hear in your voice.
- Do a free write. One of the best ways to find your voice is by not holding it back. Just let yourself write and see what comes out. Don’t try to correct yourself. Don’t think; just write. A lot of times your first try just may be your best work.
- Love your story and your subject matter. Chances are you can tell the authors you gravitate toward really like (or care about) what they’re writing. There is a certain enthusiasm in their writing, and it reflects in every word. This doesn’t mean you have to write only about butterflies and rainbows. Maybe you get a thrill out of scaring your audience. Maybe you love the workings of the human mind. Maybe you’re a history nut. Even hard, scary, painful things in life need to be explored with conviction and passion.Write about what you love, or what you care deeply about, and your inner truth, joy, and purpose—your true voice—will manifest itself.
How did you find your voice? Do you have a favorite author to whose voice you are drawn? Share with us!
Great article, Sabine! Voice is one of the hardest things to explain, and you did a great job!
Great point about character voice and author voice! And great voice in your article itself. You rock!
Ya’ll have quite the knack for timeliness; once again, this is something I’ve been struggling with in my own writing and I needed to read this. Thanks for going over the semantics of style v. voice with a fine-tooth comb. My absolute all-time favorite author is Faulkner, who has stunning prose (style) and writes about the hard, dark, sometimes unsuccessful search for redemption with our fellow beings (voice). I would love to write just one paragraph like him. Problem is, I’m not a grumpy old man and I am not over fond of Mississippi. My experiences are different and therefore so will be my voice, once I really find it. I love the idea of doing writing prompts, especially on more personal topics. I recently finished Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (I know, something I should have read ages ago) and she repeatedly recommends writing about your childhood and your own life. Excellent method of finding one’s voice, I’d say. Thanks for some wonderful advice, Sabine!
I love Lamott’s book! I completely agree–writing the familiar helps you find your voice because it’s so much more natural. And then you can take that self-understanding into writing what you want to explore. Writing is so much about experimentation, in my mind. Otherwise we’d stop after the first draft. I’ve edited so many authors who seemed a bit shaky on their voice–and their story/idea executuion–in their early drafts; there’d be a few moments of brilliance throughout, and I’d point those out as great voice, hoping they’d find that stride. And then I’d be shocked to see a 2nd or 3rd draft and feel as if they were a different writer–much more skilled than I thought they’d be at that point. Finding your voice is a big part of making your book work!
Clint Johnson teaches a seminar on voice in several Utah writing conferences (Writing for Charity, LTUE, etc.) I loved it. It’s a two-hour session with lots of practice, so look him up if you still want more tips! (No, I’m not Clint, I swear, haha. Hi, Clint! Maybe you’ll see this someday.)
I have attended Clint’s voice classes, and they are great! I highly recommend them. Storymakers is a great conference coming right up that I’d suggest for anyone in the early years of their career.
I love this article. The voice vs. style section at the beginning was wonderful. Thanks for putting this in perspective, it is something I’m still trying to figure out for my protagonist in my WIP.