Monday, January 31, 2011

Voice - answering Jane's Question

Over on Facebook, Jane posted this question:
I attended a library workshop with a couple of m&b editors yesterday and had a general chat with Flo Nicoll, in which she was very firm that 'it's all about the voice.' Have you any advice on developing/identifying/pushing your voice to maximise its potential?

So, although I've titled this post  'answering Jane's question' the truth is that this  really trying to anser - more liike a set of thoughts about what makes up a writer's voice and how to work on and with that.

Writer’s voice is a literary term used to describe the individual writing style of an author. Voice is a combination of a writer’s use of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a body of text. Voice can also be referred to as the specific fingerprint of an author, as every author has a different writing style.

• Voice is the author's style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique, and which conveys the author's attitude, personality, and character;

• Voice is the characteristic speech and thought patterns of a first-person narrator; a persona.

Because voice has so much to do with the reader's experience of a work of literature, it is one of the most important elements of a piece of writing. Young writers are often urged to find their own voice in fiction, but many teachers believe that voice is something that emerges naturally as a writer develops.

So how can you develop and polish your own voice to make sure that as Jane asked – you are developing/identifying/pushing your voice to maximise its potential?

Let's start by identifying a few things voice isn't. Voice is not style. It's not technique. It's not branding. It's not a decision to write in first or third person.
So what is it? Your writer's voice is the expression of YOU on the page. It's that simple—and that complicated. Your voice is all about honesty. It's the unfettered, non-derivative, unique, authentic blend of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes, coming through in every word you write. Voice is all about your originality and having the courage to express it.

Fiction that doesn't have a "voice" that captures the reader usually feels derivative, i.e. similar to other works of fiction rather than seeming fresh and coming from life. Instead of truly creating stories and characters of your own, you may be unwittingly regurgitating stories and characters you've read and seen in thousands of hours of reading and TV/movie watching in your life. This means you are not being your unique self, but a composite or a mirror of the writers you have read in the past.

So how do you find your voice? You can't learn it. You can't copy it. Voice isn't a matter of studying. You have to find it. And the only place to find it is within you. It's a process of peeling away the layers of trying-to-be-something-you're-not self, the trying-to-sound-a-certain-way self. allowing the real you to emerge. It’s telling your story your way.

Voice is the expression of you on the page—your originality and the courage to express it. Voice is what you develop when you practice writing what you know. It's the unfettered, non-derivative, unique combination of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes, coming through in every word you write.

So how do you find your voice? You can't learn it. You can't copy it. Voice isn't a matter of studying. You have to find it. And the way to do that is by writing, and experimenting, and seeing what kind of response you get from others, and writing some more.

You can rarely be truly original when writing romance but you can be authentic – be true to yourself and write the story your own individual way. Don’t copy another author’s lines, phrases, scenarios - M&B are not looking for a ‘new Kate Walker’ or a new Michelle Reid or anything like that. They already have one of those! Don’t repeat images or descriptions just because they ‘always’ appear in a romance. Think about the way you actually see these things, how would you describe them for yourself - when talking to friends etc.

If you see someone with, say, green eyes do you instinctively describe them as emerald? Or would you use moss as an image? Or grass or olive? Use images and similes that mean something to you.

If you have never actually seen a king cobra, don’t compare your hero to one unless you can maintain the image. Take a look at the way established authors with distinctive voices deal with a very basic moment – the  description of the hero for example:


When he sat opposite her like this, with his back to the windows, he was little more than a dark silhouette, black against the gloomy sky outside. The surprisingly pale eyes in his carved face were all she could really make out. Not that it mattered. The truth was that every stunning feature, from the broad, high forehead down to the surprisingly full and sensual mouth, was seared into her memory, impossible to erase. And if she let them then those memories were threatening to destroy her hard-fought for composure, take her back to the time when she had worshipped the ground this man walked on. To the time that had almost totally broken her.

Kate Walker The Proud Wife 2011


At the sight of the man now standing at the far end of the room, her heart kicked over in her chest. All she could do was stare.

It wasn’t Gerard.

Not even close. Gerard was smooth, refined and cosmopolitan, the personification of continental charm, a blend of 21st century sophistication and nearly as many centuries of royal breeding.

This man was anything but. He was hard-edged, shaggy-haired, and unshaven, wearing a pair of faded jeans and a nondescript open-necked shirt. He might have been nobody. A beach bum, a carpenter, a sailor in from the sea.

But he was Somebody – with a capital S.

His name was Demetrios Savas. Anny knew it. So did everyone else in the room.

She could see for herself that he was absolutely fine. More than fine. The glasses had disappeared years ago, along with the bad hair, bad clothes. He’d never be muscular, but he’d filled out as he’d matured, his shoulders had broadened and these days were clad in the finest bespoke tailoring.

He wasn’t just fine, but gorgeous. Mouth-wateringly scrumptious, in fact. The chocolate nut fudge of maleness.

Consider these, not with a view to copying them, but to see just how differently the same topic can be approached. Which one is more your style? What sorts of descriptions/images would you use? How about that chocolate nut fudge description – what might you use instead?

Don’t write to impress, particularly not to impress other authors. Write to connect with your readers. Your writer’s voice builds a better bridge to your readers. It’s your fingerprint, it’s your individual writing style, and it gives your writing soul

“Style is an expression of self, and [writers] should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style – all mannerisms, tricks, and adornments,” write Strunk and White in The Elements of Style.

Learn the difference between good writing and voice. Developing your writer’s voice doesn’t mean you can wax eloquent for hours, ignore punctuation, or forget about editing. Learn and practice the rules of good writing, and you’ll free your voice. “As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge,” say Strunk and White in The Elements of Style, “because you yourself will emerge…” The more comfortable you are with the rules for good writing, the more your writer’s voice will shine. And then you can take risks, break those rules in order to say something the way you want it. There’s no need to follow the rules slavishly if the way you break them gives a line, a paragraph the impact you want.

Stop comparing yourself to other writers. You have natural strengths and weaknesses — and so do other writers. Comparing how you write or your writer’s voice to other writers is destructive and suffocating. So, admire other writers’ styles but nurture your own. Focus on ways to improve your confidence as a writer.

Picture one specific reader. Don’t just focus on writing for the editor or the agent – picture one specific reader — one that I’m not trying to impress – and just communicating with her. You are telling that reader a story and you want to get over to her the drama, emotion, sensuality, pain etc of your story – not shine as literary star.

But don’t panic – I asked around amongst my friends and fellow authors and very few of them could actually define their own voices - or how it came about . I couldn’t really define mine – and I know I have a different one for when I’m writing romance, or a blog, or a teaching article!

Kate Hardy said:

I can never see my voice and had to be told what it was. . . I guess I'd say "put yourself in your character's shoes and think how you'd react in that situation and with that background" - and what comes out is you as that character, i.e. your voice.

Anne McAllister said:

I'd say, for VOICE, if you're worried that you don't have one, read your stuff aloud to yourself. If you can 'hear' a voice, there's one there. If it sounds cobbled together from a lot of different voices, you've got a problem. How to get one -- well, I guess you start reading and listening in childhood and presumably one develops. Mine is a combination of things that I've learned from others as well as what sounds right to me. How I came by it is a mystery, but I recognize it as mine, because I can always - ALWAYS -- tell when an editor or a copy editor has changed something. If I don't recognize that I could have written it, it's not in my voice. C S Lewis says that people who don't have voice, don't have ears. That seems about right to me, but how you "get ears" is something I'm not too clear about. Again, reading and listening.

The only “trick” to developing your writer’s voice and style is to relax and let it flow. Your writer’s voice can’t be learned. It has to be freed.


Julia Broadbooks said...

Thanks for tackling this subject. Voice is so often discussed, but so nebulous and difficult to define.

I'm also really glad to know that I'm not the only one with trouble seeing her own voice!!

Ruchita said...

Hi Kate,
It was really enlightening to read this and I really appreciate the care you've taken to explain all the different nuances of what an author's voice can actually mean. As you say, we enjoy a book most when the story reaches us as though the author is telling it just to us, the reader.
Thanks, Ruchita

Traxy said...

It's quite funny but I've been struggling to try and find my voice ever since I started with creative writing courses. "I wonder what my voice is" I used to think, then one day, someone in the course posted a comment about my voice being very clear, which made me stop to think. Why was I searching for something that I had obviously already found but never thought about? :)

Carol said...

Really good post Kate. Thank you for your inspiration! I agree that it's really helpful knowing even experienced authors find it difficult to categorise their own voices.

Nas Dean said...

Thanks for the great post, Kate.

We keep hearing that we have to know our own voice, yet how to define it?

Your inspirational post very clearly outlined it.

redwriter said...

Hi Kate

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my question. Your response is really helpful - lots to focus on, and not once did you say the confidence killing 'you either have it or you don't!'
Thank you also to all the other writers who contributed :)


Kerrin said...

fantastic post Kate, thank you!
I really liked how you incorporated other writers opinions and then examples from their work too, it made it all clearer to see.

Liz Fielding said...

This really is the most difficult thing to explain, Kate, and you've done a fabulous job.

The best way I can explain it is that when I read a book by someone I know, I can hear them. It comes from who they are, what energises them, what makes them smile, makes them cry.

You can recognise your own favourite writers without seeing their name. That's voice.

It is the one part of writing that is nothing to do with anyone else. If a copy-editor "fiddles" with a sentence I've written I can spot it immediately. It's not that it's wrong - it's just not me.

Write honestly and you'll find your voice. It will grow with you, become stronger as you gain confidence.


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