What is Writing "Voice"
All agents want one and all writers want to know what the heck it is. If it was easy to define, then we wouldn’t have countless articles, books and classes to demystify “voice.” Today, I will put in my two cents and see if it can help the light bulb go off.
Voice is, in its essence, that uniqueness that we as artists bring to the story. Remember, humans relied on an oral tradition for tens of thousands of years. We are a story people and “voice,” in my opinion, is a holdover from that oral tradition.
Ah, but the original storytellers were not only the precursors of the modern writer, they were also the precursor to the modern ACTOR. I can imagine the one dude in the cave who used the most dramatic gestures and movements and the best inflection at just the right time AS he told the story probably had the best audiences.
Writers are Also Composers/Directors
TIMING, is a HUGE part of being a good storyteller, thus it is naturally a large component of “voice.” Writers must have a natural sense of when things should be tense, versus the times we need to let the audience have a breather. Writing a novel is very akin to writing a symphony.
If everything is crescendo, then nothing is. If every page is mind-numbing tension, then nothing is. Conversely, if our writing is just a character thinking, then thinking some more, then thinking some more, then that is not a story, it’s a diary. It’s the elevator music of story.
As writers, we are also directors. We need to take charge of the setting, the lighting, the mood and then tell the characters what to do (give stage direction). Our words are what give the pauses between the push. We must choose the right words at the right time to always control the pace, the push and pull of conflict.
We not only must make sure the plot arc is progressing accordingly, but the characters must arc as well. All of this must be balanced until the grand finale, the Big Boss Battle that every chapter has let up to. How we balance all of this is known as “voice.”
Writers Have a Lot in Common with Actors
Just like actors have to get in the head of a character they must portray on stage or in film, we, too, must learn to “get in the head” of our characters…ALL of them. An actor must play a singular part, but we must, to a degree, play ALL of the parts. It isn’t enough to be in the head of our protagonist. If we cannot also learn to empathize with the antagonist and even the supportive characters, our writing will be flat and will lack dimension.
New writers lack confidence and skill, so often what will happen is they parrot a popular author. They become a bad copy instead of an awesome original. But, the bigger mistake I see is voice often comes with preparation, and new writers often fail to prepare. New writers fail to understand the characters before they start writing. They get a flash of a scene in their head and then start typing. This is like an actor not taking any time to study the part before he begins reciting lines.
Not that this way is wrong, but it can make the difference between a Saturday Night Live skit performance versus a performance that brings home an Oscar.
I’ve read many a new writer whose characters all sounded like the same person. They hadn’t taken time to understand the characters–all of them–and really think about GCM (Goal, Conflict, Motivation via Debra Dixon). Thus, either all the characters sounded alike and the dialogue sounded like a bad third-grade play, or the protagonist was the only character with depth (because he was based off the writer) and all the other characters are talking heads or bad knock-offs off the protagonist.
Voice Can Affect Our Career
First of all, voice can affect our career because if we don’t have a solid voice, we won’t connect with readers. Agents love a strong writing voice because they love finding works readers will love. We can have the best plot ever written, but if all the characters are talking heads, it doesn’t matter. We can have the most interesting characters, but if we cannot put them in an interesting and compelling story, we still have a problem (though, granted, an easier one to fix than the former).
But voice can affect more than whether we get an agent. Voice can affect how well we write. Do we have the right genre for our natural voice? This is why we should never write for the market. We shouldn’t write romance because it’s a hot market. We should just ignore trends and write the best story for us to write.
How Does Genre Affect Voice?
Let’s extend this idea of actors being related to writers. Let’s say I have a role to cast. I want a male actor to play a cowboy. I have three different actors. I have Clint Eastwood, Jack Black, and Robert Deniro. Same story, different actors. Can you see how the choice of actor–the choice of the voice–becomes essential to how the story will play out? If I cast the wrong actor for the story I as a director want to tell, I can have a disaster, even though ALL THREE ACTORS are highly skilled and talented.
If I want a Old School Western? Clint Eastwood. But if I want a comedy? Clint might not be the right actor, unless Clint wants to branch out and do some intensive study in the area of comedy. With a lot of work and training, Clint could pull it off. But does he really want to? Does the director want to mess with it when it is simply easier to cast Jack Black?
This is why we must really understand our voice and develop it accordingly. I LOVE thrillers, but I’m naturally a humor author. I find that I might love reading thrillers, but had a tough time writing them. I would get far too sidetracked with comedy that wasn’t appropriate for the character. Traditional “serious thrillers” are not a natural fit with my writing voice, which is why the novel I’m finishing has shifted to more of a Janet Evanovich style.
I made a mistake of believing that because I loved to read thrillers, that I should then write them. Yeah…um, no.
It took writing three “serious” thrillers that I was less than thrilled about (bada bump *snare*) to see what my true writing voice really was. My NF has been a success because I am true to my voice, whereas my fiction was good, it’s won contests, but it never felt…right. It didn’t have that connection that my NF did.
Yet, it is only because I wrote a lot that I figured this out. I experimented and I also gained CONFIDENCE to admit where I really needed to be writing. I was less prone to listen to what other people thought and decided to take my path. Take a thriller and then add in a sympathetic, funny character.
This is why writing and writing A LOT will reveal our true voice. We get time to try the genres we like and if they are a fit? Perfect! If not? We’ll see it sooner.
Voice and Empathy
I feel a HUGE part of voice is the ability to truly develop the ability to empathize. The more we study the human condition, the easier we can get in the head of a character. This is why reading fiction is so vital. By reading good fiction, we are essentially studying people through stories. This is why I can spot writers who don’t read.
Writers who read a lot of fiction are better writers. Ah, but want to get even BETTER?
Broaden the Palette
Read NF, particularly psychology and sociology books. The more we study people, the easier it is to empathize and it will also ring as authentic. Read body language books. Read history. Read as much as you can. Then get out of your comfort zone and live life. Take risks. I jumped out of an airplane (a few times), but, in retrospect, I could have probably taken a pottery class and been fine. LIVE, then bring that to your craft. Get out among people. Listen to them. Study them. Take part in the human condition.
If our voice is our art, then how many colors, shades, textures and tools do you want to bring to the table? Sure, we are free to finger-paint with three primary colors, but it will limit our art.
So, do you guys feel that you finally understand what voice is? Do you have questions? What are your thoughts? Your suggestions? Do you think people are born with their natural voice? Or do you feel life experience shapes voice? If we don’t have a voice can we develop one? Do you believe there are “tone deaf” writers who will never improve no matter how much teaching?
Share! I love hearing from you!
I LOVE hearing from you!
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