synthroid kidney

Voice, Loud and Clear

So, voice is the number one thing that separates the published from the unpublished and, after that, the good books from the mediocre ones. The most successful writers in kidlit these days have undeniable voice. One way people describe voice is that, if you pick up a book without seeing the title or cover, and start reading, you’ll be able to guess who the author is. Sure. That’s what I like to call “authorial voice” and it’s important. But if you’re just starting out or you’ve only completed one or two projects, your authorial voice is still developing. So that explanation of voice isn’t satisfying enough, in my opinion.

How else can we define voice? Where does it come from? I want to argue that it comes from character. And since a lot of main characters are thinly-veiled versions of the author, this means the character’s voice shares a lot of elements with the author’s own voice. Two birds with one stone! What do I mean by “the character’s voice”? Well, if you remember, a character should be as fleshed-out and vibrant as a real human being. They should have their own favorite words that they use (not necessarily slang, people, that’s the cheap and superficial way to do it!), their own way of speaking, their own way of describing things, their own way of seeing the world.

If you want to experiment with voice, or if people keep telling you that your voice didn’t hook them enough or wasn’t enough for them to make a connection, I would seriously try writing in the first person. That’s where you can see the effects of voice most easily and immediately. There are a lot of great authors who write with a lot of voice in close 3rd or omniscient 3rd, but it is much more challenging. Either way, let me explain voice in the context of a character.

I said in my post about imagery and description that theme is like a lens… something everything else in your manuscript is filtered through. This idea holds even more true for voice. You need to figure out who your main character is and then see the world through their eyes. Use the words that they would use. Describe things with that character’s particular slant. Here are two ways of describing the exact same thing: a green couch. First: “It was a moss-green item of furniture that could fit four people.” Second: “The lumpy old raft of a couch was baby-poop-green and threatening to make me sick. After all, it was jammed with my three least-favorite people: Uncle Mordy, Aunt Mildred, and my lech cousin Kenny. Oh yeah… and me.”

That is in a character’s unique voice. Aunt Mildred might’ve described the couch in a completely different way, because she happens to watch a lot of Martha Stewart, or whatever. And we still get the information that the couch is green and fits four people. But we get it through a special filter. Just like we’re learning something about a manuscript’s theme through the writer’s use of imagery and description, we should also be learning about the character through the voice.

Voice also circles back to word and verb choice. Boring words that sound like they’re out of a business memo or that are too adult and drab for the kidlit audience are the bane of my existence. Words that are stilted or businesslike, like “objective,” “achieve,” “vehicle” (instead of “car”), “communicate,” “item,” “object,” even general words like “beautiful,” “exciting,” “dangerous,” mean nothing. That’s because they lack voice. And a reader isn’t going to respond to them and get engaged in the material. Two paragraphs above, I used the verb “jammed” instead of the more static “sat” or “reclined” or “rested” or even “was stuck” because it’s active, it fires up the imagination. And it fits the mood and tone of the situation I’m describing.

Some people liken voice to almost “hearing” the character whispering the story into your ear as you read. That’s a nice way of thinking about it, if it helps you. I think voice is equal to the life in your character. Pitch-perfect word choices create voice and define character. A well-defined, unique character generates voice. The two are in a constant feedback loop. And the same is true for 3rd person, only it’s really the narrator’s voice that shines through here. Depending on how far removed your narrator is from the story, you can either make the voice a really big part of the tale, like Adrienne Kress (Read a quick review from the holiday gift guide) does in her books, or you can be more distant. Whether your voice is outrageous and brash, as in the example above, or a little more subdued, like your average 3rd person narrator, it still needs to be carefully crafted, word by word, so that its unique essence comes through on every page.

And that’s a huge challenge. I can tell you honestly that the books which I choose to represent all have voice. 99.99% of what comes in to me might not be “bad.” It might even be “pretty good.” There may be nothing technically wrong with the writing, either. But the voice will be lacking, and that’s really the “x-factor.” It’s usually the last thing to fall into place for a writer as they wade through their Million Bad Words. It’s when you’re proficient at all the other writing tricks and tools that you really feel like you can play around and experiment and play Frankenstein… create a living, breathing thing on the page.

But the only way to get there is to write and study writers who have great voice, like Laurie Halse Anderson and David Levithan, Carrie Jones and Frank Portman, Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) and M.T. Anderson. Meg Cabot (Yes, even her! Some people find her sugary energy grating, but that’s why so many people love her!) and J.K. Rowling. If you want to read an adult book (Gasp! Heresy! And on KIDlit.com, of all places!), I would seriously recommend THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz. That is voice heaped on top of voice and piled with even more voice and slathered with a heaping scoop of voice to make a delicious voice sandwich. It’s the only adult book I’ve read this year (how awesome is that?) and I read it twice.

One thing that works for me sometimes is speaking the story into a pocket recording device and transcribing it later. The first stories that people told each other were oral histories around the campfire. This was long before the Bible and the printing press. Composing your story to yourself aloud helps open up creative channels you’re not used to using, helps you improvise, forces you to get a little hammy and act it out. It also reminds you to use a unique voice (yours!) and that you’re, at the end of the day, telling a story. Write a whole book that way or just try a chapter. It’s worth a shot.

Tags: , , ,

  1. Jess Morrison’s avatar

    This is easily one of the most helpful descriptions of voice that I’ve read – fantastic post, Mary! Great insight and tips – it really helped to rein in that elusive feature that we all try so hard to achieve. Thanks for posting, I’m off to work on those million words again… =)
    Happy Holidays!

  2. Kristi’s avatar

    This is my favorite post of yours yet – and they’ve all been great! Voice is what grabs me most and makes me want to read a book. Although my ms is finished, I’m now reading it aloud to check the voice and I agree that the act of speaking the story helps to improve it. Happy holidays :)

  3. Stina’s avatar

    I’ve been dying to read a post on this subject. The problem with voice, like everything, is that it’s subjective. One person may think you have a great voice and someone else thinks it’s slightly awkward. Then you’re left with the question of whether you should try to “fix” it, or listen to the first person. And what if the first person is wrong. Or maybe the second person didn’t get why the character is awkward, and hence so is the voice. Very frustrating.

  4. Brandi’s avatar

    This is fantastic post!

    I just made the comment to someone the other day, that I literally “channel” my mc when I write. She didn’t quite understand what I meant, so I explained to her that as I write, I truly become the character…so much so that I’ll cry, laugh, or get ticked off when she does.

    I know everyone has their own process, but this is the way I’ve found to help me pull out my true voice. I guess channeling my inner 19-year old girl wasn’t so tough…but my next project could prove to be. I’ve gotta dig deep to find my inner 16-year old BOY! Ha-ha, YIKES!

    Thanks again for another educational post. I think I’ve learned more from you in the last 2 months, than I’ve learned anywhere else.

    Thanks Mary!

    :o)

  5. Shaun Hutchinson’s avatar

    This is a really fantastic post. It’s difficult to write about something so subjective. One of the things I do when I’m work on the voice of a story, is to completely inhabit my character. Even in third person, when I write, I’m not writing as me, I’m writing as my character. I find that really allows me to get rid of my inhibitions and just write.

    Happy Holidays!

  6. Lynn Rush’s avatar

    Great post. I agree with you when you say,”…”hearing” the character whispering the story into your ear as you read.”

    So true. Those are the books I really relate to as a reader too.

    So far, this is the best description of voice I’ve read. It’s been hard for me to understand it and your post has helped me a lot.

  7. Mary’s avatar

    Brandi and Shaun — “Channeling” and “inhabiting” are both good metaphors for really writing inside a character’s head.

  8. Theresa Milstein’s avatar

    At some point during the editing process, I read my manuscripts aloud to check for awkward places, stilted dialogue, and voice. I’m terrible at accents, but I hear each character speaking as I write, as well as when I say his or her words.

    It gets more complex as I shift the character’s speech to match his or her audience. I’ve noticed that when I speak to people from home, my New York accent and speech patterns spill right out of my mouth. Normally, I hear a hint of it when I speak to non-New Yorkers. I like my characters to reflect that change in communication.

    I hope my “voice” shines through in my manuscripts.

  9. Bane’s avatar

    I think authorial voice is much harder than character voice. Creating character voice can be as simple as creating a caricature of a person and adding layers to bring them slightly back toward the norm (although carrying this off effectively for an entire novel can be difficult unless you can inhabit the character enough).

    If you can master the authorial voice, you’re golden. If the character voice, there’s the danger of becoming repetitive/stilted (e.g., Stephen King – great on both fronts, but his character voice is too similar in many of his books, IMO).

  10. Mary’s avatar

    Bane — Great point. And one of the reasons why I didn’t dare elaborate on authorial voice. But a lot of the readers here might not be concerned with authorial voice at this point, so I’ll probably address it later, but not right this second.

  11. Mary’s avatar

    Theresa — Reading manuscripts aloud is an amazing revision trick, and one I’m including in my roundup of exercises and techniques for the end of Revision-o-Rama.

  12. Anita’s avatar

    Thank you for clarifying voice! I knew I had to improve upon it. I think I try too hard to write “well” and then my voice gets lost somewhere in the prose. I especially like your suggestion to compose the story aloud. I have long commutes to work. Telling stories to myself in the car will make it far more interesting. Happy Holidays!

  13. Tracy Clark’s avatar

    Thanks again, Mary for another great post. (I was even reading them in the hotel room at Disneyland…addictive and informative!)

    I remember being very nervous about this ‘voice’ thing when I first started out. It seemed it was one of those things you either had or didn’t, like some undefinable-x-factor-star quality that only a select few possess. Now, I know that it can be cultivated using methods you described so well and of course, writing and more writing.

    Thanks again for a great post! Wishing you a wonderful holiday and New Year!

  14. Jackee’s avatar

    Yay! I got my voice post! And truthfully it’s the most helpful one I’ve ever seen because you break it down into author and character types. That always gets confusing.

    And you’re right, my WIP is 1st person and is much easier to get inside the MC’s head than a close 3rd person does, like my other books.

    Now I can’t wait to incorporate your advice into my writing.

  15. Karen Cioffi’s avatar

    Amazing description of voice. I’ve never seen it explained so well. And, using a recorder to create your story aloud is a great idea.

    My 3 yr old grandson asks me to tell him stories all the time and I create them on the fly, not knowing what will happen after I say each sentence. I think this strategy could help with the creative juices.

    Thank you!

  16. Stina’s avatar

    I read some great advice once on reading your dialogue out loud (I can’t remember, though, which book it was in.). You cut out everything but the dialogue, and read it out loud. It’s amazing how great your dialogue sounds with all the descriptors and tags attached, but when your take them out, you can hear where the dialogue doesn’t flow or sound authentic. And if you can’t tell which character said what, then you know it’s time to do some editing.

  17. Bryan Bliss’s avatar

    Now that I’m finished with revising, I feel like I can comment without feeling guilty…

    That said, I think Tim Tharp (The Spectacular Now, Kings of Hill Country) is a good example of excellent voice.

  18. jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    This is corny, but my brain likes mnemonics. For voice, I think of “Please Tell Me Who’s Speaking.” P is for POV, T is for Tense, M is for Mix of dialogue and narrative, W is for Word choice, and S is for sentence structure.

    When I notice an author’s distinctive voice, one or more of those elements is usually in play.

    This year, I’m really trying to help my students at school understand the concept of writing voice. Your post will help me help them. Thanks!

  19. Sharon Kirk Clifton’s avatar

    I just discovered your blog, thanks to Chuck Sambuchino on the “Guide to Literary Agents” editor’s blog, and I love it. I feel as though I were back in college–better yet, as if I were earning my MFA. Thank you for your excellent articles. This writer of middle-grade fiction will stop by often.

  20. Gayleen Rabakukk’s avatar

    Thanks for Revision-o-Rama! Your posts have provided me with a great guidebook for the revision process. And so timely – I just finished the first draft of a YA historical mystery and I’d been looking for a more analytical approach to the revision process than just willy-nilly making changes here and there. Now I have a roadmap that I hope will make the trip a little more enjoyable.

  21. Terresa Wellborn’s avatar

    The Brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao sounds like a gem.

    PS: My husband and I do storytelling to our children during our night time ritual teeth-brushing. It helps us flesh out our stories and our audience is always hungry for more.

  22. Monica Ropal’s avatar

    Meg Cabot taught me sooo much about voice and gave me permission to “ramble” in a way I never would have. Some of it gets paired down later, but it’s a great exercise to find the voice of the character.
    E. Lockhart is also great for YA voice.
    Thanks!

  23. Abigail’s avatar

    Kudos to you for tackling such a tough subject! I found this post very helpful. Another way I’ve heard a unique voice described is someone saying something in a way that no one else says it. I’m glad I’ve come across your blog – it’s very helpful in a practical way.

    Abigail

  24. Amna’s avatar

    I think that sometimes voice can either make or break the book, especially in YA. That’s why its important in perfecting your voice while editing. I think the best way to improve your voice is through practise and reading!

    All of Revision-o-Rama posts have been wonderful. Thank you Mary!

  25. Leslie Creek’s avatar

    A Million Bad Words? Guess I have a few hundre thousand more to go! Voice is the element of my writing I concern myself with most. Characters come across as genuine only when their voice is genuine and since my work is character driven, their voices must be clear. Still, a million bad words? Let me get out of here and get back to work…635,925 and counting.

  26. Kathi Sprayberry’s avatar

    Love your take on voice. It’s sometimes very hard to find the character’s voice during the first revision or two or ten but I’ve found by reading aloud (advice I give folks in my crit groups) I can find the character’s voice and give them one that’s unique to everyone else’s. Your blog has helped me in so many ways and I’m happy to have found it.

  27. Joy’s avatar

    Great article on voice, which is so hard to define, even harder to write! I found writing in first person really helped me find the voice of my characters. Now they whisper in my ear while I write.

  28. Renee Field’s avatar

    I liked the voice article. I think every author is different. Some master 1st person and that works but I also find that as a reader I tend to like the 3rd person and most of my writing is written in 3rd person.

  29. Adrian’s avatar

    It’s great to have such clear thoughts on various aspects of writing. The suggestion of trying something in first person is also a great one.

    Your time and effort on this are much appreciated! :)

  30. Sarah D.’s avatar

    Voice is a tricky one. I’m still in the process of finding mine. But as I write more and more as an aspiring author, I think I’m finding it, slowly. Example. A while back my mom read my blog and some of my book. She kept going on and on about how much she liked my blog. (Meanwhile, I’m like no! you’re supposed to like my book) She said she liked my blog so much because there was so much of me in it. Meaning, when she read it she knew without a doubt I wrote it. She didn’t get that same feeling from my book. Since she told me, I try to write as…maybe the word is freely…freely in my manuscript as I do in my blog.

    Also, once a critique partner said to me. (kind of the same thing as my mom) Sometimes you write and it sound like you’re trying to be a writer and other times you write and you sound like you. I like the sound like you part better.

  31. Sarah D.’s avatar

    Now, for my question. That last comment being said, I think I’ve started to get a good grip on my voice as a writer. I write in 1st person. My main character is that thinly-coated version of me. How do I make my other characters different? That’s the hardest part (I think.) I try to keep special phrases to each. But beyond that I feel like it’s still a story of 20 me’s.

  32. Mackenzie’s avatar

    hi:)

  33. Janie Bill’s avatar

    Voice is hard. We all have one and know in our ego-based hearts that it really means, dread, we might not be as likeable on paper as we were at prom.

  34. Catherine Johnson’s avatar

    Right I’m going off to get a little bit hammy then. Thanks Mary!

  35. K. R. Bailey’s avatar

    Loved your post about voice. I keep hearing about it, but no one has been able to explain it so well. Thank you.

  36. Krishna bhatt’s avatar

    Yes. It is always voice which matters. A few paragraphs are enough to find out if something is new.

Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>