VOICE, the Dealbreaker
Voice is tricky. And it’s been confusing for me. But, it is actually quite simple, at least to understand. Just not so easy to write effectively.
Voice is speaking when you actually talk. Voice is the words on the page when you write. How well or poorly or distinctively you speak can be likened to how well or poorly or distinctively you write. As one acquires spoken language over time then engages according to what and how that language is learned so too with one’s writing voice. Your voice is inextricably bound with you as a person. To be quite clear, your writing voice is not necessarily how you speak when conversing. It is how you put the words on the page, how you convey your characters – each with their own voice – and how you pull together all the elements of writing. That creates your writing voice.
Often one may try to mimic another writer, write in his or her style. But style is not voice. You may succeed up to a point but that inextricable element that is you will pervade. At least, that is what I understand about voice.
Amongst the many things I’m still sifting through from the Writers Retreat I went to in April is VOICE. Here are 6 key points I took away.
Six key points
- ‘Voice is the deal breaker’. Publishers will work with plot, character, pacing and so on, but without a distinctive VOICE a manuscript will be rejected
- Voice is ‘the thing that lures the reader in’ like the mythological sirens singing you in. It is ‘when the story sings and the page falls away’. It is what makes you believe the story.
- Voice is the author’s point of view of the world, not necessarily the characters unless you are writing in the first person, then the two become one. When writing in the third person characters have their own voice and the story itself has its own voice.
- Point of view is ‘who’ is speaking while voice is ‘how’ they speak. For me, this clarifies the whole ‘issue’ of ‘what is voice’. Teasing apart ‘how the characters or how you (as narrator) say, or speak, or present yourself to the reader – hence how you or I (the writer) create dialogue, scenes, settings, – everything – is voice! HOW is crucial.
- Voice is part of the texture of your writing. There are ‘things within my writing’ ie components, that are my voice. These components are not tricks of language but constitute the texture of my writing.
- Question: How do I find my voice? Answer: Write a number of pieces until my voice is there. Tricky! I’ve not yet grasped what it is that has to ‘be there’! So, even when I do write the pieces I won’t know if I’ve ‘found my voice’. What am I looking to find? What do I need to hear viz. read?
Making sense of VOICE
When I speak, voice is integral to who I am. For example, if I am going for a job interview my presentation is a key to my success. I dress accordingly, I make sure my interview technique is up to scratch, I have my knowledge base at my fingertips, I speak in a certain manner. My presentation of the whole of me, in that setting, carries me – it is me speaking to the world (those interviewing me). Some may argue this is my style. But I’d present myself differently at a back yard barbecue. The sum of the whole is my style. The words I speak in a certain manner are my voice. The two are inextricably intertwined.
In a similar manner, voice is integral to my writing. Voice is me on the page. All the knowledge that I bring to writing my story – whether a short story or novel of any genre – every single word captures an element of my voice. It is me speaking to the world (my readers). One cannot write without a voice.
Voice can be strong or weak. The essential element it seems, is how refined or attuned one’s writing is, how well one has mastered a storyteller’s voice. All the aspects of storytelling confine, restrict, contain and ultimately set free voice into a finely tuned piece.
What one writes needs to carry the reader into another world. It is just simply there, but it can also be crafted. Just like we see some people in real life who are more persuasive, stronger personalities, so too can voice be strong and persuasive or weak and uninteresting. Behind the writing lies a multitude of components that need to be mastered in order for voice to become stronger.
Voice is there irrespective. I’ve often heard it said that you can’t write a story and look for voice but you can write a story and let your voice speak. For a long time I found that statement elusive. I realised that while I believe I instinctively understood voice, teasing it apart became necessary to enable me to develop it. For voice to be a deal breaker, one can attune one’s writing by careful choice and manipulation of words in order for (your) voice to be(come) stronger. To do this, all the essential components of writing a story come into play.
What are those essential elements?
1. Tone and Voice
Tone alone is not voice, but it is a component. Is my tone formal or informal? I know mine is more formal as a rule, but when it comes to writing a character in a story, I may adopt an informal tone, or a dialect or whatever type of dialogue suits that character. This creates a greater sense of intimacy between me as the narrator of my story and my reader. The degree of intimacy is reflected in my choice of words, my language.
Sometimes tone may create distance and the reader may be merely an observer. Yet the sense of connectedness with the reader is essential. To be truly successful with this component I need to get right in the head of my characters and convey that to my reader.
There is a difference though to being in all the character’s heads at once, and keeping the narrative point of view.
2. Voice and Language
Elements of language that influence voice are best captured in describing the writing. Is it prosaic, lyrical, spare, unadorned, conversational?
- Sentence length and punctuation Does the body of the text tend to be in shorter or longer sentences; is it clipped or flowing? I have a tendency to write very long sentences. To write differently would mean I’d never even get a draft onto the page. So the best advice I’ve received to date is to just write and when it comes to editing, that’s when I put in the semi colons, commas and full stops!
3. Voice and atmospherics
When your reader feels lost in the world of your story, when the page falls away and the reader is immersed you’ve created atmosphere. That is part of voice. Use of language – words – produces a predominant mood or impression. I liken this to the choice of colours in an oil painting. Dark, sombre shades evoke a certain mood, create an atmosphere.
4. Figurative Language
Any figurative language is useful in building voice. Figurative language assists in making the created world more real. Similes and metaphors can create fresh, unusual, concrete, visual images.
- Similes and metaphors and the five senses
Each scene is enriched when one or more of the five senses are used. Writing sight, touch, taste, smell and sound into metaphors and similes engages the reader. An exercise at the retreat required us to choose a scene we were familiar with. We then listed five items against each sense and created up to 15 similes from those lists. Believe me, they got crazy, but it stretched our imagination and created a unique – yes, – you got it – voice.
- Bird’s Eye View
This perspective enables the narrator to inject description. Engage the five senses. Being objective to the whole scene enables aspects to be written in what might elude a restricted viewpoint. For example, if I write a scene about a classroom after morning break I might see it as the teacher from the front of the room, looking at restless children gathering materials for the next lesson. From a bird’s eye perspective I see the teacher as well, poised, ready for delivery. As an exercise at the retreat this was expanded to engage descriptors using the five senses.
How do you keep developing voice?
1. Read widely
I find this the most simple and accessible tool to developing voice. By reading widely I engage with different author’s ways of putting words on the page. When a passage captures my attention I take note. These snippets are then available to be analysed and some may become writing prompts. I especially find audiobooks useful. For me, listening increases the awareness of elements and how they contributed to the author’s voice.
2. Write a lot
- I like to –
- use my own work to write practice pieces.
- select from passages of interest and write.
- keep an intermittent journal.
- experiment with writing and often write over these pieces (my equivalent to throwing away).
- try writing different styles that I know are not my thing. I happily throw those away. But I find them useful in developing my preferred voice.
3. Have fun
Apparently you can’t force it (voice). You need to tease it out. For me I like to hang these words of advice together – as I deliberately focus on developing a strong voice.
How do you keep a consistent voice in a current piece of writing?
This is crucial for me. When I began writing my first novel I wrote several scenes without referring to what had gone before. The upshot was inconsistency. To overcome this I now read a piece of what I’m currently writing before starting to write for the day. I know one author who reads the last paragraph she wrote before writing, a useful tip. Of course, I try not to get caught up in editing! I focus on getting a sense of continuity. If the voice I want is not happening, I’ll grab a practice piece or another section of the story and write from that.
I end as I began. Voice is tricky for me. I let my understanding of it hinder my writing because I feel I haven’t fully grasped its meaning. And the measure I have grasped tells me I have a long way to go in creating a strong voice. In that, I hear the writer’s dilemma, wherein self-doubt erases the words before they even hit the page. I am cautious about posting this in case I’ve missed the mark!
I would like your feedback. Do you think I understand voice? If so, what is your key in creating a strong voice?