July 23rd, 2008
Voice–Do You Have One?

When I first started writing, one of my instructors suggested that I enter contests to get feedback. I thought it was a good idea, so I entered several (ie Daphne du Maurier, Orange Rose, The Molly, The Maggies, Brava, Harlequin, Finally a Bride, etc.). You get the picture. I wasn’t exactly a contest queen, but I was well on my way. Contests are addictive and fun, especially when you start to win/place. One of the things that came up repeatedly in the feedback was that I had a strong ‘voice’.

I have to admit at the time, I had NO IDEA what they were talking about. New writers are constantly reminded to find their voices. It’s hard to find things you don’t know are missing. 🙄 It’s also difficult to find something that’s nearly impossible to define. Voice is something a reader recognizes instinctively. It’s what makes bestselling authors. Sure skill comes into the picture, too. You have to know how to plot, pace, create settings and characters, etc. But voice is what readers really fall in love with when they’re reading. It’s ‘HOW’ you tell your stories.

Here’s the one thing no one ever tells you because the writer organizations don’t want to discourage anyone: You either have a writing voice or you don’t. Voice can’t be learned like other writing skills. It can be uncovered, but if there’s nothing there–there’s nothing there. Sucks, doesn’t it?

Let’s talk about uncovering ones voice. From a very early age I knew I wanted to write romance novels. I’d read dozens as a teen and loved them. Couldn’t imagine writing anything else because frankly, I’d never read anything else. And that was fine. I quite enjoy writing them (and reading them). What I didn’t anticipate was ‘finding my voice/uncovering my voice’ in another genre. I’d found my genre. I was happy in my genre. So why in the hell did I ‘sound’ so different, when I attempted these ‘new’ types of stories?

See, that’s the catch about voice. The other thing they don’t tell you when you’re starting out. You never know where you’ll uncover your true voice. The ONLY way to find it is by writing in every genre. And I mean EVERY genre.

The contest I entered the other day can give you some idea of how much my ‘voice’ changes, when I write in a different genre. I’ve placed the entry below for those of you who’ve read my other work. Not quite the same style of writing, is it?

The ghouls followed me just like I’d planned. They loped in the shadows, gangly limbs out of synch, taking care to stay away from the headlight beam. Everyone knows that nothing melts a ghoul faster than an H7 bulb. I’d puddled three on my way out of the diner parking lot.

The cycle roared beneath me, rattling my teeth as I shifted to gain speed. I’d considered everything when constructing my getaway plan–or so I thought, until I noticed the gas gauge French kissing empty. Damn ghouls had sucked it nearly dry, while I was inside wolfing down a cheeseburger. I’d passed the ‘Last Gas Station For Miles’ exit five road signs ago. Vegas was another fifty, not that I’d make it to the mecca of neon. It was as elusive as dawn at midnight.

Something gurgled loudly behind me. I didn’t look back. The sound was followed by similar rumbles. The fact that I could hear it over the air buzzing in my ears was a testament to the power of a ghoul’s digestive tract. They’d eaten a half dozen people back at the diner and they were still hungry. Talk about compulsive overeaters. With any luck, I’d give them all heartburn. The bike sputtered and choked, then gradually slowed, bringing my one-way ride down this ghoul highway to an end.

Bon appétit.

You’ll know you’ve found your voice when your writing jumps up a level. That’s a sure indication that you’re on the right track. Can your writing get better by learning more craft? Absolutely. But craft doesn’t mean squat, if you don’t have voice. I’ve read a lot of beautifully crafted stories. Some might say ‘perfectly’ crafted stories, but they fell flat because the writer had NO voice. You won’t know if you have a voice until you start writing in every genre (even the ones you hate).

I’ll leave you with one final piece of advice: Don’t fight your voice just because it doesn’t conform to what you think you should be writing. I’ve made that mistake. It’s painful and a very big waste of time.

If you have any questions, toss them in the comments and I’ll attempt to answer them. 🙂

15 comments to “Voice–Do You Have One?”

  1. Um. Yeah. No fighting voice, or where it wants to go… 😯

    I remember my first rejection letters mentioning my strong, original voice, and thinking, “Huh? I have a voice? What’s that?” I was so clueless.

  2. Charli, Nope, resisting is futile. *g*

    I was the same way when I got the contest comments back. I had no idea what they were talking about. 😆

  3. I remember the very first ‘real’ contest I entered. The one thing the editor who was judging told me was that my voice was “distinctive”. That, of course, was quickly followed by a rejection. 🙄

    And one thing I’ve always found interesting is that when you read reviews or readers’ comments, they rarely, if EVER, mention the author’s “voice”. They’ll talk about certain elements, maybe say they were “drawn in”, make remarks about plotting or tone or characterization, etc., but not the author’s “voice”.
    I wonder if it’s something that’s taken for granted, a part and parcel of how we feel about the book without pinpointing why?

  4. I don’t try to change my voice. I just whine about it. A lot. I figure that’s several steps above trying to change it but several steps away from where I should be.

    Raine, voice makes a writer for me. Nowadays, if I don’t love your voice, it’s a dark day in heaven before I pick up another book by you.

  5. So true Jordan. I recently realized big time about my voice and where it DOES NOT fit. It’s a bit of a slap in the face though especially when you’ve spent half your career so far trying to make a name in that genre.

    I now know where my voice fits. And that feels fantastic.

  6. I’ve never thought of ‘Writing Voice’ in quite that way; but it’s true. I could read passages from different books, and guess the author’s name a high percentage of the time if I’ve read a few of their novels and liked them.

  7. Raine, Sometimes ‘distinctive’ works in your favor and sometimes it doesn’t. In that case, it’s more a matter of getting your work in front of the editor that digs distinctive work. I know, easier said than done.

    As for the reader being able to identify voice, I’m not sure it’s a matter of taking something for granted as much as it being something that they instinctively recognize. It’s what draws them into a story, care about the characters, makes them lose track of time. When the ‘voice’ doesn’t work, many readers say things like ‘the story didn’t resonate with me’ or ‘I couldn’t relate to the characters’ or ‘I didn’t care about the characters’ or ‘I wasn’t sucked into the story’. All these things are affected by the author’s voice. Could there be problems with the plot or under-developed characters? Sure, but readers let those things slide if they’re taken in by the story (the author’s voice).

  8. May, Voice is VERY hard to change. You can hone it, but I doubt very much if you can ‘change’ it. It’s who you are and how you tell stories.

    I’m very picky when it comes to first person voice. It has to be just so or I don’t buy the book.

  9. Vivi, (((Hugs))) I’m still trying to find the genre/s my voice is suited for. It’s difficult. But like I said in the post, ‘Don’t fight your voice just because it doesn’t conform to what you think you should be writing’. It only causes pain.

    I’m glad you’ve found where your voice shines. 🙂 I’m sure it’s a HUGE relief. I think I might have found the genre/s, but I still have one more thing to try to write before I have a definitive answer. Hang in there.

  10. Bernard, Exactly. Some authors have that distinctive of a voice.

  11. I remember being told to find my voice in writing classes and seminars. I’ve learned that, for me, the best way to truly reveal my voice was to not focus on it. In the sense of “trying” to write in a certain way. When I just focus on writing the story, my voice comes out naturally. 🙂

  12. Hard to say what voice is. I guess for me, it’s the sense that what you are reading is distinct from anything else you’ve ever read. Some phantom quality that’s hard to define, but makes the writing unique, consistent, and comfortable.

  13. Cherlyn, I think that’s great that you figured that out on your own. I had to try many different styles of writing before my first started to emerge. Stephen King talks about doing that in his book, On Writing. A lot of writers start out by imitating their favorite authors, then eventually morph into their own style/voice.

  14. Jason, I agree, voice is what makes the writing unique. Voice is hard to define, but really easy to recognize when you’re reading. I still believe it’s ‘how’ a story is told.

  15. […] Summers recently wrote about uncovering one’s writing voice, saying: Voice is something a reader recognizes instinctively. […]