From the discussions I’ve had with other authors I know I’m not the only one who has struggled with the concept of voice, so today I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned.
The first time I heard the phrase “find your voice” while sitting amidst a crowd of aspiring authors at a writer’s conference I was stumped and an hour later I was still confused! Not because the published author standing in front of the room had failed, but rather because I couldn’t quite grasp the concept. It took many workshops, many hours of research and even more hours of writing before I finally had my AHA moment.
First my definition of voice. It’s where you fit comfortably, where the sentences flow. It’s that sweet spot that allows you to focus on nothing but telling the story. And if it’s done right, your writing will be as unique as a fingerprint.
For me, three elements were key: perspective, style and characters.
There’s never just one way to write a story, and a simple change from “she” to “I” can profoundly affect your scenes. First person for me was the most challenging, because the only thing you can describe is what your character experiences. I found it too confining, like a tight shirt, so I moved on. Omnipotent gave me the room to look down on a scene but it felt impersonal and I couldn’t really connect with my characters.
And then I found third person close-in, a perspective that allowed me to move from one character to another, sharing a character’s thoughts and experiences with the reader in each scene. The story flowed through those characters as though I could see them standing next to me. But it might work in reverse for you.
Take a scene and write it from different perspectives. You’ll naturally gravitate to one, but explore the others fully. I found that even my style differed as I moved from one perspective to another.
So let’s talk about style. The nature of your sentences – smooth, choppy, long, short. The kind of language you use – gritty, soft. Your style should match the genre, but beyond that everything is up for grabs. Some of the most interesting authors break the grammar rules, or they don’t follow the three act or story arc rules exactly. Don’t get me wrong, your story has to be readable and you shouldn’t ignore the good advice of your editor, but you also don’t need to sound exactly like everyone else. I also find that my style changes depending on my own mood, so I surround myself with dim lights and a playlist of “dark” music for murder scenes but I move to bright light and classical music for sleuthing scenes.
Description is a big part of style, and the advice I received was anything but consistent! Too many adjectives, too few. Too flowery, too blunt. But I realize now that how you paint a scene or describe a character is a little like a fingerprint, so every author’s approach should be unique.
Some authors gloss over details while others write long, detailed descriptions. Especially if you’re a new author, you’ll likely favour one extreme or the other. Read through what you believe are your strongest scenes. Do you gloss over the details or read every word? Try reading these same scenes aloud. Do you stumble over the descriptions or do they flow? You probably won’t feel any more comfortable writing loads of description if you don’t like to read it. But you have a job to do – your reader has to see the scene you imagine and you never want to have so much detail that it slows the story down. Don’t try to force yourself into a mold. If you prefer light details then strive to add a little more and vice-versa. The goal here is to balance your natural writing style against the reader’s need for detail.
Detail comes into play with your characters too, but here the focus is on showing personality through action, motive and dialogue. In our lifetimes we probably meet thousands of people and no two of the them are exactly the same and the characters in your story should be unique too. What kind of personalities most interest you? The criminal mind? The logical detective? This is where you’ll find your most memorable characters and perhaps a protagonist you love enough to include in another book. There’s much advice about writing what you know, but I believe it’s more important to write about what interests you.
I’m fascinated by science and intrigued by politics so these elements are woven into my stories. Geologist Alex Graham is an interesting character to me, someone I’d like to know in real life, so she’ll return in future books.
Finding a perspective and writing style that suits you and working with characters you sincerely enjoy will help steer you towards your voice. I have no doubt that it could take a lifetime to fine-tune my voice but I have a good start.