Remember what it was like to hear your voice recorded for the first time? I wrinkled my nose and thought, “Horrors! Is that me?” Somehow our skulls change the way we hear our own voices. It took me a while to get used to my voice the way others hear it. It also took me a while to realize it’s okay to sound different from any other singer or speaker I ever heard. In fact it’s not only okay, it’s good. My voice is uniquely mine.
Voice comes out in what we write, too, but the concept of written voice seems as hard to grasp as smoke. We can pin down plot, corral character development, size up scene and setting, but when it comes to voice – and style, its elusive twin – we have a hard time defining it. What is voice? How do you find it? Can you develop a voice?
Elizabeth Berg, a fantastic and experienced writer, defines voice as “the way you tell a story . . . the personality beneath the words, the current that runs through a story, the thing the reader must be able to believe in, and trust . . .” Trust is a big deal here. You gain the reader’s trust, because your voice, from the first page on, says, “Listen. This is real.” Even if the story is fiction, it’s believable, it feels like it could have happened, and it’s emotionally true. It sounds authentic. You gain the reader’s interest and trust with a voice that’s authentically yours.
Writer Mimi Schwartz says voice is created in “a mix of words, rhythms and attitude . . .” To me, rhythms belong to voice’s twin, style. Words are both (word choice = voice, syntax = style). But attitude, now that’s definitely voice. “We all have many voices with which to tell our stories,” says Schwarz. “All can be authentic in that they reveal honest responses to experience, but one usually feels more comfortable, truer.”
Okay, but how do you get voice into your novel? One way is to use specifics: specific nouns (not flower, but rose; not car, but Lexus; not lunch, but BLT), active verbs (not ran, but loped), specific details in descriptions, and unique metaphors (as tense as a harp string wound too tight). The specific details that you choose come from your voice. Even filtered through the eyes of your point of view character, they’re your details. Berg says, “. . . it’s your eye seeing and writing those details in the most natural way you can that means you are writing in your own voice.”
Don’t listen to your edit voice in the first draft, just write. “Get out of your own way and let the story happen,” says Berg. “Write a first draft quickly,” Schwartz advises. After the first draft, let the story sit and cool for a while. Then read it aloud. You’ll hear your written voice. If you stumble over a passage you’re reading, stop, look away, and say it out loud the way you would tell someone. In other words, in your own voice.
Recognizing your writing voice – and becoming comfortable with it – may take practice. I think that only in my third novel did I begin to relax enough to flow through the story in my own voice. In my first two novels the voice was a bit tense, because I was worried about doing it right. My voice is there, but I can tell it’s self-aware. As for my fourth novel, voice seems to be flowing even easier than in the third. It’s worth noting that the first three novels were third person fantasy. The fourth is a first person contemporary. The voices in the different genres are definitely different, but they are mine. In fact this blog is me in my voice, and you can tell, can’t you? Not only by the voice, but also by the style (which I’ll try to tackle next blog).
Voice “makes your work distinctive,” write Bayles and Orland in Art and Fear. And that’s a good thing. Perhaps the best advice comes from Elizabeth Berg: “I believe the most important thing about voice is to respect your own.”
Happy Reading! Happy Writing!
© 2013 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy morguefile.com