Ah, voice. The ever elusive and incredibly vague element 99% of literary agents say they’re looking for. Ella Marie Shupe once said in an interview, “a great first page with a compelling voice and sufficient atmosphere always stands out.”
But what exactly is voice and how important is it, really? To put it simply, a writer’s voice is their writing style. If writing a novel is like auditioning for a singing contest, then you are singing the same song (genre) as everyone else, and the judges (readers/publisher/agents) want to hear you perform that song in a fresh way.
Think of your favorite covers of popular songs. What makes you love it so much? It could be the instrument they chose, their emotional take on the song, their use of vocal runs, a change in tempo; all of these things are what make a singer stand out no matter how old the song is.
How do you strengthen your writing voice?
Read a lot.
Reading different authors and across different genres exposes you to different styles, which allows you to discover not only what you like and don’t like, but also what audiences like and don’t like. It’s very subjective, so focus only on what you enjoy and you’ll attract like-minded individuals.
Know why you want to write.
This will define your tone. What you write is your message to the world. Before knowing how to convey your message, you first need to know what that message is. Ask yourself what ideas are important to you. How do you want to inspire people? What do you want people to feel when they read your words and meet your characters? Then, put yourself in your audience’s shoes and ask yourself how you would want to receive this message. If you’d rather not have a message and simply want to write for fun, that’s fine too. It won’t resonate as significantly, but you should still consider how to best showcase yourself in a fun and enjoyable way.
Take a few minutes to do some self reflection. Write a list of 5-10 adjectives to describe yourself (and if you’re aren’t super vain like me, you can do 3-5 😅). Who you are as a person will inevitably seep out into your writing. This authenticity will attract your tribe.
Know your characters.
This will define your perspective. When we began writing Dawn of Endings, Matti and I were concerned about how our very different writing styles would work together. We felt it would end up sounding like a Frakensteined mess. In fact, one of the very first questions we asked our Alphas was “how consistent is the narrator’s voice?” We were surprised by the positive responses. No one though it sounded like two different people were telling the story.
After a bit of thought, we concluded it was because of how much time we spent talking about Arkin’s character. Every chance we had, we were dissecting what kind of personality he has: while cooking together, driving into town, before falling asleep, etc. We knew him so well, it became his story and not ours. For more on this, see our post on creating deep and consistent characters.
Showcase your character’s voice through Deep Point of View.
To find your character’s voice, you need to eliminate as much author intrusion as you can, and you do that through Deep Point of View. DPOV is a writing style which silences the narrative voice (i.e. you) and proverbially transports the reader directly into the character’s mind.
Sarah could hear her parents talking downstairs. “Do they know what happened last night?” she wondered.
It’s not terrible, but let’s see how it looks in DPOV:
The low murmur of her parents’ voices drifted into Sarah’s room. Did they know what happened last night? Their voices didn’t sound angry, so perhaps not.
All the information the readers needs is still there, but now the reader doesn’t feel the author’s presence. Instead of being told a story, the reader is invited to enter the story. When writing your POV character’s thoughts and observations, consider how a person would naturally think in their minds. Don’t tell your reader what Sarah is wondering, or noticing, or realizing, because who talks to themselves like that?
To use DPOV to enhance your writing style, think about how your character would describe things differently than you would. For example, if I was talking about the ocean from my perspective, I would focus on the warm sand in my toes, the soothing rhythm of the waves, the sunshine sparkling on the ocean’s surface.
Arkin, however, has spent weeks as an imprisoned slave on a small merchant ship sailing across the northern Atlantic. Naturally, his experiences would put his perspective of the sea in a very negative light. He would notice the biting winds, the smell of dead fish, the slimy sensation of seaweed.
Experiment with your prose.
This will define your style. Experiment with your sentence structure, your word choice, and your pacing. Discover the rhythm of your words, your sentences, and your paragraphs. Study different styles and techniques to find those that feel the most enthralling to you. As you experiment, read your work out loud to see how it sounds. Does it sound clunky or awkward at all? Tinker with it some more. Turning your prose into music will make your readers want to read the next sentence, then the next paragraph, then the next chapter and the next book.
Your writing voice will take years to hone. In fact, it will change and grow just as you will. Your ideals, your perspectives, your understanding of life will evolve and as a consequence, so will your voice. Embrace the process and show yourself grace.
How would you describe your writing voice? What tips do you have to help us discover and strengthen ours? Let us know in the comments below.