A few years ago, the editors at Harlequin posted a list of the top 10 reasons why they reject manuscripts. In second place they listed lack of a distinct voice. Of all the items on the list, that’s the most difficult issue in a novel to identify or to fix. Editing can fill plot holes, add more character motivation, improve pacing, or replace Telling with Showing, but editing isn’t enough to add voice to work that doesn’t have it.
What is this elusive thing called ‘voice’ anyway?
Some people describe voice as the author’s writing style, but it’s so much more than that. In the same way that our spoken voices have a unique sound, our written voices also sound distinctive.
Our ‘voice’ is the uniqueness we bring to our work, from our word choices, our themes, our imperfections, to our values and view of the world.
It’s an intangible quality that is incredibly hard to put into words, but an editor instinctively knows when an author has it and when they don’t.
Read the following two excerpts and you’ll immediately recognize that the authors have strong and very distinctive voices. Both are descriptive paragraphs and yet they are worlds apart in everything from style to vocabulary to tone.
Frances Mayes, Every Day in Tuscany:
From a distance, turreted Urbino looks like a town created by a clever six-year-old from architectural blocks bought by indulgent grandparents. Dome towers, campanile, and stacked buildings of golden brick layer and rise as you approach by an upwardly swooping road.
Janet Evanovich, Two for the Dough:
Grandma Mazur was seventy-two and didn’t look a day over ninety. I loved her dearly, but when you got her down to her skivvies, she resembled a soup chicken. Tonight’s dress was a fire-engine-red shirt-waist with shiny gold buttons.
“It’s perfect,” I told her. Especially for the funeral home which would be cataract central.
As a reader, a strong voice can make you feel as if the author is right there beside you, as if they’re telling you this story over a cappuccino and a slice of cake in your favorite coffee shop. It’s deceptively simple, because as easy and natural as it seems, it can take years – and hundreds of thousands of words – to hone this skill.
But if you’re anything like me, you’re impatient and don’t want to take years and thousands of words to hone the skill. We want it NOW. So what can we do to develop our own unique voices? Before I answer that question, I’m going to give you an analogy.
Voice is a lot like dating.
When you first start dating, you want to impress your new date. You dress up. If you’re a woman, you put on make-up and style your hair. If you’re a man, you might shave or put on cologne. You splurge a little on going to a really nice restaurant, where you’re on your best behavior, careful not to say or do anything that might make the other person not like you. But unless if you’re not the kind of person who oozes confidence, or the kind who doesn’t give a damn whether your date likes you or not, then being on our best behavior can lead to awkwardness, to stilted conversation and tension. Too often, if we don’t “gel” with our date, we find it impossible to relax and be ourselves, and if that awkwardness persists we part ways without arranging a second date.
That’s how most of us writers begin our writing journeys. Our first manuscripts are us on our best behavior, following the rules of writing, being careful with our grammar, and writing in ways that we think will make editors or agents like us. Often beginner writers imitate the styles of their favorite authors, or the big names in their genres, rather than simply being themselves. The result is work that’s stilted and unnatural, or just simply bland. It doesn’t showcase our true selves and as a result editors and agents don’t ask for a second date.
In the same way that it takes time to relax into a relationship, it takes time to warm up to our writing, to get to the point where we’re comfortable just to be ourselves; to go out for squelchy burgers wearing jeans and without make-up. We need to get comfortable enough with our writing that we can say what we think, and laugh even if it means we make that funny sorting noise we try so hard to hide on the first date. When we get to that stage in our writing, we’ve found that elusive ‘voice’.
For most of us, revealing ourselves through our writing takes a confidence we don’t yet have. It requires being brutally honest, with both ourselves and our readers, in a way that is both scary and liberating. In the beginning, we’re very conscious that someone will be reading, and possibly judging, our work, and it takes practice to grow that confidence.
So how do we achieve this?
As Stephen King says, “The best way to develop your writer’s voice is to read a lot. And write a lot.” The more we write, the more comfortable we get with what we’re writing.
10 Tips for developing our voices:
- Start with a solid foundation in the basics (grammar, vocabulary, punctuation)
- Free writing exercises
- Identify the genre that best fits our voices
- Write what we know and what is important to us
- Avoid imitating other authors; be original
- Write from the heart
- Write for ourselves
- Challenge ourselves, push boundaries
- Concentrate on the story we’re telling rather than how we’re saying it
- Understand that your voice can change and grow as you change and grow
Developing our voice is largely mental, and that’s why it’s so hard to teach. It involves getting comfortable with ourselves, following our passions, developing confidence (or at least faking it), and writing as if no one else will ever read our writing. It is absolutely worth the time and effort, but if you’d like a helping hand to hone yours, consider signing up for my course on Savvy Authors. Over a period of two weeks we’ll not only learn a little more about authorial voice, but we’ll also do some fun exercises and a little soul searching, as we take the awkwardness out of our writing so that editors and agents (and readers) are begging for a second date.
“Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say.” – Barbara Kingsolver
Love this? Check out Romy’s class starting March 23:
My Best Friend’s Royal Wedding by Romy Sommer
Cocktail waitress Khara Thomas never expected to trade the dazzling lights of Vegas for European aristocracy but as maid of honour in the royal wedding of the decade she’s forced into an unexpected spotlight when her best friend marries a prince.
Luckily for Khara, gorgeous but infuriating best man Adam Hatton is happy to show her the ropes. Khara knows Adam’s entitled rich guy type but as their connection grows she realises there’s more to this playboy than meets the eye. And when she learns his royal secret? She might just find that fairytales do come true…