What is Voice?
Voice. It’s a mysterious word that freaks writers out. What is voice? How do I find my voice? Do I have enough voice?
Over my years at doing this writing thing, I’ve gotten some sense of what this means. It’s basically the style with which a writer writes. Like the flavor of how it sounds.
I will attempt an example. Here is a basic statement: It’s raining outside and my car windows are down.
Simple and clean. You know what’s happening, you can imagine why this might be a problem. Here are three different ways to present the same information, but the feel of each is different:
It started pouring and I jumped to my feet and ran to the door. My baby was getting wet!
The rain hit the roof in a twinkling symphony, and I glanced outside to see what I knew was true. The windows of my car—down.
I had known it was gonna start storming. Always does this time a year. I punched my hand into my palm. Left those pickup windows down. Again.
See the difference? Each one has its own personality. If you asked a roomful of people to describe the same event, no one would choose exactly the same words. That’s voice.
So how do you write with more voice? Well, basically, look for sentences that are dull and flat. Ones that just say a fact without adding any feeling. “It’s raining” versus “Heaven is crying.”
So Where’s Yours?
Here’s the good news. You already have a voice. The bad news? It may not be that interesting or prevalent. Think of someone who has a very calm, straightforward personality, versus someone colorful and exciting. Doesn’t it seem like someone with a bunch of energy has the volume turned up?
Would a child ever just say flatly, “It’s raining.” Nope. There’d be bouncing of feet, exclamations of “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” There’d be begging to play in the mud and dig for worms and splash in puddles. There’d be whining. There’d be tears for the missed whatever was supposed to happen that day. But there also might be the child who sits and quietly watches the drops fall into puddles and finds it fascinating. Whatever it is, annoying or endearing, loud or contemplative—it’s vivid and emotional. Children, the younger they are especially, are bursting with personality, and they don’t care who knows it.
This is what needs to happen in your writing. You must turn up the volume, add in some emotion and personality. And by emotion, I don’t mean: “He watched the rain leaking in his open car windows and felt sad.” I mean, “He watched the rain bead up on the car’s pristine cherry red hood. The windows were cracked enough to let the drops of water in and he imagined that was how his heart looked. Cracked open, nothing but cold and gloom getting in.” It’s that ever-constant bit of writing advice—show, don’t tell.
Finding Your Voice
I recently did an unintentional experiment in voice. I wrote a short story that I submitted to an anthology contest for horror stories with a gothic feel. My usual writing style is not what I would consider gothic. I love Poe, but I don’t write like him.
When I wrote this story, the tone and feel of it was so different from what I always write that it was much more difficult to write. It was more difficult to edit. Luckily, I had seven amazing beta readers to help me cull out the bull, but wow. If I wasn’t sure what my voice sounded like before, I have a much better clue now.
If you’re not sure about your own voice, try writing something in a specific style. Go for that old-worldly historical feel. Try something with snarky humor like Janet Evanovich or Christopher Moore. Try something clean and minimalistic like Raymond Carver or Junot Diaz. Go for action-packed and full of tension like Dean Koontz or Stephen King. Try it all!
Pay attention to what comes naturally and what feels like it takes immense effort to produce. Now, I was able to conjure a story which I felt confident enough to submit. But it was so much harder, that I never want to attempt writing outside of my natural voice again. It took the fun and joy out of writing.
This makes me wonder if this eternal question of “Is writing hard?” really just comes down to trying to write that which does not come naturally. If you are finding writing hard, shake it up a bit. Try everything until you find the thing that works best. Then, turn the volume up, and go!
In parts two and three, I’ll talk about the difference of a writer’s voice and a character’s voice, and how to work on bringing out your own style.