Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Voice

How important is it?  No, not the hugely popular American reality talent show we all know and love but the distinct personality of your story; the attitude you put onto the paper.  Voice is the persona that makes the reader fall in love with the story from the start.  It’s hard, if not impossible to describe, but you know it when you read it.  It’s the unique blend of description, character and style that makes your novel distinctive. 

It’s probably easier to say what voice is not.  It’s not the vocabulary you use, the fancy synonyms you find in your thesaurus, your mastery of grammar or your perfect punctuation.  It’s not the plot, the characters, or the setting.  Those can all be fixed, but the voice, the soul that brings it all to life, is the one element of your story that an editor, unfortunately, can’t fix for you.

Voice can’t be taught, but it is inside every writer and can be found through reflection, practice and maturity.  Just stop trying so hard.  Write it like you would say it.  Are your characters snarky, funny, poetic, trendy, sarcastic, dark, or super intelligent?  Don’t think too hard before you write.  Get it on paper and read it back aloud, you can edit it later. 

As literary agents, we are always looking for that great voice that is going to grab an editor’s attention.  You can have the most unique concept, the most creative plot but if the voice isn’t there we will never find out. 

Let’s look at a master.  Mr. Mark Twain, undeniably one of the most famous voices in literature. 

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunty Polly—Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is—and Mary, and the Widow Douglas, is all told about in that book—which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

This could just as well been written…..

You do not know anything about me if you have not read the book entitled “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that does not matter.  That book was written by the author Mark Twain….well you get the idea…..

This voice, written by Jodi Linton, recently grabbed us and is also grabbing the attention of quite a few editors.

Maybe it was bad luck or part of the good Lord’s divine plan. At any rate, I was one of the unfortunate two hundred that called Pistol Rock, Texas home. And today was panning out to be less peachy with each wad of donut Elroy Sampson shoveled down his grub hole. Ordinarily, I would have been smitten with the idea of no work. It just wasn’t good for my self-esteem or my waistline to be left with Elroy for an extended period of time. The station door burst open and stopped me dead in my lazy tracks.

That’s what we’re talking about.  So, how can you find your voice?  “Men With Pens” suggest the following exercises.  Try a few until you get in tune with your writing voice.

  1. Write from different personas.  Pretend you are a five year old, a master chef, a dog, a very unhappy consumer, a punk rocker, a teacher. Write at least 300 words in various voices.  Now pretend you are you or your main character.
  2. Write a love letter. Pretend that you’ve been twelve days at sea (or in prison), and you think you might never see your loved one again. Let this one go and pour yourself onto the page.
  3. Write to a friend. A good friend. Not a lover, not a mother, not an acquaintance, but someone you’d consider a solid best friend who knows you well and a person you’re 100% comfortable speaking with. Write 350 words to that person and tell him or her what you did last week.
  4. Write a letter to yourself. Talk to the person in you and let that person know something important.
  5. Sit down and write as your mood changes.
  6. Try writing in different environments.  A café, the park, the library, the book store, on the beach, because some writers respond differently to different eternal stimuli.

Let your voices out and allow the world get to know you through your writing.

Sharon Belcastro
Belcastro Agency


Christine Rains said...

Excellent post. Those are great exercises to practice voice. It's so important these days in a huge market.

Unknown said...

Very good post. I love what Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd have to say about voice in their book Good Prose:

The term 'voice' appears constantly in criticism today. Sometimes people use it interchangeably with 'style', but usually it is supposed to mean more, often nothing less than the writer's presence on the page. The term indeed may soon buckle under the weight it is asked to bear. Certainly it has become discomforting to hear writers speak about their own voices. You cannot, must not, try to design and create a voice. The creation of voice is the providential result of the writer's constant self-defining and self-refining inner dialogue. When it happens, let someone else tell you, and be grateful.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I suspect if we think too much about voice, we mess it up.

Cathrina Constantine said...

Great Post. I can definitely learn from it!! And superb voice from Jodi!!

Karen Duvall said...

Great advice! I once heard voice described as: "If style is a potato, voice is a french fry."

It took a few thousand words, and a couple of manuscripts, before I finally found my voice through my characters. They're the ones who brought it out of me, and I think it's because characters ARE story, so once you know them, the rest falls into place. At least that's how it worked for me. :)

What's really interesting is that since voice is inherent in a writer's personality, not every reader is going to fall in love with every author's voice, no matter how good the writing. That goes for agents and editors, too.