May 30, 2012

Say What You Mean To Say-Finding Your Voice






I've been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to have a unique voice as a writer. Mainly because (in my opinion) nailing voice seems to be the key to going from being an unpublished author to a published one. Often, especially while I was trying to find an agent, I would read lots of posts about voice and try to decipher what it meant. It is the one thing agents always talk about--finding a manuscript where the author has a unique voice--and I figured it was my ticket to finally clearing that first hurdle. If I could define it, then I could hopefully one day be published. But I think out of all the writerly things I've tried to educate myself on, this one is the hardest to pin down. Most of the articles, posts and books that I've read on voice have been somewhat vague. So, for what it's worth, I'm going to attempt to try to define it in my own way (the way that finally made sense to me) and hopefully it'll resonate with some of you who are trying to find your writer voice as well.

I think that a writer's voice is the individualized way that she ( I use she because I am one) uses language in combination with storytelling. It is a particular technique she has of describing a setting, scene, character, or situation that is unique to her and that with lots of practice, begins to come naturally. It involves how that writer strings together connections between seemingly unrelated things and then uses those connections to make new and original metaphors and similes in her own work. It's how she uses rhythm in language and tone and mood. In other words, it's the way that she arranges all of her craft skills within her writing toolbox. She takes all the do's and don'ts taught by others more seasoned than herself and assimilates them to the point where she is able to break them when it serves her and the story (and knows when this is appropriate) and is able to create something new, fresh, and engaging.


SO WHAT EXACTLY DO I MEAN?


In simpler terms: it's all about figuring out how to say what you mean to say in a way that only you can say it. It's that simple...and that hard. This can take months or years--the journey is different for each of us, but rest assured, when you begin to find your voice, you'll know it because people will say things like: I knew you wrote that, it sounded like you. But how do you find your voice if you're just starting out and have no idea where to look?

1. You read, read, read, read, READ!!! Your voice will be a blending of lots of other authors voices that inspire you combined with your own very individual set of experiences and perceptions. The more widely you read-across genres, age levels, etc, the more eclectic and unique your voice. I read lots of yound adult fiction, but I also read adult fiction, memoirs, regular nonfiction, poetry, song lyrics, children's books--basically EVERYTHING.

2. You learn the craft of writing...for the rest of your life. There is no finish line on educating yourself on craft. It is an ongoing process and one that should excite you...otherwise you might not be in the right profession. You know you're a writer when a good book on craft gets you as wound up as a good novel. (Stein on Writing by Sol Stein does this to me)

3. You write and write and write some more. I know you've heard this ad nauseum, but it's true. You won't develop your voice if you don't practice using it. AND it will be tone deaf and mostly horrible for awhile before you get it right.

4. You drink in the world around you. You have to take it all in and then store it away for future use. I pay attention to the sky, to the way clouds look on any given day, to smells in the air, to the conversations happening all around me, to the mannerisms people have. I hold onto the ones that resonate with me: the little girl who walks on the balls of her feet, the man who chews the sides of his fingers until the skin is raw, the waitress who keeps a stack of hair bands on her wrist. 

5. You find ways to weave what resonates with you into your work. I wonder all the time about people's potential for behaving badly. It has always freaked me out how people who commit really terrible crimes can look so harmless, so normal. I work out my own ideas about this in my stories. Other common themes for me are learning to stand up, figuring out what you believe and adhering to it. You might be drawn to love and how it occurs or something else entirely. Weave these things into your story-not as a preachy opinion, but as an undercurrent of meaning that supports your story's and character's actions.

These are all things that I did as I worked on finding a voice that was uniquely my own. I'm still working on it...I always will be. AND my voice will hopefully grow and mature as I continue to work on it. I am slowly filling up my writer's toolbox (which is bright turquoise, on wheels, and plays Linkin' Park when it's cracked open--it is MINE after all), arranging it in the way that suits me best. If you looked in it, you would probably have to scratch your head and move stuff around to figure out where everything is and it probably wouldn't make any sense to you in the end, but THAT'S OKAY. You don't have to write with it. You'll get a toolbox of your own that's just as shiny, colorful and perfect...and most importantly YOURS.




19 comments:

  1. Enjoyed your piece on developing "voice." I agree reading many different styles of writing somehow helps the writer to synthesize her own voice. When the writing just flows, I feel I'm there. Reading aloud helps, too.

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    1. Thanks for stopping in! I think sometimes when a writer's voice is strong it's like listening to great jazz, she just scats and goes in all kinds of directions and it is amazing and impossible to replicate exactly.

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  2. You know, I don't think about it this way at all. It's my mc that has the voice. I mean, obviously I'm in control of them, and their voices *are* my voice, but I see the voice of my story in their dialogue and thoughts and not really in the way I put words around that.

    Does that make sense? Probably not. I still don't really understand voice : D My agent says I have it, that's good enough for now :)

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    1. We're kind of talking about the same thing-just saying it different ways. In other words, the character's voice is my voice, but the character only has a voice once these pieces above are there. The way my character's dialogue comes off is in direct relation to my way of putting words down on paper. I don't actively think of all that stuff as I write, it's assimilated Borg-style and comes out naturally as I draft.

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    2. The way I see it there are two different kinds of voice: The author's voice, which is what Amy was describing above, and the character's voice.

      An example would be Maggie Stiefvater's books. Each character sounds different according to their personality, experiences and interests, but when you pick up a Stiefvater book it's easy to figure out who wrote it, because Maggie has a unique voice as well.

      Does that make sense?

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    3. EXACTLY, Beth!!! Well put:)

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    4. Yes! That makes sense to me. I think maybe I'm just aware of the characters' voices and not so much of my own.

      I keep thinking my current WiP is so different from the last one that no-one will be able to tell it was written by the same person. But maybe it's just my two mc's who are very different.

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  3. The best compliment I ever received (and the most hard won) was "you have a very unique voice".

    It took a long, long time to find, but it was so rewarding when I did :)

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  4. That is a great compliment for sure!

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  5. Voice is my strong point. I'm working on the other stuff (character development!!). When I first started writing, I'd copy other writers' style of work because I loved it so much. In turn, I eventually was able to find my own voice/style. Great post, Amy!

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    1. Thanks for reading! If you've got voice then you are already waaaay ahead. I struggle with overwriting and building tension...my first drafts are always rife with "safe" scenes where the tension is on low. Amazing how many things there are to master, isn't it?

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  6. Amy,

    Wonderful post and it comes in an amazing, sort of “twilight zone” timing. Just two days ago I read a blog article on voice and how “voice slippages” would be the difference between publishing and rejection. So curious to know if this is the bane of my work, I began researching and I too came up with a lot of material that was so vague it was silly. There were never any examples. Most of the articles I read just outlined what would happen if you are not in voice, or it slips, or if it’s the wrong voice, and all it really did was make me ten times as self-conscious about my writing. In one piece I was told that the book itself has a voice and you should never let the reader see the authors’ voice slipping in. Um What? I thought the authors’ voice was the book voice. Apparently not so much. Therefore, I’m in the haze of confusion about the fuss behind voice as well.

    The best I could assimilate all this information and research down to was the following notion … When I write I have to get into character. I mean when I write each character I have to be an actor and get into character to write that character’s dialogue and internal thoughts. The same goes for the overall voice of the book. I decide who is telling the story … who is this person, where would she be from, background, ect. But most importantly, how would she speak … inflections, slang, even something as miniscule as education … and then I write in that persons voice, how she would speak. I’ll be honest, I don’t know if that’s right or wrong or even in the same ball park as what all this research suggests.

    Your description of it, Amy, is a breath of fresh air, (if you’ll forgive me the cliché). You put it into a great perspective that really helps me to define what voice is.

    By the way, your steps are golden. #4 … I do this too. I’m the world’s worst gawker. I watch people to the point of staring. I note their mannerisms, the way they smile, or laugh, the way they walk. And I too, take in all the sensory details that I can and describe them right as they are happening on a note book that I keep in my pocket. #5 … hits me right in the heart. Truth indeed. ;)

    By the way, the craft books that get me, that make me “want” to write, to rush out and make tracks in the freshly fallen snow of a blank page are; The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield and Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg, just to name two of many. And of course every edition of Writer’s Digest as well.

    Thanks for a great post, Amy. I’m glad I stumbled on to your page.

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    1. This whole comment made me smile. So glad the post resonated with you. And love your tracks on snowy paper line! Beautiful. Jotting down the titles of the craft books you love and adding them to my list of "to reads". Glad you stumbled here too:)

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    2. I'm thrilled that I made you smile. I reread my post and realize ... I desperately need an editor for my posts. lol! grr.

      Pen and paper are my first love; I prefer the flow of the pen across the page to the clickity of a computer keyboard. So, I hand write everything, then type it. It's tedious but it works for me. When I was a kid, one of the things I loved doing most was to rush out after a fresh snow and make tracks in it. I get the same giddy feeling when I see a blank, college ruled page, I just have to make a mess all over it with my chicken scratch. ;)

      My week has been exhausting; I can't wait to read your past posts when things settle down. Hope you don't mind if I stalk around a bit.

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    3. I write long hand as well. My typing is stilted and frustrating for drafting. BUT my editor said that she's found that those who write long hand first tend to have cleaner drafts overall, so we're doing something right I think:) Glad you want to read more posts. Stalk away!

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  7. Great post Amy. I love #5, "weave what resonates with you into your work." There are certain themes and elements I love, that whatever I do, are going to pop up in my writing. For a while, I fought it, until I realized this very well might be the one thing that makes my writing unique.

    I wonder how closely tone and voice go together? I feel like I have two very different voices sometimes, the funny, matter-of-fact sarcastic one, and the dreamy melodramatic philosophical one. I'm still challenged in how to choose between or blend the two.

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    1. Maria,
      Thanks so much! I think tone and voice do go hand in hand specifically when you're thinking of the way your character's voice comes across--it has to match the tone of the scene or be in purposeful contradiction to it to illustrate something about your character. Having two writerly voice styles can be more of a challenge for sure, but not something you can't fine tune during revisions. Certain scenes, plots, and characters will lend themselves to one voice or the other and then it's just a matter of really picking and playing up which one works best.

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  8. So very true. It takes time to develop a voice and some develop quicker than others. It's like puberty for artists! It wasn't until after I left school mine started to resonate and you're right you learn about writing for the rest of your life. Speaking to authors this past week many of them have developed and keep developing as they release new books.

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    1. I think that's so true and really that your voice can totally change as time goes on depending on how you grow as a writer.

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