On voice

If you’ve done any research into writing and querying, you’ll have come across a great deal of emphasis on how important ‘voice’ is. It seems like every other agent out there is looking for a ‘fresh and engaging voice’. And like probably nearly every writer reading that, I was like, “yes, yes; but what does that mean?” I’ve read some okay explanations of voice before, but the other day a blog I follow pointed me to an article by Julie Leto called Ditching “The Book Of Your Heart” for “The Book Of My Voice”. And while the article was ostensibly about a larger issue, I found within it one of the best explanations of voice that I’ve come across.

It’s a long article (3,800 words!), and more than half of it discusses the author’s dislike of the advice for writers to write “the book of your heart”. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but in case you don’t have the patience for that (I often don’t), here’s a quick-and-dirty summary of the bit on voice.

I’ve always thought of voice as being the way you string your words together and the words you chose to use. That is, all about the language you write with. If you think of your speaking voice, when we think of how we recognize someone we’re probably inclined to say it’s in the tone and timbre of the voice, right? But there’s more to it than that – there’s the vocabulary the person uses, the phrases they’re partial to, perhaps a tendency to slur certain words or to up-talk the end of their sentences. Someone could mimic a friend’s sound perfectly but then say some phrase that your friend would never in a million years use, and you know immediately it’s not them. It’s not just the sound of the voice, it’s also the way the sound gets used.

And so is voice in writing. It’s not just the language you choose, it’s the way you use it. Julie Leto outlined five things in addition to the language that help define the voice of an author:

1) Description – how much you include and what aspects of the subject you focus on.

2) Character – authors tend to gravitate toward a certain type of personality; there’s a spectrum within this, but the strongest voices often reuse the same base personality – ie. bold and mouthy versus quiet and unconfrontational. (“Ah, that’s obviously a Certain Author’s protagonist; she’s the type.”)

3) Writing style – tendency toward long or short (or a mix) sentences, how they’re structured, how/where paragraphs and chapters are broken, amount of dialogue versus narration, how many scenes per chapter or events per scene, how many and what type of POV, etc.

4) Plot – linear versus complex plotlines, types of conflict (person vs self, nature, fellow person, large organization), origin of conflict’s solution, breadth of cast, etc.

5) Premise – the idea or question that your story boils down to; writers with a strong voice often have similar premises from one novel to the next. The books themselves can be completely different stories, but the basic premise will be similar. Julie Leto (a romance novelist) summed her recent three (as of the article) up as: “Can the romance novelist seduce her former lover into remembering her? Can the ingenue seduce her landlord into giving her her first orgasm? Can the tough street girl seduce the powerful billionaire into losing control?”

She adds a possible 6) that might tie into Premise: Theme – the topics/subjects your stories explore on a between-the-lines level. Many authors find the same theme cropping up repeatedly (and probably unintentionally) in their works.

The thing she emphasizes, though – that everyone emphasizes – is that voice is not something that can be really consciously cultivated; it’s something you find by writing a lot, by finishing one project and moving on to the next. And by letting go of control and allowing whatever feels natural to be what ends up on the page. Don’t overthink it.

I’m not sure if that really helps with the explanation of what ‘fresh and engaging voice’ means… But maybe it’d be easier to think of a strong voice less like you’re trying to be different and stand out from the crowd (when I think this I inevitably think humour, which I am hopeless at) and more as they’re looking for a recognizable voice, a confident voice, a consistent voice; the voice of an author who’s unapologetically themselves, not trying to be anyone else; who doesn’t come across as trying too hard to catch and keep your attention, but still seems to say, “don’t worry, you’re safe with me; I’ve been doing this forever” (the latter bit may not be true, but needs to seem that way).

At least… that’s how I interpret it. As for whether or not I’ve got a recognizable, confident, consistent voice in my writing, well, my critique partners will have to answer that one. (And they’ll have an opportunity soon when I send them Secrets!)


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