Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What is a Writer's Voice?

          It takes a great deal of experience to become natural.
                                                                        —Willa Cather

As a writer, I want to be able to write anything, from any point of view, with varying voices. So why do I worry about my voice if I must immerse myself in my characters' voices?
Speaking loudly doesn't ensure your voice will be heard.
(Image courtesy of: Darwin Bell on flickr)
The importance of a writer's voice could be explained like this:

You read a book and can see that it is skillfully written. It has an interesting plot, strong imagery, likable characters, and all that. Yet it is still, somehow, unfulfilling.

The story is probably lacking the writer's voice.

Yeah, the characters have voices, there is a distinguishable style, and you might even say the writing is beautiful—but something is missing and it's difficult to identify.

So what is a writer's voice?

Voice is often subconscious—but you have to have some introspection to know yourself enough to let the subconscious go, to let it speak with you clearly behind it.

How do words sound to you as you read them aloud? This is not just a proofreading trick. When you read aloud, you hear your story, your narration. You feel it. You know what feels unnatural as you speak it. You know what sounds odd or off when you hear it. When you speak or hear your work, you get a sense of those points when you are not really saying what you want to say.

No joke... When I am revising, I read the whole thing aloud. If I stumble on a word or phrase—even slightly—I know something is wrong and that scene needs to be revised. Until I can read the entire scene or chapter without a stumble, it's not done.

Your style might change from one project to the next but if you speak it, and don't stumble, you will continue to use words that are in your wheelhouse. Even if you introduce new words to your vocabulary, you'll rewrite the sentences and paragraphs so the new ones fit with your flow.

Part of your voice is your rhythm, cadence, sound. You have to hear that.

Another part of your voice is your world view. This means that your characters and plot will echo what you believe, to a degree, even if they disagree with it, even if their world view is not the same as yours. If their world view is different, they will be affected by yours, or they collectively will say something about your world view.

Remember, this is your subconscious working, so don't go thinking about this as you write. You have to let go to allow it to develop on it's own. And how do you let go? You connect.

Seems counter-intuitive, huh?

          The voice is the element over which you have no control; it's the sound 
          of the person behind the work.
                                                                       —John Hersey

The fact is that you must be intrinsically connected to the work. It has to be something you feel, something deep inside you, something you must express.

Please don't confuse this with desperation. If you must express something to be successful, to prove you are a writer, to write the next best-seller, or to be marketed and sold to a movie production company, then you are not connected. You might be obsessed, but it's not the same thing.

If it's connected to something in your life and people tell you they want to hear about it and you're not so sure about it, then maybe you don't need to tell it. Or maybe you need to get self-centered. Get in touch with your emotions and your thoughts on it. What is it really about?

You have to write the story that is clawing itself out of you. When you do that, you are much closer to connecting. Don't suppress it or try to change it while you are working on your first draft. Just experience the story and ask questions of yourself when your feelings of it begin to wane.

What does voice look like on the page?
  • Voice shows up in the details the author notices.
  • It sneaks its way in with images that hold primal meaning for the writer.
  • The life events that continue to stick in the writer's mind, events that she turns over and over throughout her life, might echo in the scenes and events within the story.
  • In turn, the way the author interprets the events she witnessed or experienced can affect the protagonist's or narrator's interpretation.
  • Even the order in which the events the story is told reveal the author's voice.
  • Rhythm, cadence, sound, syntax—a writer's sense of poetics reveals the writer, in a less explicit way.
  • The humor and wit of the author are part of her voice. What is taken seriously? What is somber?

Where does the elusive “voice” come from?

You know how I'm always asking questions in my posts? I do this because finding your voice is about being truthful, vulnerable, unflinching, but also compassionate. When you are honest with yourself, you are more able to connect with your characters. I swear, you will only connect with your characters superficially until you can embrace the truth about yourself.

The way I look for truth is by asking questions about:
  • my flaws and weaknesses and where they stem from
  • the things I fight—and why I fight them
  • the ideas I wrestle with, the ones that keep returning to me or that I can't get out of my head
  • my emotions, my sadness and joy, my anger, the walls I put up to protect myself, how I protect my emotions and where I allow myself to get hurt, how I bounce back, where I'm resilient
  • what is confusing
  • what is funny, where humor arises for me
  • what fascinates me and why
  • where I see beauty and what is so beautiful about it for me

These can all play a part in forming a writer's voice. Certainly, the list isn't all-inclusive. Add to it. Once you begin considering these things, you'll find that you have others to consider.

I'm not suggesting you to run through these questions on a worksheet and then you'll magically have a voice. Nor am I asking you to lock yourself in a room so you can wallow in self-pity. That would suck and I don't want to spend time with people who sit around and cry all the time. Gawd... get over yourself, chiquita...

Further, I don't want to be blamed for encouraging it.

What you need to do is write. As you write, you work through these things. You have them in the back of your mind.

This, I think, is part of the reason that, when I went through my MFA, there was no attempt to talk about writing novels. The professors seemed to pretty much assume we were not ready for such things—we were all too green for that. (I kind of thought, as the time, that the professors just perceived us as the worms of writing who were unworthy of novels and were only good for pitting against each other to create competitive writing dramas for them to watch unfold in the workshops.)

But the reality is that if you haven't written enough fiction then you have not yet explored enough to have a voice that can make a novel compelling. (And yes, it should be fiction because fiction is an entirely different form than any other kind of writing. Journaling, writing your blog, writing articles for a food website, none of these really help in finding the voice you use in writing a novel.) Sure, you might have a great concept for a novel and you might be expressive and crafty and create great images, but if you lack voice, you won't resonate with anyone. If you lack voice, readers aren't going to stick with your 500-page tome all the way through.

Here's another downer:

You can't just sit around writing story after story without contemplating the above items. If you are going to keep your emotional walls up while you write, you'll just be writing a bunch of tin cans that clatter together and roll off the counter when the damned cat gets up there.

I speak from experience. I speak from being poetic and crafty and witty and all kinds of other supposed compliments that I got. Were they compliments? I don't know. I was protecting myself so well that I don't know if I would have recognized veiled criticism. As I read my writing from 15 and 20 years ago now, all I see is self-protection. All I see is someone who thought she was getting deep into her characters, but was mortally afraid of knowing what was really there.

You can't write emptily. You must strive for truth.

And don't tell me fiction is about telling lies. If you think that, you're deluded. Fiction is often more true than any real story. How? It's about an emotional truth—even if the story is entirely made up. It's about getting to something real that speaks to people. If there isn't truth in it, it will speak like a drunk dude at the office party. Nothing valuable to say, but maybe interesting to watch in case a disaster ensues and breaks up the monotony. Do you want to be the drunk guy who vomits in the lobby?


  1. Great piece, Robin. This is at least a 3-part post or possibly an entire writing course.

    1. It's true! This was longer and I cut it down... Look for a future post with exercises to help the discovery of voice...

      We're at Altitude tonight if you want to come over, Lynda!

  2. You can't write emptily. You must strive for truth. <-- This. Drives home.

    1. It is important, but then I think... Do we know when we are writing emptily? Sometimes we *think* we are doing all this work, but we still lie to ourselves. I guess we only know when we get there...

      Thanks for reading, SuperLux!