Q : I know that agents and editors look for writers who have strong voices, but I’m having trouble finding mine. Any advice?
A : It’s true. Editors, agents, publishers and, above all, readers do respond most to a writer with a great voice.
Voice is what gives writing energy, authenticity, it animates the narrator and characters with a unique personality. It grabs your attention and keeps you turning the page.
I remember the first time I read Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, and Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids. What knockouts! Visit the links to see my notes on working with each of these writers.
Other writers I’ve worked with didn’t always start with a fully developed voice, but were able to grow and improve greatly.
All good writers have a voice. Most writers have many voices – their narrative voice and the voices of their characters.
Here are some suggestions for finding yours.
Eight tips for finding your voice
1. Start talking
Before putting any of your story on the page, tell it to yourself, then to friends and relatives, deliver it out loud, or make a recording.
2. Listen carefully
Does it sound real? Will people understand what you’re saying?
Don’t be surprised if at first it sounds self-conscious, stiff and stuffy or halting, even incoherent. Many of us tighten up when we try to tell a story, and begin to sound rushed, sloppy, bumbling, or dry, dull, and academic.
If you don’t like what you hear, do it again, until you begin to sound authentic.
3. Be yourself
Few of us are English lords or Russian poets, as much as we may admire them. Your narrative voice must be authentic and comfortable for you, whether you’re from midwest, the American south, or New York City.
Beyond the regional, each of us has our own idiosyncratic accent, cadence, choice of words, and other mannerisms. It’s fascinating to realize how much we sound like our parents, siblings, even peer group models we admire and unconsciously imitate. Listen and study these aspects of your own speech and see which can work and which should be discarded.
4. Use the vernacular
It’s the way people talk. Use contractions. Similarly don’t be afraid to employ the judicious use of slang or discreet profanity.
5. Distinguish between your narrative voice and your characterizations
If you’re using a first person “I” narrative or an omniscient narrator with individual characters talking, it’s crucial to delineate the various voices in your story.
Many first drafts have people who all talk the same (like you!) So start by talking our loud the way you imagine your characters to sound. Listen carefully. Be sure each has a separate, real personality and style, then start writing and do it all over again.
6. Picture your reader
Imagine one or two people leaning toward you while sitting in comfortable chairs or across the table. Hear yourself speaking to them or reading a scene on the page before you.
7. Find voice models
Not in other books but from real life. Listen to the way people around you are speaking and pick out specific characteristics that will work for your voice or one of your character’s.
8. Listen to your favorite authors
Each of us has writers we admire for their unique distinctive voices. Some of mine include Jane Austen, George Elliot, Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Fitzgerald, Phillip Roth, Timothy O’Brien, Junot Diaz.
In each case as you read, notice that you can hear a powerful and distinct voice in the silence of your mind.
New scanning technology, incidentally, shows how reading lights up different parts of our brain, including the visual, olfactory, and aural centers of neurological response. It’s mysterious, but real.
We do listen as we read, simultaneously, and every writer has his or her own special way of – literally — turning us on.
Please share any techniques you’ve found to develop or improve your voice. And feel free to post questions you may have about this very important aspect of writing.