Friday, May 1, 2009

Chasing The Ever Elusive "Voice"

We've all heard it. Your writing has to have a compelling voice. But what, exactly, is that? It's a voice both unique and familiar at the same time. Something readers can identify with, and yet haven't quite heard before. A voice that's easy to read, but also uses the language beautifully and differently. And every other conflicting statement possible. Can it get more confusing? Let's face it, trying to pin down voice is like trying to lasso a horsefly.

Even once you supposedly find that voice, some people still won't like it. Even on Relax, I'm a Ninja I've had an agent tell me she didn't connect with the "voice" of Tosh. I've gotten a lot of crits, but those are the ones that hurt the most for me. At that point, I turn into a rabid dire bear bent on protecting my fuzzy young. You said WHAT about my precious Tosh? *Claws come out.*

But then someone shoots me with a tranq and I remember that voice is one of the most subjective parts of writing. It's okay if not everyone likes my voice—most have and that means I'm on the right track. If several people had brought it up, then it would be time to reconsider what I'd written. Which has also happened to me. Sometimes voice can be a major crutch to a book.

Take my second book (the zombie book)—several people told me they couldn't identify with my MC or the love interest. In fact, one girl said the only character she liked was one of the supporting cast. Um, ouch. There were several things wrong with that book, but looking back one of them was voice. With that hindsight, I pointed out several things I did wrong when I wrote that voice:

1. It was a tad too "gruesome" for first person. People were more grossed out by Linea's POV than pulled in by it. Third would have provided some healthy separation.

2. My MC tended to ramble and be excessively rude and apathetic.

3. She had NO motivation, which made many people say "Why is she even doing that?"

4. It wasn't "authentic." The book managed to get to one agent, and she said just that. My MC didn't sound like a teenager. It was off. I was trying too hard.

And that just voice—the plot was a mess too. There were enough problems with that poor book that I've shelved it. It would take a complete rewrite to correct, and I know how I'd approach it next time. Maybe someday. The story is pretty cool.

I took a lot away from that experience though. Getting reamed on voice helped me change and get closer to pinning down my true style. And once I found that, I was able to improve in all areas of writing, from mechanics to plotting. I finally felt confident that I had hogtied my personal voice. Sometimes it gets loose, but I have great people to help me wrangle it in again. So keep trying to lasso that horsefly. It gets easier the more you practice.


  1. Yes, voice is an interesting discussion for me. I mean, everyone can recognize voice in first person, but what about third? How does one capture vivid voice that way?

    That's where it gets confusing to me.

    P.S. Don't be so hard on Zombie! I liked it a lot! (Though, true, you've only gotten better.)

  2. Great post, Natalie! I agree with all of our points. I especially like how you say voice is like style. Or, that it even IS style.

    I still stick to my guns on this one when I say that voice is being honest with yourself and your characters. If you stray from that honesty of what you're creating, it creates too many problems, like rambling, being unauthentic, and focusing on the wrong things.

    Thank you for some great advice!

  3. For a while recently, voice was very heavy on my mind. Thankfully, the last year, I've had a lot more time to write. I found that, as I was able to finally spend two to three hours a day on my writing, I had more time to experiment, and as a result, I feel like I've found my own voice. The funny thing is that, once you find it, you sort of realize is was always there, and if you had just relaxed earlier on, you would have found it sooner. At least that's my experience.

  4. I'm just afraid that by the time I find my voice it will be too late, and I'll have to likewise shelve my current story...which I like so much.

  5. Sometimes it really is just best to shelve something for a while. There are things I have written that "served a higher purpose" (so to speak) of helping me become a better writer simply by making me grow....a lot. (That doesn't always mean the piece of writing ends up being any good, least for me.) But the next piece is always better. I guess that's why they call it learning from your mistakes.

    Also, I think you have tremendous voice on your blog. I love how you are fearless when you write about your own are not afraid to tackle your writing issues in your own way..

    Keep Writing. If the Zombie story really wants to be rewritten, then the Undead will call......


  6. I'm reading The Stranger for a class right now, and it's impossible to connect to the MC. He's incredibly apathetic. I feel like shouting, "Dude! If you cared about someone or something for like two seconds maybe you wouldn't have been convicted for murder!"

    Grr to bad voice.

    I like your voice, though.

  7. Oh, voice, that fickle thing. I've found most of my MC's end up snarky, and for some reason that's a voice that everyone loves. The MC could be the most uneventful person in the world, but make her snarky about it, and it's gold.

  8. It's very tempting to try hard to get voice right. Try till there's steam pouring out of your ears. And sometimes, the more you try, the worse it gets. Characters end up sounding forced or stereotypical. And all your subjective readers hate them anyway.

    And I suppose that's the point. Because tastes are so subjective, the only thing you can do is write down what you hear, and suck up as much information as you can with your lug holes when you're out in the supermarket.

  9. Ah voice! How you have eluded me for so long. I continue to try. I hope my lassoing skills are getting sharper...