Monday, February 22, 2010

Caring For Your Voice

Voice—the "it" factor. That thing you have to have but no one can really tell you how to get. Sometimes writers talk about it as if it's the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow—always just out of reach. Or there's the epic writing quest, in which you'll find Voice at the end, who will bestow you with great writerly power.

But grasping your voice is more like being Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Your voice isn't out there somewhere waiting to be found—you already have it inside.

*cue sappy music*

No, seriously. You already have it! You may not be using it properly. You may not completely understand it yet. But it's still there, no epic quests needed.

What you really need is training. Jedi training. (Wow, can you tell I'm a little loopy? I blame editing.) Okay, maybe not Jedi training. I wish. Here's what I do when I feel like I'm losing my voice:

1. Drink honey lemon tea...oh wait, wrong voice.

1. Free Write. A lot.
You have to just let yourself write sometimes. Let the perfectionist go and see what comes out. You have to learn the natural cadence of your writing. Sure, there will be junk, but there will also be gems. That's how voice is. What? Did you think voice was perfect?

It's not. Your voice has flaws and strengths—the only way to figure those out is to write. And then write some more. Oh, and then let yourself write even more "crap."

As I experiment with my writing, I'm reminded of my strengths and make note to use them to my advantage. I also see my flaws and can more quickly stifle them in revisions.

2. Look Back
Sometimes I go back and read my old work. I know some writers refuse to look at their greener attempts, but I find it incredibly helpful. Looking back helps me see my improvement. It gives me confidence that I've grown as a writer, and yet stayed true to my voice.

Yes, a lot of it is cringe-worthy, but it's amazing how my voice is still there, just in a rawer form. I can see it in between the clunky sentences and gaping plot holes. It shows me that I've learned how to showcase my voice better.

3. Read
When I take in other voices, it helps me see how mine is different or the same. Note I didn't say "better or worse." Voice is the most subjective aspect of writing. Reading different voices helps me learn what other writers did to make their voice work. Some are strong and distinct, and they adapt a style that mimics that. Others are gentle and alluring, and use their words to highlight that. I learn from every book I read.

Sometimes we wish we had a different voice, when we really should be embracing our own. That quest to change our voice, I think, is the fastest way to lose it. In the end, I think the best thing you can do for your voice is to be honest about it. Your voice is your voice. Love it. Know it. Take care of it.


  1. I just started the free-writing thing and I'm already loving it. Although I think I've got such a stockpile of "crud" that it's taking a while to write it all out and get to the good stuff. :P

    "Yes, a lot of it is cringe-worthy, but it's amazing how my voice is still there, just in a rawer form. I can see it in between the clunky sentences and gaping plot holes."

    I love that feeling, actually. That feeling of like, "Sweet, I totally wasn't crazy or sucky back then! Just young and still developing. Oh wait, I'm probably still like that now. Er, well, that's okay. 'Cause in a few years I get to have this revelation all over again!"


    All kidding aside, I think for me, as someone who went from Great Literary Aspirations to realizing that I really just want to write good fun books about people in their teens and twenties, it's very cool to see how I apply my voice to my new stories. It's a neat blend of literary & genre. And the two don't mix perfectly, but they're not oil and water either. So I'm finding the right balance, and that's really neat.

  2. Sooo, what's the difference between the writer's voice and the character's voice? I ask because I haven't thought about finding my voice, but I spend a lot of time making sure that the character is all over the writing.

    Is it possible to know an author's voice in just one book? I can recognize Kate Dicamillo. Is voice just the things that make you go 'this sounds just like...'?

  3. Great Post Natalie! I finally found mine after searching for several years. It's a great thing to recognize and fun to develop further.

  4. A great post -- though I'm starting to think you watch too many movies! ;)

    The first story I wrote where I wasn't actively try to sound the way I thought I should, was the first story I sold. A very valuable lesson!

    And I can always tell if I try to force it (like slamming through a writer's block). It just doesn't read the same. So now if I am blocked, I just leave it for a while rather than compromise my voice.

  5. Love your advice here! Jedi Training. LoL!

  6. Fab post, as usual. I'm still searching for the Voice, but you are right-in-spades that it comes out in "free" writing. I've actually found blogging has helped me find my voice, in a non-fiction kind of way.

  7. I love free writing, but I think until my most recent book (Immaterial) I never allowed that same voice to carry over to my novels. Maybe I was afraid of it...

  8. Great post. I particularly like the idea of going back over old work and seeing the voice in its embryonic stages.

    I think you know when you've found your voice because you're not so tempted to change it when you read something new and startling. You may well study it and absorb some new rhythms or ways of using words, but you won't be tempted to rip it all up and start again.

  9. Great revelations on voice. Thanks :)

  10. I always find it's easier to hear my voice if I read out loud. That way my voice, and the characters is separated more easily. Not sure why, but it works for me :)

  11. I really should try that freewriting thing more often. I need to let go of the overly critical perfectionist--at least until it's time for editing.

    I sometimes think I see a glimmer of my voice, but it's still hard to see it. I'm betting that free writing will help it come out more.

    Thanks for yet another awesome post!

  12. Thanks for the suggestions on voice. Voice is so hard... there are times I'm happy with mine, and times when I can't seem to get my own voice "right" (whatever right is). I like the idea of doing more free writing.

  13. I adore free-writing. I keep a poetry journal and looking through it, it's pretty much the way I write novels, and I like my voice a LOT.

  14. This is great post! I have been trying the freewriting thing for some time now and have seen very big improvements in my voice and confidence in just putting words on the paper. I used to struggle just to sit down and write in a journal because I was afraid it wouldn't sound right. I finally just let go one day and started writing. I haven't looked back since.

  15. And thankfully no one ever has to see our free writing! :)

  16. Sooo true. Voice is hard to define, but so important for each writer to find. Thanks for the wonderful post!

  17. Ah yes: Jedi training. ^_^

    I agree with Jemi Fraser in that reading out loud is a great way to learn and recognize your own voice.

    Reading & looking back are two of my fav pasttimes. Every time I read, I find myself more and more aware of my inner-writer acknowledging the craft as much as admiring the story. Looking back is crucial, too, to see where you've come from and where you're at now.

    The English lit class I took this past semester was a great example to me of the progress I made in three short months. It was a workshop class designed to improve close-reading skills. When the time came to revise the work I'd done back in September, I cried. Happy tears. I could easily see how much my writing had improved and had gained the skills to properly revise the paper.

  18. Beautiful advice! I need to take you up on that free-writing, but I find every excuse in the world before I get around to it.

  19. Love this post. You're right, voice rings true when we give ourselves permission to let go and write--even if it's sloppy.

  20. Oh I love this! It took me about a year to find out what my writing voice was. I brought in a piece to my critique buddies and they all looked at me like I had just spit on the cat and said, "This is your voice! You have to write this!" And I've been doing it ever since. =) Love your post Natalie!

  21. I had a magazine editor who said your voice is how you think. It was an interesting way to look at it!

  22. Do you feel like you can have a different "voice" for different projects, though? I have two VERY different stories (okay, a lot more than two) and the voices are way different. Is that bad?

  23. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  24. Have you noticed that all writers are perfectionists in some shape or form? Whether it be in their writing, or the way they go about their lives, we are all our worst critics.

    We definitely need more free-spirited writers like you in this world, don't you agree? :D