Writer's voice

Query update: Done! After about 20+ versions of my story pitch, I have one I’m happy with. I’ll start submitting tomorrow. And, then I’m going to start my next book. I know which idea I’m going to move on with, and at the same time, I’m going to start researching one of my other ideas. Fun!

Voice always seems like one of those things that’s so necessary for a writer to have but so elusive for a writer to attain. We always read that agents and editors want a “fresh voice.” But what is that?

After much reading and writing, the best description of voice that I’ve come across is this: The same story can be written a million ways, and your voice is the way YOU tell the story.

Writers get their voice by reading and writing. The more we read, the more what we read is reflected in our writing, and the more write, the more our writing is independent of what we read.

Does that make sense? Early on, we are influenced by the books we read, but the more we write, the more we find our own style.

It’s like painters; they try on the styles of the greats that came before them, and as they learn and grow, they develop their own style of painting. That’s their voice, and it’s the same with writers.

On her Kidlit.com blog, Andrea Brown agent Mary Kole has what I think is a great lesson on developing voice. In her latest Workshop Submission, Mary analyses the opening of a book and says:

The number one reason some writers make it and others don’t is voice.

To help this writer with voice, Mary says:

Voice. Here, we get a lot of dry language. It doesn’t have style to it, or attitude. It doesn’t have emotion running like a current through it. Lots of these words lack energy. They seem like they’d belong in a periodical or in a business memo. How can this story be told with more style and careful word choice?

Mary says a lot more, so click over and check it out.

And when you’re reading through your manuscript, look for your own style, your attitude, the emotion in the story and the words you have chosen to convey that emotion. That will be your voice.

What do you do to develop the voice in your work?

Write On!

Seven deadly sins of novel writing

Angela Ackerman (a.k.a. The Bookshelf Muse) has finished her collection of posts about her seven deadly sins of novel writing, and they’re good to read for writers at all stages of a manuscript. On Monday, I’ll be beginning what I think — hope — will be my last revision of my current novel, and as I go through the chapters, I’m going to make sure I haven’t made any of these sins.

Here are her sins:

1. Keeping the stakes too low for the characters. Conflict keeps our worlds going round.

2. Characters that don’t measure up. Characters should be unique, yet natural; likeable, yet flawed; active, yet true to character.

3. A weak voice. To quote Angela, “Voice is the song of the story, the heartbeat of the main character. It is nothing short of magic.”

4. Plot holes. Including, illogical steps, saggy middles and coincidences.

5. Bland writing. Use all five senses and choose words wisely.

6. Drowning the dialog. Too much, too little and “said” vs. anything else.

7. Giving away too much. Showing vs. telling and how much to reveal.

Thanks for these, Angela. A great guide.

Can you think of any more deadly sins of novel writing? What sins have you committed lately?


Revision update: Got through two chapters yesterday and one and a half today. I’m really hoping to get the whole book done by the end of the year, but … hmmm, not sure. We’ll see. My husband said he’d read the book this weekend, which hopefully will give me a boost in my revision. He’ll be the first other person to read the whole thing. It’ll be nice to see how it plays out.

I’m reading Ingrid Law‘s Savvy right now, and it strikes me that this is a great example of a strong, fresh voice.

Voice is one of those weird things to identify. When I first started researching writing novels and going to conferences, I heard about “voice” all the time, but the explanations didn’t really pinpoint exactly what this quality was. Voice always seemed to be this vague thing my writing was supposed to have, something that was strong and fresh, but what was it?

Finally, in a conference I attended a few years ago, I heard an explanation I could understand: Voice is the way YOU write, the words YOU choose and how YOU use them in a sentence. It’s basically, your style of writing.

For beginning writers, their style often mimics their favorite writers or the writers of the novels they’re reading at the moment. But over time, with practice, writers develop their own style that’s unique to them. Some write in a subtle way, others big and bold, some rhythmic, others slam you across the face.

From the first page of Law’s Savvy, I was slapped in the face with her style. She writes first person, so you could say the voice is the voice of the character. Either way, it’s bold, flowery and beautiful. The story is fun, but more fun is Law’s language. Here’s a taste:

When Grandpa wasn’t a grandpa and was just instead a small-fry, hobbledehoy boy blowing out thirteen dripping candles on a lopsided cake…

And another:

The itch and scritch of birthday buzz was about all I was feeling on the Thursday before the Friday before the Saturday I turned thirteen.

Brilliant, huh? Can’t you see the voice oozing out of these word choices?

Now, of course, voice is absolutely personal, so you shouldn’t try to immitate Law’s style. Like any art, often our style is influenced by others, but after a while, it’s ours.

Whatever our style is, subtle or brash, it should be solid, come across strong as our style and no one else’s. I don’t think it’s something you can manufacture; it’s you.

What are your favorite examples of voice?

Write On!

Day 14 and Brazos Valley SCBWI Conference Part 2

I was off work today, so I managed to get more writing done than usual in day 14 of my unofficial participation in National Novel Writing Month. Like any day that start out clear, mine quickly got filled up and I spent the morning running errands. But I was back at my computer at 1:30, feeling fresh and ready to work. I whipped through the scene I have been working on, then moved on to paying bills. I didn’t write for as many hours as I had planned, but I feel good about the work I did get done, and feel ready for tomorrow’s morning session. I feel as though I know where I’m going.

Now onto more highlights from the Brazos Valley SCBWI conference on Saturday. Today, I’ll give you a little bit of what I got out of all the author speakers talking about craft.

Cynthia Leitich Smith talked about the importance of setting and how it can sometimes become a character itself. The setting informs the characters, reflects the characters or works against the characters. Cynthia detailed the exhaustive research she did for the setting of her latest book, Tantalize, and encouraged us to visit the places we’re writing about, take pictures and write lots of notes. Accuracy is important, she said, even if you’re writing about a small town that only a handful of people have heard of. That last point was in answer to a question from me, because my novel is set in a small town that’s real but I have given it some fictional elements.

Sherry Garland described the different types of openings for a book, such as action, dialog (although she said dialog is very difficult to do affectively) and humor. Her number one message was that the opening should pull in the reader, and the first reader will be the editor/agent you’re submitting to. So make it good.

Janet Fox talked about characters, saying that although most protagonist’s will be flawed in some way (how else will they learn over the course of the story), they should have at least one likeable trait so readers can identify with them. Names are important, she said, and should reflect the character in some way. Janet also gave attendees a tip of making a scrapbook for their characters, with photos and anything else.

Finally, Kathy Whitehead discussed voice and showed us how the choices we make in character and personality in our writing distinguishes our writing from others.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you a bit about Kathi Appelt and Emily Van Beek’s talk.

Write On!