where the writers are
On Voice
Sally Forth, Sept. 28, 2008

Sally Forth, in Sunday's comic section made me stop and think about voice, and what it means for a writer.

I'm not sure the image is large enough to read the panels. In case you can't click to enlarge, here's the text:

 

Sally: How's school going, Sweetie
Hillary: It's going

Made any new friends?
Nope

Like any of your classes?
Nope

Joined any after-school activities?
Nope

How's the brooding and reclusive thing working out for you Sweetie?
It's really helped my diary find its "voice"

Voice is something a reader recognizes instinctively. It's what makes bestselling authors. Sure skill comes into the picture, too. You have to know how to plot, pace, create settings and characters, etc. But voice is what readers really fall in love with when they're reading. It's 'HOW' you tell your stories. ~Jordan Summers

When I discovered fan fiction, I was attracted to the stories of one author. Not only did the stories interest me, but as I read them, I thought "If I could write, that's what I would write like." I didn't realize it at the time, but it was her voice that attracted me.

But voice is more than making a character sound like a Texan, or making sure a cop doesn't sound like a princess. Just as you can recognize an artist by his or her work, you can indentify an author by his or her voice. Nobody would confuse Janet Evanovich with Sue Grafton. Or Nora Roberts with Suzanne Brockmann.

Developing you own voice takes time. We all use the same tools. Words, strung together following the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, into sentences as paragraphs. But the choice of our words, and the order in which we use them, comprises our voice. I think when we start writing, we try to sound "writerly." But it's not until we put ourselves on the page that we can develop our own voices.

Our experiences, both positive and negative, play a part in our voices. So do the story and the characters. One exercise we've done in workshops is to choose a picture from many provided by the instructor. Based on the picture, each person writes a brief paragraph or two based on what they "see". Then, everyone swaps pictures with someone next to them and repeats the exercise. As participants share what they've written, the different voices become clear. One will find something humorous, one will see the same picture as dark and ominous. This is one reason we shouldn't worry too much about sharing story ideas. Even given the same plot, no two writers will write the same story. This was pointed out in another workshop where the assignment was simply to write a short paragraph or two about a wife wanting a divorce. Same situation, but no two stories came out the same.

As I continue to write, finding my voice gets easier. When I sit at the keyboard and the words pour out, that's my voice. When I struggle to find the right way to say something, I'm hoping that I'm searching for "my" voice, but until the words feel right, I'm not confident I've nailed it. And when I read an author whose voice resonates with me, I have to make sure I'm not using that voice instead of my own when I write. For that reason, there are several authors I don't read while I'm writing. I could always tell when my husband spoke to his parents on the phone, because his 'voice' changed into that of a central New Yorker. In Los Angeles, I never heard him say "Hey-Yup", but put his father on the phone, and he used the expression all the time. I don't want to start letting their voices (fantastic as they are) get confused with mine.

Of course, the flip side, as with everything, is that one reader may love a writer's voice, while it can be a turn-off to another. But that's why there are so many books out there.