Writing With Voice: What's Your 'Thing'? Do You Need One?

Hey, gang! Hope this post finds you all doing well and, especially if you're of the NaNoWriMo kind, pushing toward your goals. :)

One thing I always try to stay aware of as I revise a story is voice. (I know, my hackles rise a bit when that word gets mentioned, too … but stay with me!) I want to figure out what's going to take it from being A story to being MY story as it were. 

This is at least partially because I'm writing urban fantasy, and there are lots (and lots, and lots more) of stories about vampires, werewolves, etc. these days, and I want my work to stand out in some small way.

Now, I was just as confused as everyone else when I first began trying to figure out what voice was all about. I'd read all of these articles, books, and interviews from various-amazing-authors that seemed to give it an almost spiritual quality. 

Apparently, voice was this ethereal ball of gas floating in the subconscious writing portion of our brains that couldn't be contained, only harnessed. And only the wisest and most determined writers would be able to master it.

Yeah, I felt totally screwed. I'm not the wisest writer (by a wide, Grand Canyon-esque margin I'm afraid), and writing--for the most part--for me isn't a very spiritual process. 

When I'm writing, I tend to swear at my computer, drink ridiculous amounts caffeine bang my head on tables, stare at ceilings, curse my dull brain--well, let's just say it isn't all that Zen-like. 

I'm more of a construction foreman for a highly-emotional, chaotic, and never-ending road project than a high priest quietly orchestrating a beautiful religious ceremony.

But I am determined, so something had to give, right?

What I learned was this: Voice isn't abstract, or at least the components that make it up aren't. In fact, it's the furthest thing from it! Is it hard to apply? Yes … mostly … well, just more tedious until you get the hang of it I suppose.

Voice is your personal flavor. It's your spice of choice. Just like how you take your coffee (or iced tea in the South), voice says, "That one is mine."

But it shouldn't be confused with just being description, which is something I did early on. My thought was, "I'm the only person who can describe a sunset the way I see it, so that has to be what will make my writing unique." 

That was only part of the formula. The rest of it includes pacing, dialogue, action/reaction, humor, plot choices, and pretty much everything else that goes into a story. 

Ultimately, how you apply all of that results in your voice, or your "thing". And that's where the discussion gets a little philosophical in my opinion, because that "thing" is pretty much open for interpretation. 

What I think is clever, you might find trite. What scares me, won't necessarily keep you up at night. But when a writer has a thing, we know it--even if we can't agree on what it is, and maybe even if we don't like it.

Think about some of the great "voice" authors out there. Here are examples from a few of my favorites. These are completely random finds from books sitting on my shelf. I'm not looking for a specific paragraph. See if you can guess the authors based on the excerpt:

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"I worried about it for a moment as I held the bottle by the neck, but I wanted to trust her, and so I did. I took a minor sip, and as soon as I swallowed, I felt my body rejecting the stinging syrup of it. It washed back up my esophagus, but I swallowed hard, and there, yes, I did it. I was drinking on campus."

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If you're a fan of his, you probably immediately recognized John Green's handiwork in Looking For Alaska. 

Components that make up his voice: Long, protracted sentences. (He doesn't get super-clippy unless it's dialogue.) A very mature and pragmatic character perspective (for YA … "I did it. I was drinking on campus."). Using a big, and probably anatomically correct, word like "esophagus" instead of the simpler "throat".

Here's another!

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"He could be as quiet as a Viet Cong guerrilla creeping through the bush, but her ears had gotten attuned to him over the last three weeks, and tonight, as a bonus, there was a moon. She heard a faint scrape and clatter of gravel, and she knew where he was going. Ignoring her aches, she followed. It was a quarter after ten."

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This one is a little trickier, but Stephen King (The Stand) can create tension like no other. 

Components that make up his voice: Non-lavish, but highly evocative descriptors ("quiet as a Viet Cong", "a moon"). Also, how little he gives the reader in terms of perspective and motivation, yet still manages to convey direction and purpose in the scene. ("she knew where he was going", "It was a quarter after ten.")

Last one--this one has a giveaway if you're a fan, but it's a great example nonetheless.

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"I'd made a vampire cry. Great. I felt like a real superhero. Harry Dresden, breaker of monsters' hearts."

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Jim Butcher (Storm Front, Dresden Files Book One) is a real case study for anyone looking for examples of voice in first person storytelling. 

Components that make up his voice: You could take almost any paragraph from one of his books and find the same sarcasm and gloomy humor woven throughout.

As I said earlier, and the examples hopefully illustrate, voice isn't an abstract concept. By evaluating things like word choice (are you the type of writer who uses throat instead of esophagus?), description, and tone you can force voice into your work. 

But here's the (another?) thing: There are many talented authors and great stories out there that don't have a strong voice. In fact, I'd argue that many genres of fiction rely heavily on the author NOT pushing their own style overboard. 

Much of the science fiction and fantasy I read is intentionally left bland, forcing the reader to put their own personality into play. There are risks involved with such storytelling, because it can lead to undefined and uninteresting characters. But when the focus is on the world and sociology, I don't believe it's always wrong to let the reader paint the canvas you've given them.

Two of my favorite authors in those genres, Tolkien and Orson Scott Card, aren't overly ham-handed with their style. They simply tell a good story. 

So that leaves me with a bunch of questions: How important is voice? Do we need to have a definitive writing style, or is telling a good story enough? How important is it to readers? 

~EJW~

18 comments:

  1. If you mean voice as in style, then yes I think it is important. That may be because an author's writing style is important to me when I read. It's actually one of the attributes that I comment most on when reviewing a book I just finished.

    However, a good storytelling is just an important. A strong voice may draw me into the story, but if I am feeling bored or confused halfway through the book, then I'll lose interest.

    A writer's voice is the wheels of a book. But a good storyline is the fuel of a book. That's how I see it.

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    1. Fantastic point, Megan! A GREAT reading experience is made up of many factors. I'll confess to being a fan of certain authors just because the way they tell a story is so darned entertaining. (Neil Gaiman springs to mind…) The stories aren't always the most enthralling, but I'll read anything they put out.

      On the other hand, the two examples I gave of Tolkien and Card really illustrate the flip side. They're just fantastic storytellers! Neither writes with strong voice or style (other than maybe "dry" :), but again, I'll read anything of theirs.

      But if you put the two together, you get magic. For me Stephen King and J.K. Rowling both do a beautiful job of writing fantastic stories with tons of personality.

      Thanks for the awesome comment btw! And great to "see" you! :)

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  2. I think it can help if you write about things you feel strongly about, at least when you first start writing and are trying to work out your voice.

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    1. Completely agree, Mood! Switching to first person helped me as well. I think I could go back to 3rd and pull it off now, but I needed to be closer to the characters I was writing to really put myself in their heads.

      In fact, I think you wrote a fine article on doing just that (switching to 1st if you're struggling with voice, etc.--I was LOL) a while back. :)

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  3. It can be very important- and very distracting when the writer's voice is overwhelming- or even worse, obnoxious. I can think of a comics writer like that.

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    1. Excellent point! The people I know who don't enjoy John Green's stuff always point to his style/voice (whether they know that's what they're pointing to or not) as a barrier.

      It speaks to something every writer must wrestle with at some point: You can have fans, but you can't have ALL the fans--so decided what you want to be, and go be it. Then understand the limitations and be satisfied when the results support that. :)

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  4. I love this post. I've never examined the fiction I read to this level, but it's clear that maybe I should. Also, I just love Harry Dresden.

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  5. Thanks Kari! I'm a big Dresden fan, too, and I credit those stories for convincing me that there was a style out there for me (i.e., that I was capable of writing with voice). When I began writing, I wanted to be J.K. Rowling and Stephen King--or at least create those kinds of stories in the way they created them.

    I really, really, really stunk at that kind of writing. :) Just couldn't do it! Everything I wrote in 3rd person was flat and devoid of personality. The stories were okay, but that was about all they had going for them. Then I read Butcher's stuff and thought, "I can do this!" Or at least my version of it. LOL

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  6. Story will always be most important. No one will hear your voice if your story is too boring or awful to read through.

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    1. Gotta have a story worth trekking through, no doubt!

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  7. Ultimately, it has to be the POV character's voice, or it doesn't work. Regarding a word like esophagus vs. throat, it has to be something the character would say as well.

    Very thought-provoking post, EJ. :)

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    1. Good point, M. The thing about John Green is, ALL of his main characters would use the loftier word choice. They're always super-smart and insightful young people--and I suspect that's a factor of his own personality. (If you listen to him in interviews, etc. he's just a super-smart kind of guy.

      This is also why some people don't care for him btw. Real teens aren't 100% well-read, witty, and acerbic 100% of the time. And he doesn't write any other kind of character so far as I can tell. But he does his "thing" exceedingly well.

      So I'm thinking author voice and character voice are often branches on the same tree.

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  8. I love the challenge with have with creating our own voice, and then creating distinctive voices for our characters so they don't all sound alike. Isn't writing fun?

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  9. This is such a good post! Right now I'm reading Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, which takes concrete approach to writing, but he basically says that voice can't be coached. I agree with him. I think that as writers we overanalyze voice because we're insecure about ours, but in reality if you're actually analyzing voice you're probably serious about writing to the point where you were born to be a writer. And in that case, you have a voice. Simple as that. And I love John Green's voice, by the way. I've read every John Green book but Looking for Alaska, and somehow I knew that was his writing. He's just a gifted writer, and I'm sure you are too, so don't worry too much about voice. :)

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    1. Looking for Alaska might be my favorite of his, Madeline! Be sure to stop by and tell me what you think when you get around to reading it. :)

      I'll need to add that Brooks book to my writing tools shelf. Although, I'm not entirely sure I agree that voice can't be coached. Probably can't be "granted" or given to someone, but once you see what it is (in your own writing), you can definitely do things to embellish it.

      For me, I just needed someone to point it out to me in one of my stories and say, "See there? Do more of that!" Once I did, I magically started writing with personality. :)

      Appreciate your thoughtful comment, girl! Good to "see" you, and hope you're writing lots.

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  10. I'm glad to hear this isn't a Zen like process for someone else. When I started writing, years ago, I would bite down on a mouth guard because I was so incredibly tense.

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    1. I know! It's definitely a fight for me most days. And I'd love to say it's a purposeful and graceful conflict, like Judo or dance fighting, but it's really more of an alley brawl with me breaking beer bottles, biting, and whacking the manuscript with old, nail-studded lumber. :)

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  11. Thoroughly amused EJ! And this is a wonderful point:
    "For me, I just needed someone to point it out to me in one of my stories and say, "See there? Do more of that!" Once I did, I magically started writing with personality."

    I actually noticed my own voice similarly - I saw that I kept doing this ... thing. And those were the parts I loved the most in my books. Post-publishing, colleague of mine picked up my books and every day while reading me, he'd leave little post-its on my desk with a "nugget" (I'm hoping he meant "jewel" and not something else!) of a phrase or lines he'd loved. They were the ones I loved writing! I felt/feel super validated.

    I feel like if you can tap into "your voice" then the "alley brawl" is more of a brotherly slugfest ... but yes, when untapped - do bring the lumber. LOL

    Great stuff!!

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“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky