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April 12, 2012

Do Your Stories Match Your Voice?

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I’ve been having a great conversation with Serena Yung in the comments of one of my posts about voice from a few weeks ago, so voice has been on my mind again this week.  When I found a fantastic article by author Julie Leto about voice and how it relates to our writing, I knew I had to blog about it.

Julie shares a quote by Laura Backes of the Children’s Book Insider that I love:

“The voice is what beckons the reader to curl up with a book and whispers, ‘Pay attention.  I’m going to tell you a story.'”

“I’m going to tell you a story.”  That concept goes along with my other favorite voice concept by Janice Hardy:

“[V]oice is that sense there’s a person behind the words.”

I’m going to tell you a story. There’s a person behind the words.  Voice is intimacy.  Voice is what invites readers to join the characters in their journey.

What Goes into Our Voice?

How do we invite readers to come closer?  Many people have tried to identify what goes into creating our voice, but it’s a hard thing to define.  We often just know it when we see it.

In her article, Julie shares what she sees as the five most important elements of voice:

  • Description:

How much do we use?  How many senses do we evoke?  What tone do we take when we write?  The importance of description to us as authors and how we use it comes down to the types of stories we innately want to tell.

  • Character:

What types of characters do we gravitate toward while we’re writing?  Some of us write stronger alpha males than others, some write snarkier women.  The common threads between our characters—from one heroine to another or one hero to another—give insight into our voice.  This doesn’t mean we can’t create characters who aren’t a good match for our voice, but they might be harder to write.

  • Style:

What are our writing habits?  Do we end scenes or chapters on cliffhangers?  Do we write with a lyrical quality or are our sentence more choppy?  The words we use and how we break up sentences, paragraphs, and chapters all act as one ingredient of our voice.

  • Plot:

Do we write beat-driven plots where readers sense when big events occur?  Or do we write plots where one event blends into the next?  What kind of villains or secondary characters do we write, and what kind of conflict do they create?

  • Premise and Theme:

What’s the big picture and/or theme of our stories?  Writers typically revisit similar themes over and over.  At the high level, we might also write stories with similar premises.  Heroines who discover how special they are.  Heroes who must fight to get what they want.

Did you notice what all those things have in common?  We find the commonalities we tend to gravitate toward after the fact—after we have multiple stories to compare.

Gaining a Voice Takes Lots of Practice

In other words, we have to practice writing a lot before we become good at recognizing what makes our writing ours alone and what makes our voice unique.  I didn’t recognize my voice until I started my third story.  Julie said it took her the same number of manuscripts.

She also points out that we can’t explore any of those elements with our voice until we have the craft down.  If we’re still struggling with plot structure, our unique approach to plotting won’t be as clear.  If we’re still head-hopping, the point-of-view of our characters won’t be deep enough to show who they really are.  Same with the other elements.

We Have a Voice, Now What?

Let’s say we’ve written enough that we have a clear idea of what makes our voice unique, what do we do with that knowledge?

When we know the idiosyncrasies of our voice, we know what types of stories are a good match for us.  Maybe we’re writing YA stories but our voice would work well in adult fiction.  Maybe comedy would be a better match than suspense.  Or maybe our plotting approach would fit novellas more than novels.

In other words, once we know our strengths, we can play to them.  Julie calls this writing “a book of our voice” rather than chasing “the book of our heart.”  We can discover the types of stories we truly love to write.  And in many cases, those stories will be easier to write than if we fight our natural tendencies.

This knowledge might help us decide between multiple shiny projects.  Does one story idea fit our voice better than the other?  If so, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write the other one, but we’ll be aware upfront that we might find it more difficult.

Also, the more we know our voice, the more we’ll be able to resist misguided suggestions from others.  One of my beta readers struggled with her editor because she tends to write dark stories and her editor wanted her to make a story fluffier and happier.  She’d have been miserable if she tried to fit that box.  Knowing the stories that fit her helps her know when to say “no.”

Know Thyself and Others Will Too

We’ve all heard how we should write multiple stories rather than editing the same one over and over.  That advice isn’t just about making sure we’re moving forward.

Writing new stories with new characters and new plots and new premises all works together to help us find the commonalities in our writing.  Those commonalities inform our voice, the stories we like to write, and the stories that might be easier to write.

Interestingly enough, being aware of those commonalities can also help us create our brand.  Readers would know that we’ll give them a story with X kind of characters, Y kind of style, or Z kind of plot.  (“Ooo, she writes the best tortured heroes.”)  And readers who know what to expect from our writing—even if we switch genres—might become fans of us rather than just readers of our books.

How well do you know your voice?  Can you describe it in regards to those five elements?  If you’ve written multiple stories, how many did it take for you to have a clear idea of your voice?  What do you think of the “book of our voice” idea?  Did you gain any other insights from Julie’s article?

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28 Comments on "Do Your Stories Match Your Voice?"

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Carradee
Hm. Back in December, I approached this from the tack of “Catering to your strengths/writing to hide your weaknesses“, and that’s how I usually think of it. For example, I want to write a cozy mystery series—but I’m a character-based writer. I come up with characters in situations, and plot comes later. At this point, I’m not solid enough in plotting to trust myself with writing a mystery series. Eventually, I hope to get there; but for now, I know I can’t pull it off. I also intentionally adjust my “voice” on different stories, but I think I’ve written enough to know what comes naturally to me. 1. Description: light to moderate amount; more tactile than average writer; matter-of-fact tone. 2. Characters: tend to be not quite right, emotionally; often introverted; tend to have more sense than sensibility 😉 3. Style: concise, minimal 4. Plot: My novels seem to funnel, with the plot at first seeming to have different aspects that actually end up tying together at the end. 5. Premise and Theme: As a Christian, I start with the premise that man’s basically bad, not good, and… I’ve recently realized that I have multiple themes in stuff, depending on how you look at it. A lot of my work could be interpreted as the outcome of trusting overmuch in the wrong things and not enough in the right things. At least, that’s how I see myself. ^_^ Someone else will probably have a different interpretation. I’ve been compared to… Read more »
Angela Ackerman

Voice is probably the most difficult thing to define and one of the hardest for a writer to master. This is a most awesome post!

Angela

Frances Silversmith
Frances Silversmith

Hah, now I know what it is that I’ve been looking for this past year and more. Haven’t found it yet, but I think I’m getting close.

Thank you for this enlightening post!

Frances

Amanda

I think I need to take more classes. Or a class, to begin with, since I’ve never taken one. So far, all of my characters have a certain degree of snark in them (frankly, the snarkier, the better). All of the heroines are emotionally damaged in some way, and one even has a mental disorder!

The funny thing is, one of my beta readers commented on my most recent WIP that she couldn’t hear “me” in the story (this is the one with the mentally unstable heroine.) The character was so different from all the ones I’d written before that it threw her off. At first I thought that was a good thing. I wanted to create a character that was different enough from others I’d created that people couldn’t say, oh, she’s just a slightly different version of so-and-so. But the more I think about it, the more I start to think maybe she’s kinda right, and then I shake myself and say screw it.

I’ve got another topic for you: tackling the synopsis! I hate writing them! Any tips?

CC MacKenzie
Great post, Jami. Hmm, voice, an interesting one indeed. Strangely enough it’s the one thing I’ve never struggled with and I wonder if it’s because I’ve been writing for years without being aware of it. When my mother-in-law was alive (she was a voracious reader) we lived in Africa and she lived in Oban, Scotland. So my regular handwritten letters to her about her son and three grandchildren were eighteen to twenty pages long. She used to say she felt I was standing in the room with her and my letters made her laugh and cry. The penny should have dropped then about writing fiction, but I digress. Then I wrote ‘how to’ books for the sales team of a construction multi-national. Since I didn’t want the girls to yawn and fall asleep I tried to make them ‘readable’ as well as factual. Not easy, but those books were thumb eared in the sales centres so I must have done something right. And the girls used to tell me that they heard ‘me’ in the middle of explaining the why? of doing brain numbing competitor analysis. Something that’s really important is the rhythm of speech or the heart beat of the story. The da dum da dum da dum. Each one of us has our own beat as a writer. And we only find that once we’ve been writing for some considerable time. It’s a beat that appears to be a constant throughout all my stories be it paranormal romance… Read more »
KN
KN

I’m embarrassed to admit that my ‘voice’ in high school and college was, by turns, brash, clumsy and Cambridge-worthy snobbish. The next 2 decades were full of some blunt life lessons, and when I came back to writing in my late 30s, my voice had changed.

My word choices are now simpler, the plot lines cleaner and the details muted, but it comes across as warm and intimate, even when the story is in the epic style. The greatest delight I have is when a reader says “I feel like I was there, watching the action unfold”.

Thankfully, I have awesome first readers who give me good feedback and let me know where I’m overshooting the mark. (Or flock-shooting. I do a lot of that.) I hope that another 100K words under my belt will help me gain a little more control and consistency.

Serena
Serena
I have to say, this is my favorite article so far apart from the plot vs character-driven one, not just because you mentioned me, but because this is so helpful and insightful! (Be prepared for a long comment; this topic is just too interesting and I have too much to say. Hope you don’t mind…) About the five aspects, I especially love the parts about recurring kinds of characters, story premises, and themes. Some of my recurring: –Themes: Love, friendship, soulmate-ship (yeah made-up word), and best-friendship, hope, and the imagination. –Characters: The best friends, soul mates, the artistic or imaginative characters; the emotional, empathetic, and caring one (usually male); the severe pessimist (usually male); the severe optimist (usually female); and the passionate character. –Story premises: I don’t know why, but for some reason, my stories seem to almost always be about a savior best friend, or savior lover. So it’s the savior, the saved, and the new, bright, wonderful life after being saved. Why am I so obsessed with saviors and being saved? The creepy (and cool) thing is that all these stories flowed naturally from me, as in they all came from the deepest parts of my heart; they were the stories and characters I seriously, rapturously HAD to write. I never consciously intended to spin around this same story—they just…happened. The subconscious is a curious thing. I found out this part of my voice (the story premise part especially) after I finished 3 major stories (I had a… Read more »
Rebekah Loper

I don’t know that I’m at the point yet where I can describe my own voice, but I am starting to notice what I enjoy writing and what I’m good at doing, as well as what types of themes, characters, etc, I gravitate toward.

I, so far, write a lot of female main characters, because I’ve never had men that I had a good relationship with until I met my husband. I’ve started branching out more, but still gravitate toward a woman’s mindset.

I tend to write dark fantasy, and I know exactly why – my life has been anything but cheery. I like to explore the what-ifs of situations, and like Carradde above, I also work from the Christian mindset that man gravitates toward evil more naturally than good.

But evil makes for such interesting stories :D.

Carradee

But evil makes for such interesting stories 😀 .

Agreed!

Nancy S. Thompson

I’m very tuned into my voice. I immerse myself into my characters, so I’m truly in their heads & vice versa. I’m not so sure about the practice part, at least not for everybody. I never even knew about voice when I started writing. It just came out. And at least half of everything I write is from a guy’s POV, yet I feel intensely intimate with it. But I do so agree that the voice is one of THE most important aspects of a novel. It’s what nearly drove me to violence when I read “Shatter Me”. *shivers at the grating, drama-queen voice*. Great post. I’ll be referring back to it many times, I’m sure.

BTW – you got a mention over at my place today. I’m doing the A to Z & today is “M is for Mentor” day. Have a great weekend!

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[…] Writing Stuff In my last post, we talked about voice and how we tend to write the same types of characters, premises, and themes over and over.  That’s not a bad thing.  Those stories resonate with us as […]

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[…] Do your stories match your voice? by Jami Gold […]

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[…] Jami Gold and Kristen Lamboffered posts this week about finding your voice in writing. I kind of stumbled […]

Violetta
Violetta

I just wanted to thank you for explaining this stuff. My best friend and I started out hoping to be “the next Lewis and Tolkien”, but we have such different voices that it’s hard to even bounce ideas off each other without hitting a formidable communication barrier. It’s helpful to know that the problem isn’t really either of us, but just natural human diversity running its course.

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