Images by Julie Lewis
Voice matters most. Aristotle’s Poetics famously revealed the Greek philosopher’s answer to the question of whether plot or character is the more essential to a good tragedy. He chose plot. Of course, if there’s no story, no building momentum, no carefully constructed pace, whether quiet or thrilling, there’s nothing worth reading. But no novel or story can stand without all three legs of its tripod: plot, character, and voice. Plot is what happens, character is by whom and to whom -- both vital -- but voice reveals the real nitty gritty. Not just the narrator’s identity and personality, but more importantly, the writer’s. Voice defines the relationship between writer and reader. Especially with the inundation of media competing for our attention today, voice matters most.
If there’s no voice inviting the reader in, the reader often won’t read enough to see the plot begin to build. Your plot needs a compelling story question to pique the reader’s interest – your hook. Get the voice right, and your hook will then keep the reader’s interest, increasing their investment of time. The question, who’s telling me this story, is key. Do I want to hang out with this person, this writer, for 300 pages? Through voice, you’ll ensure the answer is yes.
Voice can be tricky. Writers can aim to give voice to people who don’t have it. Giving voice is not the same thing as delivering voice. One gives agency, the other lends atmosphere. Lifting repression or halting the silencing of marginalized people can be an important literary endeavor. But it’s not voice. Voice is more synonymous with vibe, short for vibration. Mood. Emotional response. Do you recognize and understand the personality of the writer you’re reading? Do you get the writer’s vibe? Are you vibing with the writer? Do you trust him or her? Are you intrigued to get to know him or her better? Do you read a page, or a paragraph, and want more? Literary agent Aimee Ashcraft of New York’s Brower Literary said she looks for “voicey YA that’s experimental.” She prefers “historical fantasy that’s voicey.” Basically, she wants the writer to reveal him or herself to the reader (and the agent! and the publisher!) from the word go.
Voice is the writer’s manner of expression, not the protagonist’s. The writer, the narrator, and the main character are three distinct people – unless the narrator and the main character are merged, in which case, that distinction blurs. But even if narrator and main character are tightly aligned, the writer’s voice should still be distinct. If your protagonist’s favorite thing in the world is a good old-fashioned hoe-down, your narrator doesn’t have to show up in a gingham checked shirt and over-alls. And neither do you.
Voice is consistent. The plot will sweep a full spectrum, pace will pick up and slow down, there will naturally be diversity in the work. But the emotional delivery, the way the reader connects with the writer, remains. Further, the way that writer connects with readers should be essentially consistent throughout all their work. A writer is gentle or playful or erudite or brash. Or a wild mix of delivery, page by page. But he or she presents a personality and sticks with it. Writers who cross genres sometimes use pseudonyms for differentiation. Generally speaking though, if the emotional vibe between writer and reader meets reader expectation of voice, whatever the genre, no pseudonym’s required. My best advice is to simply be you.
So how to develop voice? Five ideas:
1) Don’t overthink. Write how you speak, for a first draft. Rapido! Rapido! Get your words down on the page, fast. Use dictation software, if it helps you speak your story. I like Dragon Dictation.
2) Go easy. My high school creative writing instructor recommended beginning a story “Dear Mom,” and then you just write a letter. My mom both loved and criticized everything I wrote, so writing to her would have stymied me. But it’s a great point. Pick one person to write for, and your voice will remain consistent. Who loves what you write? Who gets you? Who brings out your good stuff? For me, it’s my friend Annie J. She doesn’t even know this! She’s awesome and fun and just formal enough, I think, to demand my attention to detail and clarity – and she wouldn’t put up with too many gratuitous swear words. She makes me a better me, even when she’s only in my imagination while I’m writing. It works for revising too – read your draft out loud as if Annie J’s in the room. You might find some good opportunities for rephrasing.
3) Slang. Use it, but don’t abuse it. If you aim for a super casual relationship with your reader that allows for f-bombs and whatever-the-hells, have at it. But if that doesn’t suit your readership, be judicious.
4) Be yourself! Be someone else! You can take on whatever voice suits your story. Know your genre. Know your market – and use the right voice, accordingly. You can ask someone to check your voice for authenticity when you’re finished. Does it sound real? Is some phrasing awkward or incorrectly used? Is it right for its time period? Be brave and ask.
5) Eavesdrop. My 8th grade creative writing teacher had us sit in a coffee shop to record nearby conversations. Today we might get busted for stalking or general weirdness doing that. Maybe you can use your phone to record people talking and transcribe the words later. Or transcribe conversations on TV shows. Copy down passages from other authors whose voices you admire. By writing it down, you develop your ear for nuance, fine-tuning vocabulary and manners of expression. Of course, conversation does not equal dialogue between characters, and dialogue does not equal voice -- but studied eavesdropping informs the dialogue between you and your reader, i.e. voice.
Nancy Freund is a writer, editor, mentor, speaker, and prior English teacher. Born in New York, raised in Kansas City, and educated in Los Angeles, she was married in England, and today lives in Switzerland.
She is the author of Foreword Reviews finalist for Book of the Year in General Fiction and Category Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Prize 'Rapeseed,' (Gobreau Press, 2013) 'Global Home Cooking: International Families' Favorite Recipes' which earned the Eric Hoffer Prize Honorable Mention and Amazon #1 bestseller status (2014), and 'Mailbox: A Scattershot Novel of Racing, Dares and Danger, Occasional Nakedness, and Faith' which was named a Foreword Reviews finalist for Young Adult Book of Year (2015) and a Writer's Digest Young Adult/Middle Grade finalist.
Her writing has appeared in many journals and her radio interviews have aired on BBC London, World Radio Switzerland, and Talk Radio Europe. She holds a B.A. in English/Creative Writing and an M.Ed. from UCLA. She begins work toward her Masters in Creative Writing from Cambridge this October.