Developing Your Voice: Part One

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This is, I hope, going to be a several-part series on developing your voice as a writer. It stems from a lecture I gave at a workshop a couple of years ago, and I hope it’ll be of some use to the Magical Words readers.

What is voice?
Voice is the distinctive style that tells you who wrote the book you’re reading as much as the name on the cover does. It’s not terribly likely, for example, that a reader would mistake Hemingway for Dickens: they’re very nearly the antitheses of one another.

A friend of mine has often said that she thinks people who grow up to be professional writers usually come to the table with a couple of cards in their hands. Voice, dialog, description, character development, plot, motivation–whatever your couple of cards might be, chances are you’re going to have to work hard to learn the rest.

I came to the table with two cards: voice and dialog. My writing sounded like me, right from the get-go; take a pile of essays or stories for a class and if you knew me at all, you could tell which one I’d written. In college when the professor would read stories anonymously, it usually took about three sentences for everybody to kind of sit back and relax because they knew whose this one was. So in retrospect, when I sat down to start preparing a lecture on this topic, I realized that perhaps I’d chosen poorly. This wasn’t something I’d *studied*, on my writer’s journey. It came naturally.

On the other hand, I also realized that having a strong natural voice meant I’d had a lot of leg work to do when I stepped outside of what came most easily to me. And not to be self-aggrandizing so much as to sort of say “Here’s my leg to stand on,” here are links to excerpts from three very different story voices I’ve worked in:

Chapter one of URBAN SHAMAN : urban fantasy, first person snark

Excerpt from THE QUEEN’S BASTARD : historical fantasy, tight third person

The Day the Pirate Attacked : children’s story, third person

URBAN SHAMAN is without question my natural voice. I write those books very nearly stream-of-consciousness, without often stopping to think about stylistic choices or word usage. THE QUEEN’S BASTARD is almost entirely its opposite: slower, more deliberate, and a much different cadence that requires an attempt at a whole different vocabulary. “Pirate” is sheer bright fun, meant to be engaging to kids. So the point of this series is to hopefully help you learn to recognize not only what your first and most natural voice is, but also to push beyond that and try your hand and developing other voices for your writing career.

How do you develop your voice?

In all honesty, it’s the same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. But it’s also about trust. I know a lot of writers who have been screwed up by listening hard to people telling them how they “should” write, and trying to do that for years and years, rather than trusting themselves and their own style.

This actually comes down to something I think is a little ironic about this series: I think trying to teach someone how to develop their voice is very dangerous. I figure there’s an equally good chance of me managing to screw you up entirely as there is of helping.

Really, though, a significant part of developing your own voice is trusting yourself. As a professional writer, I passionately believe that the only way to succeed is to be true to yourself. Don’t try to write to the market, because the market’s going to change by the time you’re done writing your book, much less by the time it gets published. Don’t try to sound like Nora Roberts or Michael Connelly because you think that’s what’s going to make a story sell. Your passion and your talent are going to make it sell.

Okay, so I just said don’t try to sound like Nora Roberts or Michael Connelly. Now I’m going to say, “Well, *except*…”

If you want to write chick lit, for pity’s sake, read Jennifer Crusie. Read Meg Cabot. Read Stephanie Plum, for that matter. If you want to write romance, read Nora and Kat Martin and Teresa Medeiros. If you want to write crime, read Michael Connelly and John Grisham and Raymond Chandler. *Learn* from them. Discover what you love about their writing. Absorb what they do: their wordplay, their methods of showing emotion or description, their cadence as storytellers. Then write. Don’t try to ape them, but take what you’ve learned–and this isn’t even necessarily a conscious learning process–and write. We all know what a Sam Spade noir detective sounds like. The important thing is that we don’t know what *your* Sam Spade sounds like. He’s not going to sound like Dashiell Hammett’s Spade, because you’re not Hammett.

I have a great quote from Louis L’Amour–“I took a number of stories by popular writers as well as others by Maupassant, O. Henry, Stevenson, etc., and studied them carefully. Modifying what I learned over the next few years, I began to sell.”

This is exactly what I’m talking about. L’Amour apparently took a very deliberate approach, and I tend to be a bit more haphazard myself, but what he’s saying here is, I think, a crux of developing your own voice. Read, learn, adapt. This is the first step, and I imagine most Magical Words readers are avid readers already, so I’m going to assume the groundwork’s been done here.

Next week I’m going to look at things that inform your voice as a writer for any specific story you’re telling. That one is potentially very long, so it may get broken up over a couple of weeks, but that’s what’s coming down the road.

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4 comments to Developing Your Voice: Part One

  • Catie, I *met* you from the Urban Shaman series, and fell in love with your voice. Then when I picked up the first book from another series, I was again in love with your voice — but it was a different one! Whoowhoo! Loved it!

    So many writers have only one voice, and the moment you pick up their work, you know it is theirs. Only a very few, really good writers, develop a different voice. (Leonard Elmore is a fantastic example of a voice master.) You are one of those few with multiple, distinctive voices. I can’t think of a better person to write this *voice series* of blogs.

  • Mikaela

    This was an intresting post. I have no idea what my voice is. I probably have one, but I cannot pinpoint it. I have feeling I need to work on it more. I read alot of fantasy and urban fantasy. I have started to think about the books that I read lately. Mostly, what I don’t like with them. ( Too wordy. Too much information. Pacing slightly off, etc) I probably should analyze what I like, too. :)

  • This is great, Catie. I actually intend to write a bit about voice next week, too, in the context of the next step in the “Getting Started” series: finding the voice for an individual project. I have no doubt that the topic is big enough and important enough that we can both cover it and complement each other’s posts. Looking forward to reading your next post!

  • Robin

    Thanks for the post-I have a question on this (though perhaps you and David will answer it next week anyway): I recently switched the POV in my WIP from first to third person so I could follow more than one person around, but I feel like I lost a lot of the voice I liked in the work when I started narrating myself (I mostly write boring law stuff, so…), instead of letting my MC do it for me. Any tips on this? I’m trying to get into the characters’ heads more, but a lot of it sounds more lifeless than it did before. I’ve always been told that I have a distinctive voice, but I’m having trouble finding it to my satisfaction in third person. Ideas?