All you have to do to get a room full of writers to panic is to say “voice.” Why? Because voice in an intimidating, somewhat vague topic.
Why do I say “vague”? Because you can point to the where and the when and all the little sensory details and say “this is setting.” You can list details about the protagonist as well as tag lines and specific actions and say “this is character.” You can just as easily point to plot, symbols and theme.
Voice? That’s a lot less specfic but it also gets confusing because there is voice and author voice. In short, voice is how a story sounds. Author’s voice is how you, the author, sound. One encompasses a single story. One is built story upon story.
Think about it. Jane Yolen is known for being literary and lyrical. That’s her author’s voice. But if you read her picture book Owl Moon it sounds very different from How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight, another picture book. Owl Moon is poetic and lyrical. Dinosaurs has the rhythym and feel of a poem but with a cheeky humor.
The Commander Toad books sound different still because they are early readers. That means that the sentences are simpler and shorter. They have to be for the readership.
Young adult, fantasy, historic fiction, Yolen writes it all and each story has a voice that it appropriate for the type of story, the setting and the audience. Each story is distinct from the others yet they all combine to create her author’s voice.
So what do we get out of this?
The voice for a particular piece of writing will be determined by an amorphous cloud of factors. When I write for Red Line, I adapt their academic but friendly style. I say adapt because I can frequently tell when my editor changes something. The voice of the individual book is flaovored by the examples and individual words that I choose. My editor’s choices? Not quite the same.
So a lot of voice is word choice. What factors go into your word choice?
- Where you were raised
- Where you live now
- Your age
- Your education
- Your hobbies and interests
All of these things go into how you describe a dog, a sunrise or a dog barking like a fool at the sunrise.
But the particular piece of writing also factors into your word choice. People Pray sounds completely different from What’s Up, Chuck? That said, they both sound utterly and entirely like me. Educated and cheeky. That’s by people who like me. Otherwise cheeky is often replaced by irreverant which is actually okay by me.
To get a feel for voice, you have to write. A lot. You have to read it out loud. You have to know what sounds like you, what sounds over written and what sounds like your editor filled in a missing example.