Voice: You Win Some, You Lose Some

Your character’s voice may be loud and clear but it won’t appeal to everyone.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

“I want to love your character’s voice.” So many editors say this, or something like it.

Me? When I pick up a new book, I want to love the voice too. I finish almost every book I start whether it is print or audio. If you need an estimate, I probably finish 90% of the books I begin.

But in the last month, I’ve returned three books unfinished. The first was a print book. I read about 30% of the book before I flipped to the end. Hmm. Okay. But I didn’t care enough to finish it.

The second was an audio book. I was baking Christmas cookies and doing dishes. The character was a whiny, deceitful pain. This isn’t to say that every character I read has to be a goodie, but this character wasn’t cutting it. The author is a favorite but I only made it through about ten minutes of the audio book. I may try the print book because that can make a difference.

The third was also an audio book. I’m almost 20% of my way through the book. Instead of listening while I cooked dinner last night, I started a new book. Hmm. Yes. That’s what an interesting character sounds like. I’m not 100% certain what is going on but I will keep listening and find out because this character is clearly someone who gets things done. The book that I’m giving up on is an award winner with a main character who has taken two decisive actions so far and one of them involved picking out a skirt. Help me! No, never mind. I’ll just quit listening.

The thing is – I don’t think any of these books are bad. The first is a popular mystery series. The second is by a VERY popular author. The third is an award winning book.

Sometimes the problem is that the reader (in this case, me) just isn’t in the right mood for the book. Other times the book would never suit this reader but other readers would love it.

When it comes to voice, you win some and you lose some. No character’s voice is going to make every single reader happy and that’s okay. That is why your manuscript may take many attempts to land with the right agent or editor. It is simply a matter of taste and timing.


Finding Your Voice as a Writer

Writer’s voice is one of those topics that many writers find confusing. And that isn’t surprising because it is fairly abstract. It is easy to see if your sentence has a subject and verb.

But how can you tell if your writing reflects your voice?

The first step is understanding what voice is. Voice is how you sound.  Voice in writing is made up of the specific words you use and the way you combine them into sentences and paragraphs. Do you use mostly simple sentences?  Or do you put together sentences that use a lot of phrases and clauses?  Or maybe fragments.  All of these things will influence your voice – how your writing sounds.

You develop your voice by writing a lot.  It will come through in your word choices and the examples you use.  It is what makes you sound like you.  It is why I could tell whenever one particular editor made changes in my work.  The voice was never quite right.

Years ago when I made my first serious attempt at fiction, I was drafting a fantasy novel. While I was working on my novel, I could not read fantasy. If I did, my voice would slide and change. Eventually my writing sounded a lot like whoever I was reading.

I recently realized that I no longer have that problem. This year I’ve worked on both a cozy mystery and a middle grade science fiction novel. I have read so many books and many of them have been cozies or science fiction. And I just realized that I never had a problem falling into someone else’s voice. I had found my own.

If you still aren’t sure about voice, listen to audiobooks. Not one or two either. Listen to one when you wash the dishes or fold laundry. Listen to your favorite authors and listen to what makes one different from another. Perhaps one is lyrical and the other earthy. Now record your own writing. You can do it. Just make a video on your phone. Then listen to it. What is it that makes you sound like you?

Listen and write. Write and read. Then write some more. Word by word, you are building your confidence and your voice.


Reading Like a Writer, or the Weekly Library Haul

To the right is a photo of this week’s library haul.

In order of appearance they are:

The Thursday Murder Club. This one is my book club book for next week.

Stealing Home. An interesting looking graphic novel.

History Smashers: The Mayflower. History that hopefully challenges the folklore.

Muddle School. Humorous graphic novel.

Uncommon Grounds. Still more history.

Apollo Murders. A space mystery.

The Smithsonian Book of Space Exploration. Space nonfiction.

Horse Power. A picture book I discovered while looking for something else in the library catalogue.

Beastly Bionics. Browsable nonfiction. I’d like to work on some ideas for this type of book.

Trees. More browsable nonfiction.

My library haul has a tendency to vary from week to week. Sometimes I request books that I see written up in newsletters or articles. Other times I request books that someone else has recommended. Then there are the books that have something to do with ongoing projects or ideas that I’m playing around with.

History and science tend tend to be constants. So do graphic novels and picture books. The beautiful thing is that I can find inspiration just about anywhere. That’s just part of my nature. I’d love to write a browsable nonfiction book. I also adore history. So maybe one of the non-browsable titles in this pile will inspire something of that kind.

When I’m writing fantasy, I don’t tend to read fantasy. I’m not super confident in my fantasy voice and I feel like my reading has a tendency to influence my writing. Mysteries, science fiction and nonfiction don’t pose that kind of problem for me.

I do talk to writers who tell me that they don’t read. “I just don’t like the books that I find.” Really? If you don’t like reading, why are you writing? I just don’t get it. Why not knit or cook or do something else creative.

If you are writing, you should be reading. So, tell me. What is waiting for you at the library?


2 Reasons Authors Should Write with Audiobooks in Mind

Amazon.com: Cemetery Boys (9781250250469): Thomas, Aiden: Books

Thursday I finished listening to the audiobook of Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas. After the end of the book, the author and the reader, Avi Roque, interviewed each other. Interestingly enough, my mystery writers group also ended up discussing audiobooks. Here are two things I took away from these conversations.

Each Character Must Sound Distinct

This was something Roque pointed out. When they are reading an entire book, they need to give each character a distinct sound. Imagine how much more informative our dialogue would be if we, the authors, give each character a unique sound or voice.

There are a variety of ways we can do this. Part of this comes through in our choice of vocabulary. Someone who grows up in 1920s New York City will have a very different vocabulary than a comoparable character who grows up in the 1950s. This means that even if they interact, they will each have their own vocabulary.

But vocabulary isn’t all. Each character will have a unique way of stringing words together. My husband and son were each born in the same city. They grew up under similar circumstances. My husband is the king of the brief declarative sentence. My son? His opinions are just as strong but he has mastered what can only be called a flow of conscious. Even when they discuss the same things, each sounds unique.

Hearing Your Work Changes How You Write

One author pointed out that several people she knows have recorded audio books. Hearing their work read aloud by a professional impacted forever how they write, actually modifying their individual styles. Their writing got tighter.

Something I’ve noticed about my own writing is that sometimes I fall into the formal tone and elaborate sentence structure I firmed up as a grad student. It works fine in print but when I hear it read? On a good day it sounds melodramatic and pompous.

Hearing your work read loud impacts your pacing, your rhythm and your word choice. You notice that you’ve used the same word, or another version of this word, three times in one paragraph. You notice when your sentence structure isn’t varied.

Even if you aren’t writing an audio script, think audio book while you write. Give each character a voice and make sure you smooth out the bumps in your writing.


Voice and the Research Rabbit Hole

Research can be a dangerous thing. First of all, there is the rabbit hole effect where you go online to look something up and emerge an hour later without that particular fact, but with 15 others.

Then there are those moments when you have to listen to a piece of music and it gets stuck in your head. Hank Williams singing I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry has been stuck in my head since Monday night.  A lesson I was studying was discussing voice and they had us listen to Hank Williams, B.J. Thomas, and Cassandra Wilson.

Amazon.com: I Saw The Light [DVD] [2016]: Movies & TVThe author of the lesson encouraged us to listen to how the same song sounded completely different when performed by these three different singers.  Cassandra’s Wilson’s version is a soft jazz ballad, smooth as honey.  B.J. Thomas?  He is a popular singer from the 60’s and 70’s world of pop.  His sound was more Tony Bennett to my untrained ears.  Hank Williams carried it with the twang and soulful sound I associate with this particular song.

How do different singers each give a song their own unique voice?  In part, it is done with their choice of instruments.  A piano is going to create a completely different sound than the wail of a steel guitar.  Harmonies, background vocals and more can come into play.

What does this have to do with voice?  Thomas and Wilson didn’t just sing ala Hank Williams.  They took the song and made it their own.

When you write something, you need to make it sound like you.  If you tell the story of the Three Pigs, it should sound entirely different than if I told it.  And neither one of us should ever be confused with Jane Yolen or even another poet like Naomi Shihab Nye.  And if Hank Williams told the story it would sound uniquely like Hank Williams.

Did you know that Tom Hiddleston played Hank Williams in I Saw the LIght? Rabbit hole. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Three Things to Try When Your Voice Feels Forced

Voice.  Agents and editors want it but it can be a tricky thing to develop.  I’m fairly confident in my voice when I’m writing nonfiction but when I write fiction?  Everything will be going well and then . . . what?  Why don’t I sound like ME anymore?  When this happens, try these three things to sound like yourself.

  1.  Watch your reading.  I don’t have to be careful when I’m writing nonfiction or a picture book, but fantasy?  I’m not sure what the issue is but when I am writing fantasy, I can’t read fantasy.  I suspect this may be part of my mystery writing problem as well.  A top-notch author is like a magnet pulling me off course.  So when I’m working on these types of projects, I don’t read in the same genre.
  2. Listen to your words.  Sometimes I have the Word extension Speak read my writing aloud.  It may be a tinny, robot voice but it is a tinny, robot voice that helps poor word choices stand out.  I don’t understand why it works but it does.  When I can stop laughing at some of the pronunciations.  Yeah, at heart I’m a bratty 12 year-old.
  3. Speak your story.  When all else fails, don’t type your story out, speak it.  If you have a word to text program or app, use it.  If not, you can record yourself and then type it out although this is MUCH slower.  Not that word to text is a one step process.  You are going to have to go back and reread it making corrections.

Voice is all about sounding like you.  There are a lot of things that go into your voice – your age, where you grew up, your vocation, your education and more.  If you feel like you are still struggling to develop your voice, head on over to the Muffin and check out my column for today, 5 Tips to Help Develop Your Author Voice.


Understanding Voice in 3 Easy Steps

Develop your voice.  Find an editor who loves your voice.  We want writers with an approachable voice.

Whether you are reading Writer’s Digest, blogs or tweets, you are going to find discussions and mentions of voice.  It can be confusing if you don’t know what voice is.

Voice is how you sound.  Understanding that is Step 1.  When I put it like that, it sounds simple enough but I suspect that the confusion comes in because we are talking about writing.  Voice in writing is made up of the vocabulary you choose and the sentences you write.  Do you use mostly simply sentences?  Or perhaps you are a writer who puts together sentences that use a lot of phrases and clauses.  Or maybe fragments.  All of these things will influence your voice – how your writing sounds.

Step 2.  Listen to audiobooks.  And I don’t mean listen to one or two.  This is something you are trying to learn so listen to an audiobook or two a month.  Do this and you will learn to recognize the voices of the writers you love.  One may be earthy and straightforward while another is poetic and literary.  You will learn to hear this.  You will also learn how important it is to like an author’s voice when you start listening to a book and realize that there is no earthly way you can listen to it.  I realize made it about 5 minutes into a book before giving up.  The cover described this popular speaker and author as humble but I caught the sneer.  Back into my library bag this braggert went.

Step 3.  You will develop your own voice by writing and I mean writing a lot.  It will come through in your word choices and the examples you use.  It is what makes you sound like you.  It is why I could tell whenever one particular editor made changes in my work.  The voice was never quite right.

To hear the voice in your writing, you may want to use Voice, a Word tool that reads selected text.  Or you might use an app on your phone that allows you to record and play back.  I haven’t done this yet but it is something I want to play with.  I’m thinking about trying ASR Voice Recorder.

Listening to my own writing will, I hope, help me sound more like . . . me.


Reading While Writing

What do you read while you are working on a project?  And I’m not asking about your research.  I mean what types of books for young readers do you read.

You’ll note that I am assuming that you read young people’s literature.  That’s the best way to learn what the competition, you fellow writers, are up to but also an excellent way to learn and be inspired.

That said, sometimes I have to limit my reading.  It isn’t a problem when I’m working on a new picture book.  I can read any picture book that grabs my attention.

But when I am writing fantasy, I tend not to read other fantasy.  I’m not 100% certain why that is but I think it has something to do with voice.  So many fantasy authors have such strong, poetic voices.  When I read fantasy while writing fantasy, I find my own voice drifting.

Why is this? I’m not certain but I think it is because I lack confidence in my fantasy voice.

I’m confident in my nonfiction voice.  After all, I’ve published nonfiction so I can start writing something new and fall into my own voice fairly quickly.  No, it isn’t immediate simply because it usually takes me a “rubbish” sentence or two to hit my stride.  But that’s okay because I frequently don’t know how I want to start a manuscript until I know how I’m ending it.  It is easy enough to go back to the beginning and replace those “off” sentences.

I’m also confident in my picture book voice. It isn’t because I’ve published picture books, because I haven’t.  But I like to play with words.  Sometimes when I hit my stride while walking on the treadmill, I find myself working through the chorus on a new picture book project, playing with the rhythm of the language.

But when it comes to fiction, I’ve yet to develop this confidence.  What will it take?  The same thing it always takes in writing – practice, practice, practice.  Until then, I’ll have to watch what I read when I am writing older fiction.


Find Yourself as a Writer

Tracee Ellis Ross is a comedian and a producer, a model and an actress.  Obviously she is a woman of great talent but I have to admit that I was surprised when I saw an interview where she talked about journaling.  I guess that as a writer, I tend to think of journaling as a “writer’s thing.”  After all, it is a great way to find your personal voice.

So it makes sense that as a comedian, she would also need to find her voice.  After all, she wants to sound like herself and not someone else.

That’s something that each of us definitely needs to do as a writer.  Find your voice.

There are multiple parts to this.  First of all, take a good look at where you came from.  I’m in Missouri.  I grew up in Missouri.  But I was born in Texas and have deep roots there as well.  I live in the city or at least the suburbs.  But again, I also have deep roots in the country.  My grandmother grew up in a small town so my grandparents made certain that I spent a lot of time in the countryside.  But I’m also well read and well educated.  All of this shows in both my personality and my voice.  As my son puts it — I’m not sure if I’m a liberal red neck or a red neck liberal, but I can swing either way.

Second, you need to know who you are as a writer.  I am primarily a nonfiction writer.  That said, my audience is not narrowly defined.  It stretches from third grade through high school.  I write about history, race, science and anthropology.  These are the topics that interest me, and I don’t try to defend them.  Young readers who are interested in these topics will get it.  They like them too.

Third, you need to know how you approach your writing.  I can be more than a bit irreverent.  I see truths that make my fellow adults uncomfortable.  I take this truth very seriously but my sense of humor is strong.  My mother in law has referred to me as cheeky which I take as a compliment.

All of this goes into shaping the things that I chose to write as well as my voice.  It is who I am.  Not everyone gets it but that’s okay.  This is me and what I write.  I’m not going to say that finding this spot was easy or quick, but it was essential.

So now let me ask – have you defined yourself?


Voice: Capturing the Specifics

pick-upI’m 1/2 way through my scene outline for Iron Mountain and I have to admit that I’m getting jazzed.  I really want to get started writing this book!  But I’m going to have to do some work to recapture the voice.

I started another draft of this novel something over a year ago.  I had the perfect voice going.  It’s a bit like my own voice but not entirely.  My son lovingly tells me that I sound like a well educated pirate.  When cornered, almost literally, he explained that I have a tendency to combine grand-dad’s earthy commentary with the vocabulary that comes with a masters.

I don’t want the novel to sound entirely like me.  After all, each book should have its own voice.  So like me but not quite.  I think of it as how a poem sounds when recited by different readers or, as Lee Wind explained in his post, a song sounds when performed by different artists.  The example that Wind gives is “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”  He encourages readers to listen to various versions of the song and note how each artist makes it distinct.  He provides links to Marvin Gaye, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Slits and more.  What is it that makes each performance unique?  Figure that out and you’ve got a grip on voice.

The tricky thing is that I know the voice of this book when I hear it.  It is in the tones and sentence structure of the people I know in southern Missouri.  I heard it in the pages of Winter’s Bone.  I wanted to find it in a TED talk by JD Vance but he’s gone polished and loss that homey edge.  I know it when I hear it.  So as I get ready step into this world, I’ve got to hear it again.  I seem to remember the music in O Brother Where Art Thou nodding in the right direction.

Sounds like I’ve got some listening to do.