Finding a Voice by Christine Duncan Recently a couple of my kids admitted to reading my blog. One told me it was like visiting me. The other one (who doesn’t need to visit since he still lives with us) told me I sound a little more relaxed. This is possibly because on the blog, I don’t need to be nagging at that particular son, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

The thing they both are hitting on is voice–which I think is something that many new authors struggle with. The reason I think, it is a struggle is because writers are told they need to write according to a plan. And in the plan there are all these elements that need to be in there. For instance, in the beginning of my story, I need to introduce the basic plot question, I need to set the time and place, introduce the characters and their goals and snag the reader. All of which is true, but if the reader doesn’t like the voice, they will not finish the book. So the first step in establishing a voice may be relaxing a little bit, making a note somewhere about what you think may be missing, but just writing the first draft as it comes. You can add missing elements (it was a dark and stormy night.) in the second draft.

Voice should feel easy–which doesn’t make it easy to write of course, but it may. Okay, thoroughly confused? Let me put it this way–if you like the character you are writing about (or hate the villain) it will come through in your voice. If the place you are writing about is somewhere you want to visit, it will come through.

The second step with voice is knowing your characters and setting yourself. So when the villain chases the heroine down the steps, you don’t stop and say, OMG did I put steps in this house? You know the house, the steps are there. You may not have described them yet, but that is what the second draft is for. Mark that spot with your question (use highlight or use the comment feature or just underline your hard copy) and go on. Similarly, the villain can’t be in a wheel chair in that scenario, but then you know that too.

Some folks do elaborate questionnaires to decide what the characters are like. They fill out sheets telling themselves they will know their characters better when they decide that the heroine’s goal is to go to law school and escape the ghetto and that she would rather eat asparagus than broccoli. If it works for you, go for it. Me, I have to keep going back to those sheets every time the heroine eats to see if she wants spaghetti or not. It feels clunky.

However, I have been known to sit in a restaurant with my critique group talking about our characters and what they would do in certain situations as though they were dear friends who lived just around the corner. We have gotten a few weird looks from folks who listen, because usually the books in progress are either paranormal or murder mysteries and folks wonder about us when we sit there and decide that Amanda would not throw the cat at the ghost. It’s just not like her. She’s a cat lover. But maybe the cat gets scared and jumps, clawing poor Amanda. That might work.

Brainstorming can be a way to get to know your character and feel comfortable with your voice. Talking it out can keep you feeling like you’re in the world you are creating.

Another part of voice is word choice. People say new writers tend to use big words. Or maybe a lot of words. Maybe. But I’ve only met one woman who did that. Mostly I have sat in critique groups where writers wrote only dialog because they were afraid of losing readers with their description. Other times they used just minimal description and hoped that the reader could follow along. You need to make sure the reader can see what you see. Just telling me the alley is dark, does not tell me it is strewn with litter that is apt to trip the fleeing heroine.

Writers can’t be afraid of words. Just picky about them.
We also have to know the rules of grammar and when to break them. Like the two sentence fragments I just wrote. You see, voice is dependent on that too. If the scene is scary, or fast paced action, you might want to chop the sentences up. Some writing styles are more lean than others, accept what you write, as long as it’s clear.

Voice is what separates you from the next writer. It’s the written equivalent of your face in the mirror. Your voice should reflect you. And if you can’t find it, maybe what you’re writing isn’t really you.


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