Finding Your Voice

What does it mean when someone says the author has found his or her voice? What’s voice? Why is it important? Finding your voice is critical to your success.

You might be thinking: “What? What do you mean I need to find a voice? Don’t I already have one?”

You’re right; you do. But it might not be the right voice. Finding a voice is finding the best narrator for the story. The voice in which you’d tell a historical fiction set in Victorian England would be very different from one set in the far-flung future on the planet Teratatur? The language would change, the ratio of description to dialogue, the pacing, all of this impacts voice, as does the reader’s point of view.

A book written from the perspective of a five year old girl from Russia should read very differently than that written from the perspective of a ninety year old male Texan, or a thousand year old alien. Voice goes further though, it includes syntax, tone, style, and something ephemeral and difficult to describe that you only know when you hear it. I see it as the point at which your writing becomes a character.

A voice can be a unique signature. Can you identify your favourite author’s writing anywhere? Probably. That’s because you recognize the sound of their voice.

A unique voice is a rare thing. But it can carry a novel and it can sell many many books.

Let’s look at some examples of different voices:

Astrid Lindgren’s ‘Pippi Longstocking’

‘Two things she took from the ship. A little monkey whose name was Mr Nilsson—he was a present from her father—and a big suitcase full of gold coins. The sailors stood at the railing with their eyes fixed on Pippi for as long as they could see her. She walked firmly away without looking back. Mr Nilsson sat on her shoulder, and she carried the suitcase in one hand.’

Whimsical, farcical, someone once said combine the ridiculous with the unexpected and you have humour. This is written in the omniscient point of view in which the narrator knows all and is not telling the story from the perspective of a character.

Rick Riordan’s ‘The Lightning Thief’

‘Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.

If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life.’

This is direct, present tense, first person narration that is as close as the reader can get to the narrator. It’s also light and casual. It feels modern.

J.K. Rowling, ‘Harry Potter’

‘Mr and Mrs  Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.’

And so begins the most popular series in history. It starts with direct telling, again in the omniscient voice, which is growing ever more rare a point of view in contemporary writing (but in later books Rowling does focus her Point of View on specific characters and adopts a more popular third person limited style). I can practically taste the British accent (and some marmalade).

Roald Dahl, ‘Matilda’

‘It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.’

Dahl has one of the most distinctive voices in children’s literature. In many ways it’s because it’s so shockingly honest. We can all learn a lot from Dahl.

Here’s a bit from a manuscript of mine, (Keep in a Cold Dark Place):

‘[Limpy] narrowed her eyes and slowly turned, shaking, and russet red.

“You know,” she said, forcing a smile. “I’m pretty good at cutting out eyes.” From the depths of her apron, she pulled a paring knife. “I can peel skin good too.”

She was of course referring to potato eyes and potato skin, but she wasn’t about to explain that to the boys.’

Voice can be dry, funny, telling, action packed, dialogue-heavy, or punchy (Lee Childs’ simple sentence structure and short chapters contribute to the spare voice of his antihero Jack Reacher and the pacing of a thriller).

The other thing that no one ever told me about voice is that your voice is only good for one book or a series of related books. Change the genre, change from a young adult novel to an adult or a children’s book, change the characters, and you change the voice.

Finding your voice is not necessarily something you stumble upon only after writing the first million words, it’s about reading widely, experimenting, and considering all your choices of word, syntax, chapter length, point of view, pacing, etc. before you start. It is one of the more important considerations for your novel. Short stories are a great way to take risks on new voices in order to see what works and what doesn’t.

Categories:   Writing Tips