Perhaps the most frustrating advice a new writer can hear is, “I just don’t think it has enough voice.” Or the voice isn’t convincing enough, strong enough, or some other form of “not enough.” It’s enough to make a writer want to stab someone with their red pen.
So what is voice anyway? Simply put, it’s the sound and flow of an author because of the way he or she chooses to put words together. Harry Potter, for example, is uniquely JK Rowling. But if you pay careful attention, there’s a bit of Roald Dahl in there too. Did Roald Dahl influence JK Rowling? Absolutely. She’s cited his work as among some of her favorites in several places. Now hold that thought, we’re coming back to it in a bit.
So you’ve been told to develop your authorial voice? Even if you’ve got some grasp of what that means for your work, how the heck do you go about it? Glad you asked.
The voice my writing carries depends on the type of writing I’m doing. Because I’m also an academic, with a strong background in the sciences, I turn on my academic voice when I’m writing non-fiction. This usually means a strict adherence to grammar and appropriate style. Passive voice is expected in academic writing, and this is especially true in the sciences. I try to avoid all use of first person — it’s a strict case of “just the facts ma’am.” And not much else. It’s hard to put a lot of flare in a research paper, but you have more flexibility in informative articles that are also meant to entertain.
The complete opposite is true for fiction writing, which is why I suspect you’re really here. The use of active voice is used almost exclusively. But whether or not I use first person or third depends on the story. In A Girl Called Graye, for example, I began in first person but quickly realized I was severely limited to only what Graye could see and hear. This would force me to create situations where she was eavesdropping, passed out, or otherwise engaged while she “accidentally” overheard something. This was not something I wanted to rely on, so I stopped and rewrote the story in third person. The opposite is true for Oliver’s Ghost Machine. The story is told through Oliver’s perspective and I feel that’s what’s best for that particular story for several reasons, but that’s another post.
But that’s just writing tense, isn’t it? Yes, but that’s the first important decision you have to make before you can begin to develop your authorial voice. Will you write in first person or third? It makes a difference. Each has its advantages and its limitations. If you’re new to this writing thing, you’ll need to stick with the one that’s most comfortable for you — at least in the beginning — while you develop your unique authorial voice.
Once you’ve determined whether first or third person is natural for you to start with, then we can start to have fun. Pick one of your favorite books in the same genre in which you write and use only the first line. For me, that would definitely be Harry Potter (middle grade/young adult, fantasy/adventure).
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
Next, pick another writer in your same genre that you also admire, but that has a completely different feel. For me, I’m going to choose Huckleberry Finn. Now take that first line from above, and make it sound like Mark Twain wrote it. It might sound something like this:
“Mr. and Missus Dursley lived at number four, Privet Drive, but that ain’t no matter. If you went askin’, they’d say they were normal folk, thank you much.”
Same information. Very different feel. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the ever elusive voice. Now you try it, but on a larger scale. Write a chapter or two in another author’s voice. Make your work sound like JK Rowling, Mark Twain, Jane Austin, Roald Dahl, or anyone else. Barbara Park’s character, Junie B. Jones, would be great fun!
Now for the hard part: Keep doing it until you find your own voice.
For those of you paying close attention, you may recall that Harry Potter is written in third person, while Huckberry Finn is written in first person. I’m comfortable with both, but this is why I went on that whole first vs. third person spill. If you’re not comfortable with moving between the two, make sure the books you choose to work with in this exercise are written in the same tense as your own work.
The Logic Behind It...
The problem with most writing classes today is that we’re not taught to do this. We’re handed the dreaded blank page and told to write. Then to write with stronger voice. Huh?
If we were learning to play classical music, no one would hand us a blank scrap of music paper and say, “Here, go write a song.” No one puts a paint brush in an art student’s hand and says, “Here you go. Go create a masterpiece.” The musician learns to develop their own style by playing Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Beetoven, and Bach. The art student by studying the methods used by Picasso, van Gogh, and Monet. Then they go and create fantastical masterpieces.
The same is true for us, they just forgot to tell us. We find our own voice by practicing with the voices of other writers. So which of the greats will you use to practice writing with voice?