Tuesday, January 20, 2009

That Elusive "Voice"

I attended an editor’s chat the other day, and one of the questions asked was, “What makes a manuscript stand out the most?” Invariably, the answer from all the editors—including me—was voice. Some authors were put off by this. Either unsure what “voice” actually encompassed, or fearful because your author’s voice is not as easy to hone as the mechanics of writing a good novel.

Why would voice be the main selling point for a manuscript? Because while the words in a manuscript might be technically correct, they might not grab the reader—make them laugh and cry and feel with the characters. It’s voice that draws you in. It’s voice that make you read into the wee hours. It’s voice that sells a manuscript.

But how can one work on voice? Isn’t it something either a writer has or doesn’t?

It’s true that a certain aspect to your voice comes naturally, and there is little to be done about it. Yet, certainly, like other aspects of writing, voice can be honed and worked on.

One way to do this is by writing. Seriously. The more you write, the more your own unique voice will develop. I remember my first manuscript (which was a mess, by the way) was read by a NYT best-selling author, and when she got to the final forty pages or so, she said to me, “Ah-ha! Here is where you start to become publishable. Here is where your voice comes out.”

She was so right! I have since retired that manuscript, but, it was such a fabulous learning process! I often read manuscripts for submission and realize that this author’s voice doesn’t really shine until near the end.

There are many reasons for this. One being the author finally knows her characters by the end.

Which leads me to my next point. Get to know your characters. Do whatever you need to. Consider doing character sketches, or interviews, working out their GMC (goals, motivation, and conflict), and learning all you can about them. If you know them very well from chapter one, you will have a much better voice for them as you’re writing.

Finally, read widely in the genre you’re targeting. The voice for a Regency historical romance is very different than the voice for a sensual erotic contemporary. And the voice of a book written 10-15 years ago, even in the same genre, will be very different than the voice of a book that would be contracted today. I’m not suggesting you mirror another author’s voice, but be sure to make yours sound as marketable and fresh as you can within the confines of your own genre.

Also, I’d like to say that whatever your voice is (dark, humorous, sexy) work with it. And make it work for you.

How about you? Have you learned any tricks to honing your voice? I’d love to hear from you!

Renee Lynn
Editor--Champagne Line
The Wild Rose Press


Debra St. John said...

Voice is a tricky one! As for honing, I agree, the more you write, the better you get at finding your voice. For me voice is simply telling a story in my own way. (I was actually better at the voice thing than getting all of the right plot elements, character arcs, and POV into a story when I first began writing). Critiquers always said, "Your voice is great, but here's what you need to work on..."

Cari Quinn said...

Excellent post, Renee! If I'd had this post two years ago - and really followed your suggestions - I probably wouldn't have had to rewrite the same MS from scratch three times now (with numerous revision drafts in there, too, LOL.) I committed all the sins. Didn't know my characters well enough, didn't know the line I was targeting. But when all those cylinders finally start firing, it's a beautiful thing. :)

Every writer should hang this post on their wall, IMHO. This writer needs to, anyway. ;)

Eliza Knight said...

Hi Renee! Great post. I agree with you that the only way to really hone your voice is to keep on writing.

To be honest, the concept of voice is something that is still a little confusing to me, although I can recognize it in my writing. I don't know how it happened or how I got to that point where I have a distinctive voice, it's a mystery to me. So I do think part of it comes naturally, but I definitely look back at some of my work and think, YIKES--which proves practice can only make you better!

Thanks for sharing your advice!

christine M said...

This is a great post! Sometimes to get to know my characters I have them write a "Who I Am" essay.

Renee Lynn said...

Hi Debra! It's great that your voice came through early for you. You had half the battle already won! Thanks for checking out my blog.

Cari, so good to see you here! Thanks so much! I have a manuscript just like the one you're describing. LOL. And, you're so right--it IS a beautiful thing when it comes together. Thanks for stopping by :)

Eliza, thanks for commenting! Sounds like you honed your voice by writing, and it is coming through. But, it is SO true that in some ways, it will always be a bit elusive.

Hi Christine! That essay sounds like a fabulous idea. I alternate between using an interview, or just a sketch. Thanks for stopping by!


Clare Revell said...

I have a huge character sheet I go through for each of mine. It includes stuff I'll never need, favourite colour, least fave veggies and so on. As well as how they react to stress or spiders lol. But at least by the end of it I know them.