Wednesday, January 31, 2018

In Search of Voice

By David E. Sharp

Do you find it difficult to answer the question, "What do you write?" Oh, sure. You've got words to fill the blank, but saying Biography or Police Procedural or Horror doesn't do justice to the manuscript you've obsessed over into the obscene hours of the night for the past several months. Something is missing. And that something is voice. Specifically, your voice. It's what makes your story what it is.

Nobody wants to read a book with no personality. Give your story a voice!

Creepy staring faces on the cover is optional, though.

As a librarian, I recommend a lot of books. I've come to learn that describing the plot is rarely the best way to hook a reader. It's the experience that gets people interested. So, rather than hand a copy of Harry Potter to somebody and say, "Try some urban fantasy, kid," I'm more likely to describe it as magical, adventurous, and maybe even whimsical. On the other hand, if I think somebody's looking for an urban fantasy with more emphasis on the urban, I'll turn them to Jim Butcher's Dresden Files.

When I began writing, long before I could grow facial hair, I didn't have any lofty goals. If I could pass a dull afternoon, that was reason enough. My characters lacked proper motivation. My grammar was riddled with errors. My plots had more holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese at the wrong end of a firing range. But one thing I had going for me was voice.

Later on, when I began to take writing more seriously, I had improved my plotting, characterization and grammar issues, but my voice eluded me. I hated anything I wrote, and I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong. Revisions didn't help. Rewrites didn't help. Burning them in a wastebasket improved them, but still left me without a story to share.

Voice is important! This girl will tell you.
Or, she would if she could talk. How'd she lose her whole mouth, anyway?
Actually, this picture gives me the creeps. Let's move on.

After some mild depression in college, I got sick of all the dreariness around me. I just wanted to smile at something, damn it! I started typing away at an old idea with no ambitions other than to laugh at my characters as I tormented them on my page. Without meaning to, I bumbled smack into my missing ingredient. I had forsaken my voice.

My voice isn't always comical. Like my literal voice, it can take on many tones. But a lighter approach to fiction is what helped me sync with myself. Your voice is among your greatest assets in writing. It's the best tool in your arsenal to take a dry narrative and turn it into a true experience. But it's easy to overlook. 

Maybe your biography is candid and reflective, or maybe it's witty and self-deprecating. Your police procedural may be gritty and violent, or it could be offbeat and full of banter. Scary is implied in your horror story, but it might be bleak and disturbing or it could be darkly humorous, yet suspenseful.

Every book has a voice. Check out all these voices.
Shelved together, with a bunch of majesty and stuff.
It's like a choir you can keep in your bedroom.
Or your home office, or something.

Your voice is your seasoning. Readers won't stand for bland writing. How did you find your voice? If you had to describe your writing without talking about the plot or characters, what words would you use? Even more important, are those words anywhere in your query letter? Let us know in the comments.

And for more reading on finding your voice, check out the articles below:

Voice in Writing: Developing a Unique Writing Voice - Writer's Digest

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