On Monday, Clare posted a great blog on Finding Your Voice. She pointed out that it’s critical for a writer to have a distinctive voice that fits the genre and helps pull the reader into the story. Along with her post, Clare got a number of excellent comments. Check them out when you get through with my post.
Today I want to add some additional thoughts on developing writer’s voice by comparing it to performing music.
If I asked a musician to play a melody on a trumpet, then asked another to play the same melody on a cello, chances are you could tell the difference between the two even though they played the same notes. Not only does one instrument sound different from the other, but individually, they can convey a variety of emotions based upon the style and technique of the musicians. Both can play the same melody, and when combined with the timbre of the instruments and their respective artists’ style, they can also invoke feelings and emotion.
In a similar manner, when it comes to defining the writer’s voice, it can be the combination of the author’s attitude, personality and character; the writer’s style that conveys the story. It’s called the writer’s voice. Voice is the persona of the story as interpreted by the reader.
So how do you find your writer’s voice and keep it going throughout your manuscript? Here are some tips.
First, start by writing to connect with your readers, not to impress them. Your voice is the direct connection into your reader’s head. Some might argue that the words are the connection. But I believe that the words are like the notes on the sheet music that a musician reads as he or she plays that trumpet or cello. Those notes printed on the musical staff have no value until they are “voiced” by the musician.
Likewise, those written words on the printed page of a book have no value until they are interpreted by the reader. With the musical example, the styles and techniques of the musicians are the connection to the listener. With the novel, the writer’s voice is the connection into the reader’s imagination. The pictures formed in the mind of the reader are strongest when the writer’s voice is solid, unique and original.
The best way to develop your writer’s voice is to simply let the words flow without restrictions—let them speak from your heart. Feel the emotions that your character or (first-person) narrator feels.
Equally important, avoid comparing yourself to other writers. Doing so can be restrictive or downright destructive to your voice. You are who you are, not someone else. Write from your heart while not trying to copy your favorite author. The writer’s voice you need to create is yours alone. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by other writers, but convert that inspiration into your own style, your own voice.
It’s also dangerous to compare yourself to other writers or become jealous of their style or accomplishments. Doing so always leads to frustration and a product that is not totally yours. If you’ve tried to inject someone else’s voice into your words, the lack of honesty will always come through to the reader.
Finally, as you work on your manuscript, try to visualize a specific reader and write directly to that person. Remember that you’re trying to communicate, to make a single connection with a single reader.
Just like a musician playing the notes on the sheet music, finding your writer’s voice is the process of communicating with your reader the emotions and feelings you feel through your characters. You can’t learn voice, but through writing, more writing and even more writing, you can develop a distinctive, unique writer’s voice.
Great post. For a few years I studied other writers’ voices to see how it worked for them and finally realised that it was must another way of copying. A long road led me to my voice. I finally have one that’s all mine.
Congrats, Roger. Not every writer gets that far. Thanks for your comments.
Great analogy, Joe. Thanks for another great post. Your reminder to write to a specific reader is one I needed to hear again.
Thanks Joe. Your analogy helps. I play guitar and I do a smooth jazz version of “Stepping Stone” by The Monkees. It sounds weird, but after playing it the standard way for years, I realized a different version of the song was inside me. I finally let it out and I’m happy I did. I can take that feeling and apply it to my writing.
Eric, you definitely found a path to your musical voice. It should work the same for your writer’s voice. Good luck!
I’d love to hear that song Eric. Have you recorded it?
Your post and advice reminds me of something my piano teacher said to me once. I took up the piano at age 53 and had to work my way through all the kids’ stuff. (I was stuck on mastering Wooly Bears for two months!). My first adult piece was “Blue Moon.” I loved playing it…loved messing with its tempo and the notes themselves. My teacher, who was really good, finally told me I had to first learn how to play it as it was written. Play the actual notes and notations, she said. I fought her because I wanted to play it “my way.” She finally got through to me — that there was something of great value in learning “the rules” as laid out by the arranger. And sure enough, once I learned to play “Blue Moon” straight, by the rules, my “own” version came out much richer. Voice is so very important in fiction but I wonder: Do you need to conquer “the rules” first in order to break away from them?
Kris, we need to get you and Eric together for a piano – guitar duet. So true about following the rules. You’ve got to know and understand them before you can break them.
Thanks for the great follow up post, Joe – as voice is such an important component in ensuring your work stands out. I do think that many people get stymied by their own expectations of how they should sound (and are therefore really trying to impress rather than write authentically) when ‘voice’ really comes from within when you are really invested in your characters and their story.
So true, Clare.
Excellent post, Joe. I especially like this advice: “First, start by writing to connect with your readers, not to impress them.” Excellent point, which some literary writers forget, leading to lack of an authentic, appealing voice in their stories.
And I think speaking to a specific, sympathetic reader will help, too.
Most of all, immerse yourself in the main character until you almost become that character. How do they speak? How do they think? That’s the key to developing a unique, authentic, even quirky voice for that character so readers really identify with him/her.
I love comparing writing to music because I’m convinced that technique is so important, and, frankly, I am easily annoyed by newbies who reject the rules/techniques out of hand.
I used to play the piano professionally, but before I could really put my soul/my own voice into a piece, I first had to master it technically.
The strange thing I’ve found about my own writing is that now that I have a voice (so I’m told), I can’t see it myself, although I can recognize voices in the works of other writers, and I certainly notice when a writer doesn’t have a voice. Perhaps the reason I don’t “see” my own voice is that it is so familiar to me by now.
Has anyone else noticed this?
You’re spot-on correct, Sheryl. It seems that only others can hear your writer’s voice because it occurs in their heads. As an example, if you told me that you chose your favorite shade of green to paint your house, I would have no idea what green it was until I saw it and characterized in my mind the particular shade from the other thousand possibilities. So you may never hear what your author voice sounds like. Just be thankful that you feel comfortable with it. Many writers never get that far.
An excellent article. When I was growing up both my sister and I learned to play piano. She played classical music and I loved to hear her play; she was that good. I never got the hang of reading music, and I learned to play “by ear” and preferred outdoor pursuits. I guess you could say I played with my own voice and did have a modicum of success. I believe my writing voice is getting stronger thanks to many excellent articles and points made in The Kill Zone. Many thanks. Frances Dunn
Thanks for sharing, Frances, and dropping by TKZ.
Awesome analogy Joe. We actually had this same conversation on an audiobook narrator’s blog recently in relation to how different narrators can do the same book, but it can come out completely different in audible feel to the listener.
I am most impressed with team writers, like you and Chris, who can write a book between two people and yet create a single voice in the story. It’s like being in a band I guess.
I used to play in a church worship band. I did hand percussion, vocals and sound effects. The first group I played with had awesome chemistry and we could jam in a seamless ad-lib for hours. But when some of the members retired/moved on it no longer worked the same with their replacements. The seams stretched to tears and produced a clunky robotic sound. While we played the same songs as before, the interpretation of the lead man had changed to where we no longer recognized the piece.
It’s hard enough to sing and play solo, but when pairs of writer’s can create a perfect literary song as one voice from two minds I’m amazed.
For instance, here’s AC/DC as perceived by a bunch of Finnish Farmers.
Great points, Basil. Establishing author voice alone is hard–doing it in collaboration is next to impossible. Definitely like being in a band only a million times more demanding. The good part is that if someone doesn’t like our book, I blame it on Lynn Sholes. And if they love the story, well . . .
The Finnish Farmers sound great, Basil. Now I know what to do with my old anvil.
‘alone is hard–doing it in collaboration is next to impossible. Definitely like being in a band…’
Ahh… Pink Floyd, ‘and if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes, I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon…
Wish I could click ‘Like’ on these Fatboy….
I’d of done the same for you. Though I’ve heard AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ dozens of times, your link allowed me to understand the lyrics for the first time
Joe–you capsulize it all beautifully at the end: “You can’t learn voice, but through writing, more writing, and even more writing, you can develop a distinctive, unique writer’s voice.” What this means to me is, the writer, over time, becoming comfortable in his own authorial skin.
But what CAN be learned–through reading others, and understanding who their readers are–is who your audience is likely to be. This is not a small question, at least for me. I am writing a suspense series, with a woman journalist at the center. But I still don’t really know who my central audience is. When you encourage writers to write for one ideal, imagined reader, that is very helpful. It means I have a problem to solve: how to match my voice to the most suitable readers out of the mass of people who read crime fiction.
Thank you yet again.
Thanks for the feedback, Barry. Try not to over think the point of writing to one ideal reader. If need be, picture someone you know who likes your writing or reads similar stories to yours. Keep them in mind as the words flow. Good luck!
Some one said that you have to write five bad novels first. And in such an exercise, a writer would find her voice. Your comparison to writing is very helpful. I think a writer has to be able to see something of his voice in order to maintain it during edits and revisions. Thanks for a great post and for the helpful comments.
Not trying to carry the various music analogies to an extreme (but plowing on anyway)~
As a songwriter I find different voices “all the time…” ~ to varying degrees of success, as the guy (OR gal, on occasion) who’s a partier, a drinker, a crier, an optimist, a rabble-rouser, a complainer, etc. Each song, especially in country music, is a chance to write, a “three-minute novel” ~ which makes being ADD & OCD not as bad as it could be…
Thanks for the insight. Writing lyrics is the best example of the economy of words you can find. All authors can learn from songwriters.
Joe, great advice! I think being true to ourselves in finding our own voice, will also lead to other realizations about our writing. For example, in writing my first thriller organically I found through writing some younger side characters that I enjoyed writing in a young voice and it came naturally to me. This led me to start reading books for teens and tweens and feeling at home there – so I am now writing a children’s series and in the first person (which is something I challenged myself to do with writing kidlit and had never done before – and now love doing). So, in exploring our writing organically (free-flowing without restrictions) to find our true voice and speak to our readers – we may be surprised at what else we discover. 🙂
Great comments, Donna. Thanks for sharing.
An outstanding post, Joe. I like the musical reference. in my head at least, it’s all about music and resonance. It’s like a moment in skiing when you become free of all friction. The bit about writing to one person is so true.
I think when the “voice” is really working, the reader becomes unaware that he is actually reading and becomes totally immersed in the moment. All this is much easier to say and talk about than to achieve on paper or computer screen. Alas!
“I think when the “voice” is really working, the reader becomes unaware that he is actually reading and becomes totally immersed in the moment”
You nailed it, Adam. You just said everything I tried to say, but in once sentence. Thanks.