The Power of Voice

Fist of lightningIt’s the most mysterious part of the fiction craft, but the one thing agents and editors say is most essential.

It’s something writers talk about––and readers respond to––but no one seems to know how to teach it.

Indeed, there are those who say it can’t be taught, because you either have it or you don’t.

It’s voice.

Writers hear about it all the time at conferences. Yet no one can agree even on a definition.

Over the years I’ve jotted down the ways agents and editors describe voice. Here are a few:

  • A combination of character, setting, page turning.
  • A distinctive style, like a Sergio Leone film.
  • It’s who you are.
  • Personality on the page.
  • It’s something written from your deepest truth.
  • Your expression as an artist.

You’ll often hear these same people say they turned down a book because the voice was “weak.”

So how the heck do you find your voice when the very definition is so vague? Is it something that can be developed? Is it something you’re just born with? Do you have to find it by trial and error, if you find it at all?

What if you write in different genres? Is your voice in a noir thriller going to be the same as your voice in a romance? Should it be?

In my new book, VOICE: The Secret Power of Great Writing, I provide the answers.

voice-cover small

And it starts with a stunning realization: voice does not come from the author.

I’ll let you chew on that a moment.

Now that I have your attention, let me explain. I mean that we should not conceive of voice as coming from the author alone, without any other considerations. The best fictional voice is an interplay between the characters and the author, and then between the author and his craft as he puts the words on the page.

My definition, therefore, is as follows:

CHARACTER background and language filtered through the AUTHOR’S heart, and rendered with craft on the PAGE = VOICE

In the book, I explain how this relationship works, and give you specific techniques to put it into practice. The goal is to make every book you write unique and compelling on its own terms.

I call this the CAP Method.

CAP

C is for Character. I describe five key questions a writer must answer for every POV character. Then we proceed to the best ways to both see and hear the characters before you write them.

A is for Author, and this is all about achieving symbiosis, that mysterious connection between creator and character. It’s similar to how great actors approach a role. I’ll show you how to do it.

Finally, P is for Page, the craft part of the writing, and here I offer you a writing technique that I’ve never seen taught before, something I developed from my own days as an actor. It’s a way to feel your character’s emotions every time you write a scene.

Which is when the magic happens.

And magic is what you need. Because the main complaint I hear these days from readers is that such-and-such a book was “okay,” but felt like the “same old, same old.”

Tapping into the power of voice will obliterate that objection.

Let me give you an example. Below is a paragraph from a published thriller describing a bit of New York City:

There were sidewalk vendors and bustling clothing stores and lines of people in front of curbside food carts. There was also a lot of scaffolding and cranes from new construction and building renovations. I even saw a Times Square-style double-decker bus go by filled with wide-eyed tourists.

Ugh. There were and There was in two consecutive sentences. Then simple reportage that could have come from a brochure. There is no voice here, no sense of character. Anyone could be describing this scene.

Now look at a master at work:

Some days hang over Manhattan like a huge pair of unseen pincers, slowly squeezing the city until you can hardly breathe. A low growl of thunder echoed up the cavern of Fifth Avenue and I looked up to where the sky started at the seventy-first floor of the Empire State Building. I could smell the rain. It was like the kind that hung above the orderly piles of concrete until it was soaked with dust and debris and when it came down it wasn’t rain at all, but the sweat of the city.

That’s the opening of Mickey Spillane’s The Killing Man, and from the get-go we are inside the character. We see the city through his eyes, feel it through his heart.

It’s the difference between fiction that is fine and fiction that is unforgettable.

An acquisitions editor for a major publisher, Marian Lizzi, once said, “As my first boss used to warn us green editorial assistants two decades ago, the type of submission that’s the toughest to spot – and the most essential to avoid — is the one that is skillful, competent, literate, and ultimately forgettable.”

That’s why voice is so important. It takes you from skillful, competent, literate, and forgettable to the kind of book we all love to find—unputdownable.

Which is why I felt we needed a book on the subject. It can be found at:

AMAZON

AMAZON INTERNATIONAL STORES

BARNES & NOBLE

KOBO

PRINT VERSION

So what characters come to mind when you think of a compelling voice? I nominate Holden Caulfield. What about you?

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49 thoughts on “The Power of Voice

  1. Voice an interesting word. Forced air, vocal chords separation, vibration, equals inflection—Or something like that. Science can explain the mechanics of our voice. The voice on a written page is not as easy. In my opinion, the authors voice is his personality, a term defined however, don’t believe psychiatrists know exactly what it is either. My belief concerning writer’s voice is—Our Personality, alternative personality, and imagined personality, past, present, and future self, on a page.
    Crazy you think.
    All I can say is that’s my voice.

    • Part of it is “personality,” but I would argue only as it intersects with, and absorbs, the life of the character. In the book I do talk about those authors where the personality takes the lead, on purpose. Like Douglas Adams or Tom Robbins. But for most authors, the ideal is to put character and author together and create something unique.

  2. Grabbed it from Amazon the day you sent out your newsletter, Jim. I think this is the biggest struggle most authors have. We can learn every element of fiction, but voice has always seemed one of those abstract pillars of great writing that you either have or you don’t. That’s why I was thrilled to see my favorite teacher release a book on the subject. What’s funny is that my wife can spot it when my voice comes through. She’ll read something I’ve written and roll her eyes, asking who wrote this. But when I get it right, not even knowing how, she’ll say, “Yeah, that’s you.” Now to see if you can teach me how to get it right not by accident. Thanks for all you do for us, Jim. God bless

    • Thanks, Ron. When you write a series character, there should be a consistency in voice. What I admire is when a writer (like an Elmore Leonard) can write standalones and find unique voice each time. I hope I got that across in the book. Enjoy!

  3. I was invited to speak at a local library book club, and after I spoke, one member came up to me and said she enjoyed the talk, and added, “You sound just like you write.”

    For me, it’ ‘my’ voice when the words flow from the fingertips, seeming to bypass the brain entirely.

    • What I do in the book is offer some techniques for doing just that, similar to the way an actor prepares for a role. The great actors aren’t “thinking” about the role when they’re on stage…they ‘become” the character. Writers can do that, too.

  4. I can’t explain how I achieve the voice of a character. I just sort of lean into the writing. That’s all I can tell you.

    • Nothing wrong with an intuitive approach. But many writers could use some technique to harness and guide voice, intentionally achieving an effect. That’s what I’m trying to offer here.

  5. Good morning, Jim.

    Wow, another great foundational concept revealed for all of us to see, a diamond in the rough, cut and polished. Like Ron, I snapped up the book last night when I found your newsletter. I’ve started it. Can’t wait to read the rest of it.

    I remember how WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE and the “mirror moment” made a light bulb go on for me, shedding light on the structure of the story and what makes it resonate.

    Now, I predict that this concept will help us intentionally build a voice for our stories that will be fresh and memorable. And if voice is so important for success, we’ll take that also.

    As to characters with compelling voice: One of my favorites is Sister Justicia Marie in the Force of Habit series. You can’t help laughing until you cry, cheering her on at the same time.

    Thanks for refining some gold and sharing it with us.

    • Thanks, Steve. In these books I’m attempting to “pop the hood” and offer some tools. This one hit me one day as I thought about all the different ways people describe voice, with very little agreement!

  6. Jim,

    I snapped up a copy of Voice as soon as your newsletter arrived in my inbox. I love this topic, is something I really enjoy creating in my own fiction, took a workshop on it a few years ago but don’t have a great craft book on it–not until now. Can’t wait to dive into it!

    Tana French’s Dublin Murder squad novels have great voice, perhaps in part because like you, French was an actor. Each novel is told from a different first person POV, each novel essentially being the personal case of that particular narrator’s career, the voice strong and unique to that narrator, packed with emotion, attitude, and world view.

    Thanks for writing Voice!

    • Speaking of acting, Dale, I loved doing improv. Was even part of a couple of troops. You have to become a character instantly, with personality and ways of speaking. I think all writers should take a community course in improv sometime. It’s fun, but also instructive.

  7. I snapped the book up on Thursday when the newsletter came out and I just finished yesterday and am busy making notes. Even snapped off an instant 300+ words reading one section of the book! WOOHOOO!!!!! I’ve desperately been trying to fit writing back into my life.

    Voice IS a frustrating topic for a writer and I’d never come across any good explanations. Yours made sense to me. I don’t see how Voice can only be about me the author–I have about as mundane a life as there is on the planet so I could not possibly be all there is to my novel’s voice–there is nothing for me to contribute to the novel except my passion for the theme and of course, as you’ve noted, skill on the page. The rest is becoming the character.

    The Hunger Games is a good recent example of voice. And while his writing style would be poo-poo’d nowadays because of the lengthy prose, Zane Grey wrote my favorite character “Nevada” Jim Lacy in Forlorn River–the most memorable character I’ve ever read about, hands down. So much so that I think part of my makeup as a writer is wanting there to be a little “Nevada” in all my own characters.

    This weekend my goal is to take my favorite nuggets from Voice, Write Your Novel from the Middle and SuperStructure and use it to brainstorm 2 novel series that I want to develop. I think these books have good nuggets to help me dig in and think hard about the Loooooong arc of my characters over that span of books–that’s the toughest thing about books in series.

    And if you ever get a hankering to tackle another subject on writing–honing in on writing the series would be a good one. 😎

    Thanks for Voice. I love it when a book on writing shoots story sparks out while you read. 😎

  8. “So what characters come to mind when you think of a compelling voice?
    I nominate Holden Caulfield.
    “What about you?”

    Well thanks for the consideration, but I don’t think I’m quite on par with HC… 🙂

    I think I’d go all classic and nominate Ismael from Moby Dick, starting as he did, if you’ll pardon the expression, as a fish out of water (and yes, I know whales are mammals…) – you can see him go from trepidation to grudging acceptance to survivor.

  9. Love this. I like to think of voice (one of the six core competencies of successful writing) as “the music of your words.” Which, as an analogy, touches all the bases (as you have here). Flat notes can kill a performance, as can monotone or too many layers of sound. Some would say the best music (in the regard) is a soft breeze, rather than a storm (though sometimes a storm is fascinating to hear).

    By the way, thanks for all you do for writers, and your peers. You’ve been kind enough to blurb two of my writing books, and contribute to my website, and I appreciate it.

    • Thanks for the additional comments, Larry. Flat notes are, for me, a real drag (as in the first NY example). Maybe if other things are working I won’t stop reading, but the experience is not going to be memorable.

  10. Hi Jim,

    I bought “Voice” the same day you published it and had hoped to be among the first to give it 5 stars, but alas, I still haven’t found time to read it. It’s next on the list.

    When I first started to write in English, I was very shy. So I wrote in a very neutral manner.

    I didn’t dare to be me.

    It helped me to play World of Warcraft in a slightly roleplaying manner where my different characters had different personalities.

    By being schizophrenic I began daring to be more loose.

    So yeah, when you suggest that voice is not just personality but also the character in the story, I agree.

    Can’t wait to read your book and learn more, because I’m still puzzled when you suggest to write a journal in the voice of every main character. How do you make them talk differently?

    • The voice journal is the way you FIND those different voices. You write and “listen” and “let the voice emerge.” You visualize the character and see her in different situations, and just write, free-form, until you start to hear something unique. It will happen for you, and it’s exciting when it does!

  11. I’d like to add, too, that the most compelling fiction voice I’ve heard comes from Colin Harrison, who has been dubbed “the poet laureate of American thriller writers.” Readers — for a quick taste, go to Amazon and find his book “Manhattan Nocturne,” and read the first page in the sample provided. Me thinks this will blow you away.

  12. Grabbed it Thursday, finished it Friday, and am now applying it to my WIP. It truly inspires one of those “ah ha!” moments.

  13. Just received the print version this morning. (Yes I am old fashioned , I still prefer holding a book in my hands and underlining with pen and pencil!)
    Favorite line so far is one you quote on page 9: “You got to know how to tickle it so it comes out laughing.”
    Very visual, even if it is “voice.”
    My favorite writer is Liz Curtis Higgs. She takes characters from the bible and makes them real. Whether the book is a bible study or a novel based loosely on biblical heroines, the main character talks and lives on the page.

    Not easily done.

  14. Hi, Jim,
    “Voice” is how I would tell the story to a friend. And the place — New York or Sour Florida or St. Louis, would be another character in that story. My voice tries to convey the sights, smells, feel — all the senses. Difficult to achieve, but worth the struggle.

  15. Thank you so much for a book on the most confusing part of writing to me. I downloaded it as soon as I saw your newsletter. I look forward to reading it. It is next on my list. My roommate has mentioned that she likes my voice. I tried to get her to pinpoint what about it that she liked. All she could tell me is that it sounded great for ta scene I wrote as an exercise. That was a long time ago, and she still asks me when I am going to expand on it.

    • Rebecca, that’s a good thing to hear, that someone likes your voice. What I’m trying to do is give some tools and techniques so we can be intentional about it, and vary it when needs be. Thanks for your support.

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  17. Huck’s voice in Huckleberry Finn. It’s stayed with me since I first read it in 3rd grade. (a long, long time ago)

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  19. Great observations, great review. You sure made your point about what makes a book unputdownable. Great post!

  20. Last night, a combination of indigestion and insomnia woke me at 2 a.m. Rolaids and a bowl of ice cream didn’t help. Knew I’d be up for hours, so figured I’d read your new book. Well, by 5 a.m., the indigestion passed, but you made my insomnia worse b/c the squirrel cage in my brain started whirling with your ideas. Thanks, Jim, for transforming a sleepless night into a productive brainstorm session!

  21. Looks like a book I need to add to my list. I was lucky enough to get to meet Mickey here in South Carolina and get a picture with him!

  22. Such a pleasure and privilege to have seen part of this lesson in person.

    Your Wednesday session was the best at Bouchercon, thank you so much.

    Oh, and I’ll expect a commission. At at roundtable lunch, someone with MWA said they were considering you for a conference and asked my opinion.

    My response was “yes hell yes.”

    When Hank Phillippi Ryan comes up during the intermission to show off her “mirror moment,” I think you can call that a win.

    Terri

  23. I never had real issues with voice (folks can tell what I wrote by how it sounds ) but the disconnect comes when folks find how I write and how I speak are vastly different. Do I have to write how I speak? If I spoke how I write it would be a lot of conscious effort on my part lolz. My major complaint is that i get misunderstood often despite my ability to write well. Would this book be of any help to me? I have several books in print and would like to move more copies. :3

    • Kp, the book is to help you NOT write like you speak, but to achieve that connection of character and author. Give it a try, because that’s what makes for great fiction.

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