Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Capturing Voice!

“Didn’t love the voice.”

“Didn’t connect with the voice.”

“Nothing special about the voice.”

These or similar phrases are often used in rejection letters by agents and editors as reasons for passing on a particular query or manuscript. Conversely, when an agent or editor falls in love with a manuscript, they often comment that they, “love the voice.”

Everything that a reader sees and experiences in a novel is filtered through the voice. No wonder voice plays such a significant role in the success or failure of a manuscript.

Yet often writers feel a great deal of confusion and frustration concerning voice. It seems like such an abstract concept, hard to pin down, difficult to define. Many believe voice can’t be taught or learned; it’s inherent.

My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that voice is a quality of writing that can be taught, learned, worked at, and improved, just like any other aspect of writing.

Voice is critically linked to character and point of view. Particularly in YA novels, since they typically employ a first person or close third person point of view, a novel’s voice is often essentially the main character’s voice (or in the case of dual or multiple POVs, voices). I believe the key to voice, in this type of novel, is striving to put oneself right inside the POV character’s head and heart with each line that is written, so that each word on the page is imbued with that character’s unique individual way of perceiving and relating to their world.

What kind of words does the character use, both in dialogue and internally?
Is the character verbose or quiet?
Are there words or expressions that are unique to your character or their world?
Does your character spew their feelings in continuous stream of consciousness run-on sentences?
Or are they reserved, perhaps needing to have their true thoughts and feelings pried from them?
Do they have a sense of humor?
Do they use slang or profanity?
Sparingly or non-stop?
Are they honest with themselves?
Do they understand themselves?
Is their worldview straight-forward and logical, or is it filtered through the eye of an artist, or a dreamer?
Do they wear pinstriped suits or pajama pants?

These traits will be reflected in their thoughts and the type of words they choose and how those words are structured into sentences and paragraphs—their voice.

Below are four contrasting examples of voice from opening lines of YA novels (or in one case, a short story). Note the difference in vocabulary and sentence structure, and the resulting impact on voice in each example.

 “Crap. There’s a naked freshman chained to my locker. No. Not naked. Briefs. Not a good look, kid.”
–from Sing Me to Sleep, by Angela Morrison

“Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day. It seemed like just another Monday, innocent but for its essential Mondayness, not to mention its’ Januaryness.”
–from Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor

“I didn’t tell anyone how dire shit had become. Yeah, maybe my old man could slip a few buck in an envelope, mail it to my Brooklyn apartment (where it might get carried off by a pack of gangster rats), but he had his own worries.”—from “Angels in the Snow,”
-by Matt de la Pena, in the holiday story collection, My True Love Gave to Me, edited by Stephanie Perkins

“This is how it all begins. With Zephyr and Fry—reigning neighborhood sociopaths—torpedoing after me and the whole forest floor shaking under my feet as I blast through air, trees, this white-hot panic.”
–from I’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson

Like other aspects of writing, one of the best ways to learn about voice is by carefully examining voice in novels you particularly admire. What is it about the voice that works? What kind of language does the author use and what does this convey about the character, story, and mood? What makes the voice feel authentic and interesting and engaging?

Probably, though, the best way to learn more about voice is by practicing. I suggest pushing yourself deep inside your POV character’s heart and soul and viewing the world through their senses. Then, write on!

What are your thoughts on voice? What novels would you recommend as outstanding examples of voice? Any tips that have helped you better understand and improve voice in your writing?

And for some other thoughts on voice, here’s a link to a post on VOICE by my Pitch Wars co-mentor, Mónica B.W.

By Susan Gray Foster


  1. Voice is tricky. Finding a unique one for my characters is one of my toughest tasks.

    1. I agree; it is tricky. Sometimes I think you can't force it too much, but if you can really get inside your character, often it will start to flow. :)

  2. I feel like I really need to just BECOME my character in order to write. I'm often shocked by what comes out of character's mouths sometimes because I'm entrenched so deeply. I know a story isn't going to make it if I can't figure out who the protagonist is deep inside which is why I try to really hash out the details before I plunge in.
    Sometimes I don't really "get" it, though, until I'm 50 pages in and suddenly it's a like a little starburst goes off - There you are!!

    Any advice for trying on starkly contrasting voices? Tricks to get into character?


    1. I do this too. That's why I have to take a day off from writing when I change POV to switch characters in my head.

  3. I don't know if I have any tricks for getting into character. It sounds like you might have some good tips yourself! And I agree, sometimes you just have to write for a while until the voice becomes clear. Sometimes you get a line or two that really capture the voice and those lines can become a sort of touchstone.

    When you say, "starkly contrasting voices," do you mean writing two (or more) contrasting POVs in the same manuscript? Or writing a voice that's in stark contrast to your own? In either case, I think it's about getting inside the character(s)--just like you said. :)

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    1. Writing with a voice in stark contrast to my own. Most of my stories tend to have female protagonists to whom I can relate. I'd love to delve into someone a little bit darker/more sinister. Just wondering if there were insider secrets I haven't learned!!

    2. Unfortunately, I don't have any insider secrets. I've heard some use acting exercises to get into character, but I haven't tried that personally. My WIP does have a MC who is quite unlike me. Probably stupidly, I didn't think about that all that much in advance. But sometimes just taking the plunge and trying to get inside the character can work!

    3. Noted. Thanks for the response. =)

  4. I've read what my wife calls girly books,like Splintered by AG Howard to up my strong girl voice in my writing and Jenny Hans' To all the Boys I've loved before, for my more whimsical girl characters. They just give me a bit of a deeper look into certain characteristics of the girls I'm trying to write. I want all my characters to have depth in my book, even if they only appear on a few pages. I just hope I'm achieving it.

    1. Yes, as a writer, I think it's a good idea to read books that reflect many different voices and perspectives, and to strive to give all characters some depth.