How do you discover your writing voice?
Sounds like a crazy question, especially if you’ve been writing for some time. But I recently worked with an incredibly talented writer who hadn’t quite nailed down her voice, and when she asked what I meant when I said as much, I realized that it’s something that we rarely discuss in writing circles, nor do we define its hazy boundaries.
So what’s this elusive voice of which I speak? I’m so glad you asked.
Think about the last time you dove into your favorite book series or discovered a tome in the used bookstore by an author you used to love. As you perused the passages, you were once again reminded of how much you adore this author’s style, phrasing, characters, and imagination. The simple act of reading his or her words put you into a new world, a place so real, you could smell the sewers and feel the heat of the sun. The experience moved you, and you added that author to your list of “must-reads.” You keep an eye out for their work and recommended it wholeheartedly.
What grabbed and held you? Sure, a great plotline and developed characters help, but when a writer has that special something, the story comes alive. That’s the same reason why you can pick up a book with a phenomenal story idea, but come away frustrated and not quite liking it, yet you can’t quite figure out why.
Your voice is your thumbprint in the writing world. The way you string words together, how you phrase descriptions, how you envision a scene—they’re as unique to you as your facial features. In a world of seven basic plots, it’s the one that sets you apart.
When you don’t have your voice nailed down, you’re never sure if your writing is good. You think you have moments of wonder…but then you go back to the same section, and it’s less thrilling than you remember. When you haven’t developed your voice, you’ll get feedback that reads something like, “the idea was good, but I couldn’t get into it,” or “this book was really good in the beginning, but then it fell apart.”
When your voice is solid, you know when your story falls apart because it stops sounding and feeling like you. The writing feels forced, rather than effortless. It’s that simple.
So, now that I’ve sold you on making sure you’ve got your voice nailed down, how the dickens do you do it?
That’s all I have time for today, folks. Have a great night! I’m here all week—tip your server!
I’m just kidding! Well, sort of. Defining the writing voice is actually a lot easier than teaching someone how to find hers. But if you’re up for the challenge I’ll do my best.
You ready? Here we go.
1. Stop reading self-help writing books. Seriously. I did that. I read them all. I recommend them to my clients sometimes. They have their uses. But—and this is the key part—they can stop you from writing when that’s what you most need to do. Get thee to your local twelve-step program if necessary, and let’s get to the voice-finding, eh?
2. Write a lot. And not necessarily your current work in progress. I started developing my voice when I wrote non-fiction. The difference was so stark, I was astonished. My words took on a life of their own, and people responded. Try writing about some painful or frustrating life events, as though you were going to send it to the Huffington Post or New York Times for publication consideration. See what you find. But whatever else you do, write thousands of words, without judgment or pause.
3. Speak your words as you write them. Sounds silly, I know. But the way you speak is unique to you, just like your writing voice. And saying things out loud forces us to hear the rhythm. It’s one of the most important things you can do to figure your voice out, and I promise, you’ll be surprised how your writing improves.
4. Outlaw your thesaurus habit. Yes, I see you over there. When you think no one is looking, you feed your need. No one is fooled, my friend. Not a single reader is convinced that you use “pusillanimous” in every day vernacular. And no, I don’t think “peripatetic” rolls off your tongue. Except for rare occasions, like writing a resume, you should never touch a thesaurus, especially when you are still trying to identify your voice. If the word isn’t natural to you, the result will ruin your cadence.
5. Stop trying to write like other people. I graduated with my M.F.A. from a prestigious, literary-focused program. I rubbed elbows with New York agents and editors; widely published, award-winning authors; and respected filmmakers. I never admitted that I wanted to write paranormal romance. Not I. Nooooo. I wrote mysteries with (what I hoped was) a literary bent. I claimed my love for Shakespeare, got lost in memoirs, and pretended to adore poetry. I spent so much time trying to impress other people with my prose and cultured tastes, I lost what I wanted most: my writing voice. How you write is what other people want to read. They didn’t come to your book because they wanted to read Hemmingway. Your readers want your stories told your way. If you write literary stories, go after it. If you tend towards genre fiction, go rip your characters’ bodices with flair! Don’t let other people’s attitudes about certain kinds of writing affect what you do. You can laugh all the way to the bank when your (well-edited, wrapped, and promoted) book sells circles around theirs.
I know what you’re thinking: how do I know when I’ve found my voice? That’s the strange part—this isn’t a tangible thing that you can measure. You can’t point out hours in the chair and say, THERE—look at that beautiful voice I’ve created! Sadly, it’s not quite that easy, but there’s a secret to knowing that I’ll let you in on.
You just know.
Like you can feel the seduction of the ocean as you near the shore, or the gentle flutter of a butterfly when you finally lay still enough for him to land, your soul will quicken. It’s like having a runner’s high (and yes, I swear, it exists, unbelievable though it seems sometimes). There’s nothing in this world quite like it.
Of course, it’ll show up in your book sales and your reviews, too. When your writing gets the compliments, rather than just your plot and characters. When a reader says they couldn’t put your book down because your words kept them captivated. When your long-time critique partner has to text you their excitement over your story before you’re scheduled to talk.
Your voice: it’s out there, waiting for you to discover its tiny yet incomparable power. And when you have, you’ll soar, my friend.
PS – you still have to outline your stories. You aren’t getting out of it.
Ally Bishop’s Bio:
“When you do something effortlessly and people commend you continuously, you have found your gift.
That’s what I tell people all the time. And it’s true.
I get story. I always have. I started writing when I was eight, on a Smith Corona (the electronic kind — I’m not THAT old). I wrote stories in every spiral notebook I had. Eventually, I graduated to a Mac (yes, I’m one of THOSE people). I imagined new worlds, emotional conflicts, and HEAs while I waited at stoplights or wandered the grocery store. But here’s the thing: I didn’t just dream it up and write it down — I critiqued what I read. I knew when ideas were good and when they stunk. I ran writing groups, judged creative contests, and eventually got two graduate degrees in writing. That’s right: I love it that much.
What makes me a good editor is, ironically, what makes me good as a publicist, too. Because when I read a good story, one that others will love and want to read, I know it. And then I can’t shut up about it. I want to scream it from the rooftops, because it’s amazing, and everyone — EVERYONE — needs some awesome in their life. So when I commit to your work, it’s because I know it will rock readers’ worlds, and that awesome deserves an audience.
Want to reach me? Head over to Upgrade Your Story for outrageously cool editing, social media management, and publicity services that you shouldn’t publish without.”