Thursday, July 31, 2008

Demystifying Voice: My definitive definition

Nathan Bransford had a post yesterday in which he asked people to write in about their pet peeves in writing. The result? A comprehensive list of just about everything in writing.

At first, going through the comment section, I thought, I do this! My book has this! Oh no, it has this too!

After all, what book doesn't use the word, "said," use descriptive passages, narrative, short sentences, long sentences, adverbs. If you try to please everyone, you can't have either a surprise ending, or a predictable ending, can't set your book in New York or Seattle, have dreams, any real purpose in telling the story other than to just entertain, have religious or anti-religious themes (This from the same person... apparently any mention that faith might in any way play a part in someone's life, even if minutely, is off limits), include too much dialog or not enough dialog.

Are you getting my point?

Much ado has been made lately over an author's voice. I've written about it myself. Almost every agent who has a blog has written several posts about it. Writers write about it. It is tauted as the most important part of a submission. Yet no one can define it.

Well, I'm going to.

Voice is writing like you. Not trying to write like someone says you should. Not changing your setting because ten people are tired of books set in New York. Not cutting out every descriptive phrase. Not changing every "said" to something more creative like "replied" or "whispered" and then cutting them out altogether, and then putting the "said" back because, heck, at some point you've got to know who is doing the talking, right?

Voice is not writing a story and then changing it to make it the way everyone else says you should. Voice is saying, "This is the story, and I'll evaluate the critiques I get, and understand that for many of them, there is an opposite opinion and I'll decide if the changes are really right for me."

In my critique group I get the chance to read lots of stories by some really great writers, and then offer suggestions. Sometimes I find myself writing, "I'd change this to this," and then realize, I would, but they wouldn't. I could take everyone's writing and change it to sound like me, but what's the point of that? So I offer some suggestions, and then I am fine with whatever they decide to do. After all, it should be their voice shining through, not mine.

I think voice is strong when you can tell a writer is writing with confidence. That they know exactly the story they are telling, and are telling it the way it should be told, the way they hear it.

If you have kids it's likely you know of Arthur the aardvark, the adorable series of books and PBS shows by Marc Brown. There is one that illustrates this perfectly. It's called Arthur Writes A Story. Every author should read it. A third grade aardvark writes a story he absolutely loves, is passionate about. Then he submits it to his critique group - his sister and friends - who all suggest new and different things they would add or change, and what he ends up with is a mess no one likes at all because it makes no sense. When he changes it back to what he originally wrote, everyone suddenly likes it. Because his voice is his own.

So there you have it: the official demystifying of voice.

Go, write. Stop being scared that someone isn't going to like what you wrote. I'll tell you right now, there will always be someone who doesn't like what you write. But there will be people who do, too. The story plot could be anyone's, but how you tell it is yours. That's your voice.


  1. WOW! Excellent post!

    And yeah, I was thinking about my little piece of work the whole time I read this! Thanks again.

  2. Heidi- I tend to get so caught up in trying to please people. Especially when I read posts like Nathan's and I hear all these people say, "I would put that book down as soon as I read (fill in one of a thousand things here).

    Yet I love books that have description, the word said completely doesn't bother me, nor do whisper, replied, answered. I don't care where a book is set, I frankly don't care too much about adj and adv if they aren't overdone. I'm not that hard to please. I just like a good story that sounds like the author really wanted to tell it.

    Your stories are like that. When I read your short last night I realized you would be the kind of author I would follow... buy the books because you wrote them, no matter what they were. Because you have a great voice.

    Even though the two pieces I've read are very different, including language and dialect, you have a voice, and it shines through.

    I don't think you have to know what that voice is - define it, per se. You just have to write the way you hear the story in your head, and it is your voice.

  3. Thank you for this post Heidi. Again, inspiring me. I tend to want to please everyone and there is frankly no way to do that. So thank you!
    I feel I'm still struggling to find my own unique voice, but I'll get there.

    One day. ; )

  4. Great post!!! I agree with Heidi.

  5. Hi Heidi, You are so right ... Voice is about being true to yourself. It sometimes easy to lose that sense with so many opinions readily available. But when the author's voice comes through, it really makes the story shine. Great post that we can always be inspired by!

  6. Inspiring??? Well... thank you!

    Brittany - you don't need to struggle to find your voice. You have one already. I've seen it in your Meadows piece. Just write. Don't try too hard to make it conform to some idea of what you think it should be... that's when you lose your voice.