Voice is created by the unique combination of style (sentence structure and word choice), tone (mood), descriptive imagery, theme (the broad issues an author feels passionate enough about to address in his or her writing), and the types of POV characters used to tell the story. Your voice is the sum of your history, economic background, upbringing, moments of triumph and despair. Accept that, embrace and use those factors to empower the words you write.
While I hate analogies, (that too is part of my voice) I will use one now and compare a manuscript to a human body:
Main characters Brain
Plot (outer journey) Muscles
Story (inner journey) Heart
Theme Blood vessels
I know it’s not exact—I hate analogies, remember—but I’m going to call your writer’s voice the blood supply. Blood carries the fuel that empowers the body. A good circulatory system keeps that body zinging. That makes the characters move through their inner and outer arcs with punch and appropriate pacing, armed with power-laden verbs and tight writing. Voice supplies that zing with skillful word choices and sentence structure and the occasional plot twist.
All fiction writers know we are supposed to show, not tell. In the showing we reveal our voices.
She was sad.
Anyone can tell a reader that. But how an author reveals the character’s morose nature, or despair, uncontrollable heartache or simply very bad day, is shaped by that author’s voice.
Take a look at two different ways of describing my own novel, PULL
A seventeen-year-old boy named David feels guilt after his mother’s death and dedicates himself to fulfilling her last wishes even though they are at odds with his one needs. He meets a girl, makes enemies, angers family members, throws away a chance at a college scholarship and drops out of school.
Interesting –I think not. Even I yawn. It’s my story, my plot, but not my voice.
Let me try again, this time with feeling.
The world implodes for seventeen-year-old David when his father kills his mother. Guilt over his inability to protect her drives him to concentrate on fulfilling her last wishes for him – that he complete his education. But he is happier working with his hands than sitting in classrooms that feel like prison cells. David deals with homework and hormones that draw him ever closer to Yolanda, who means trouble because she’s bad boy Malik’s girl. When Yolanda and David get together, sparks fly, leading Malik to threaten David’s freshman sister. David’s problems converge as he struggles to rescue his sister without resorting to violence, and then has to choose between his mother’s dreams for him and his own dream of working with his hands for a mentor he has grown to admire.
It’s exactly the same plot, but these words hold my theme, my passion…and my voice.
On another note, think about voice in music. It only takes a few notes to recognize the difference between Lady Gaga and Mariah Carey or between Snoop Dogg and Justin Beiber. (Can you tell I write YA?) OK, between Joe Cocker and Frank Sinatra. Even if the singers are saying the same words there are important and unique differences in delivery: style, tone, pacing, timbre and emphasis.
The same is true with the writer’s voice. What makes one Cinderella story different from another? Why does one pair of star-crossed lovers stand out from the horde? Answer: style, tone, pacing, timbre and emphasis. It’s all in the delivery, the way we tell the story, how we present a plot to the reader.
Finding your voice:
Examine the things, feelings and ideas you feel passionate about. What kinds of writing do you like to read: humorous, witty, acerbic, playful or intense? Look at your sentence structure? Do you tend to write in a choppy, stream-of-consciousness fashion, in short, declarative sentences or perhaps in long, weighty, and complex sentences?
Your voice is you reaching out of the pages and sucking in the reader with a promise they will enjoy the read.
It’s you fulfilling that promise.
It’s you leaving them panting for more.
In today’s market, your voice is the force that will make readers return to select another one of your books over those written by your very sizable competition.
Strengthening your voice:
After completing three novels and multiple short stories, I finally noticed a consistent theme embedded inside my works. Underneath everything else, my very angst-ridden voice reflects family and the idea that people having the right to decide their own futures, even if society and family object and have supposedly better plans. It’s my passion, and it colors my writing. Study your own passions, recognize and use them to help strengthen your voice and distinguish you from other writers.
Exercise makes your body strong; writing exercises make your writing voice strong, too. The process of writing itself shapes your voice. So write. And keep on writing.
Consider the eternal agent/editor question: why are you the person to write this book? “Because I wanted to,” is not the correct answer. They’re asking what you bring to the story that is new, fresh and different. The real answer involves your voice and how you empower the words on the page. On the one hand a writer is supposed to take him or herself out of the book and let the characters be themselves. But a good book is more than a recital of bare facts, so we have to turn around and insert ourselves back into the mix.
The experience of reading gives human beings something that no other art form, not even a movie, can. A great read pulls us into another world, lets us experience a life outside of the one we live, and come back form that refreshed and sometimes even changed. Your writer’s voice pulls readers on a ride that begins with the promise of the opening hook and ends with the strong and emotionally satisfying ending. A strong voice ensures that readers will see and experience exactly the same world when they read your words as you saw in your mind when you wrote them. Best of all, it leaves reader panting for more of your energetic and passionate voice. The trick is to define your voice, to strengthen and develop it, and make it pulse through your story.
So be passionate about your writing. Be authentic and artful, and you too will reach that destination called "strong voice."
Here's to making your voice jump from the pages.