If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve heard about “voice,” that essential, yet unquantifiable something that elevates your writing and grabs the reader by the collar—or, leaves the words flat on the page.
And voice does just that. Who hasn’t opened a book and immediately been drawn into the story by the alluring voice of the narrator? Yes, there are several factors at play here, such as opening the story in a pivotal moment, character, and building story tension, but it’s also the voice, or the way the author wrote it with that unique blend of vocabulary, tone, point of view, and narrative flow, that helps me decide whether I want to keep reading or not. For example, here is the opening to Crisis by popular mystery writer Felix Francis.
“According to my business card I was one Harrison Foster, Legal Consultant, but I was known universally as Harry and my specialty was crisis management. And today’s crisis involved a murder—not that anyone knew it at the time.”
In just one sentence, the reader gets a sense of Harrison Foster’s personality when he directs us to what it says on his business card to explain who he’s supposed to be, while at the same time implying that maybe, this time around, he’s going to be in over his head. With just a few words, I’ve decided that I like this guy and I want to go on this intriguing, possibly dangerous, literary journey with him. Yes, there are many elements that could be explored in this opening alone. But at its heart, is voice.
So how do you find your voice?
Ditch the Doubts
Nothing kills voice faster than plunking away at your keyboard and letting those doubts creep in. Are you going to say it right? Someone else would say it better. What are you doing here, anyway? You’re not a writer.
Killers words that can paralyze even the most eager typing fingers. So, forget about being right or wrong. Forget comparisons and doubts. Writing is about what you want to say, the way you want to say it, and there is only one you. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? That you type a bunch of rubbish? Happens every day on keyboards around the world. And that includes successful, published authors. The good news is that as you keep typing, typing, typing, your voice will emerge. And who knows? It’s just as likely that all that typing will result in something brilliant.
Find That Conversational Voice
Interestingly, when some people start writing, they feel the need to sound literary. After all, these are written words. Doesn’t writing require a little more pomp and circumstance to make the words sound substantial, elevated, and significant? The answer is no. Flowery language just gets in the way, unless you’re creating a specific character with that unique characteristic. Instead, find that conversational language—the way you would tell someone something if they were standing right in front of you. It’s interesting how writing can become much more economical when you reduce it to what you’d say instead of what you’d write. And with that conversational voice, comes a more natural way of saying what you want to say. As you find that conversational voice, your voice will emerge because it will flow naturally from your thoughts.
Voice is You
Lastly, there is no voice without you. As American novelist, Meg Rosoff once said, “Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.” In a nutshell, that means that you are an integral part of your writing, and your voice should flow from the wells of you.
Wild Vine Isabella
This idea was brought home to me many years ago when I began working on a picture book biography about Victorian explorer, Isabella Bird, who challenged society’s boundaries for women, became the first female member of the Royal Geographical Society, and wrote 10 books about her explorations. After doing a ton of research and writing it a million different ways (at least that’s what it felt like), it wasn’t standing out to editors. So, after multiple rejections, I put the manuscript away. When I pulled it out again a few months later, it felt like a new opportunity. How would I tell her story instead of how I thought others might expect me to tell it? Right away, a new opening sprang to mind that gave my manuscript the voice it had been lacking.
“Isabella Bird was like a wild vine stuck in a too-small pot.
She needed more room. She had to get out. She had to explore.
But petite Isabella, pale Isabella, proper Isabella,
was an unlikely candidate for adventure.”
Those specific words were not in my research, but after absorbing everything I’d read about her, I realized I could tell her story my way, with my voice. It was one of those light bulb moments; one that I’ve carried with me ever since. The manuscript, Away with Words, the Daring Story of Isabella Bird, sold shortly thereafter. Although this is an example from children’s literature, the essence of voice is ageless.
Bottom line? Voice is at the heart of story. Only you can tell your story your way. So, the next time you sit down at the keyboard, type, type, type . . . and raise your voice.
Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s author of more than 100 books. and 500 stories and articles. Recent releases include NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, If Wendell Had a Walrus, illustrated by New York Times bestselling author/illustrator Matt Phelan, Away with Words, the Daring Story of Isabella Bird, Mousequerade Ball, Chicken Lily, and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, a sequel to Amazon bestseller Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg. Awards for Lori’s books include NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Trade Book for K-12, Smithsonian’s Notable Book for Children, IWLA Book of the Year Award, and Rhyme Revolution’s Best in Rhyme. Lori has taught at The Institute of Children’s Literature for 15 years and has been a contest judge.