Finding Your Voice

Posted: July 6, 2016 in Writing
Tags: , , , , , , , ,


What is “voice?”

Yeah … hard to define, isn’t it.  And yet virtually every agent with a wishlist or contest with judges insist that “voice” is the most important thing about your manuscript.  You gotta have some.  And if you ain’t got it, you ain’t goin’ nowhere in this bidness.

Voice is like seasoning in a recipe.  You’re supposed to add it “to taste,” which basically means, fiddle with it until you like it.  But the thing about seasoning and voice — everybody has different taste. You know that thing where they say publishing is subjective?  This is exactly why.  Your book may be fantastic, but if the agent who happens to be looking at it isn’t a fan of, say, “peppy” you get rejected.  Lot’s of agents rejected Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone before J.K Rowling got a book deal.

Voice isn’t the only thing, of course, that is judged in a manuscript.  In fact, there are about a thousand things you have to get right. Spelling, commas, formatting, the agent’s name, dialogue, white space, the first sentence, setting, the font….  But most of those things you can figure out.  Spelling and punctuation are either right or wrong.  Dialogue sounds natural or it doesn’t.  There are guidelines on how to format your manuscript and what font to use.  You research your agent.  But voice….

How do you know when it’s right?  It’s like that joke by E.E. Kenyon, “Do you know how to get to Carnegie Hall?” Same answer: Practice!

Fine, but what is it, exactly?  Well, it isn’t anything “exactly.” It’s the personality of your book.  It’s the tone, the pace, the word choice, the flavor.  Voice is where you get to play with the rules a little.  Maybe your voice is a tiny bit irreverent, so you blithely begin sentences with “And.”  Maybe you’re voice is stern and no-nonsense, so you eschew contractions and use clipped sentences.  Maybe your voice is poetic, so you sprinkle in a few purple words here and there to highlight a feeling.

Voice is where you bring the funny.  Or the scary.  Or the poignant.  It’s where you show your style.  It’s where you choose certain turns of phrase and reject others because of how they affect the “mood” of your story.  Voice is what makes you stare at the page for 45 minutes trying to decide if you should use “challenge” or “difficulty” because meaning is everything and every word counts.

To a large degree, voice is why I chose to write THE LAST PRINCESS in first person.  Because the voice I wanted for the book was Cat’s voice — the main character.  So where somebody else might have written:

I was no longer hungry and, in fact, I began to feel rather sick.


In Cat’s voice I wrote:

I squeezed my eyes shut as my stomach rumbled again, only this time it wasn’t a pleasant, oh-please-feed-me kind of rumble. It was more of a get-me-outta-here-before-I-hurl sort of rumble.

This is the voice of a twelve-year-old girl looking at a menu in a French restaurant, staring at pictures of escargots and pressed duck.  The sentence above is not.  Yet they both say the same thing.

That’s voice.

Most of the voice I used when writing THE LAST PRINCESS came from listening to my daughter and reading lots of middle grade books featuring girls with attitude.  If you haven’t found your voice yet, don’t panic.  You will.  It takes time.  It takes practice.  And it takes patience.

Go ye forth and get some.

  1. Amira says:

    Only one agent rejected Rowling. Many publishers rejected her.


  2. Mark says:

    Well said John, a unique voice is what creativity thrives on. Finding that special voice is what made great writer’s great.


    • With Voice comes the driving energy for the narrator/persona to tell her/his story. And, why bother to tell a story, if there is a purpose? Rhetorical question, I know; but, when I read questions about how to teach children morals or how to teach children . . . I cock my head and ponder, “Whose story is it?” The irony is that Voice, as an element in and of itself is rarely taught. It’s wedged between narrator and point-of view, which I may have mentioned (lucidity might be second on an agent’s list).

      So, for those who want to “teach a lesson” — one that doesn’t have children running in the opposite direction — write an awesome fairy tale or be clever like Dr. Seuss or Maurice Sendak (“. . . and so the lion ate Pierre.”)

      And, to hit the proverbial nail on the head, when agents are handed a manuscript to consider, they read the first paragraph, at best; if you’re lucky, maybe the second.

      Enough can’t be said about Voice, she implored.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been working on an article about voice and it’s importance and have yet to post it for fear of it sounding “too academic.” But, not only is the voice going to grab the reader’s attention straight off, it’s connected to everything thing, just like all the muscles in the larynx.

      And, there’s a huge difference between the narrative voice and the writer’s and the two should not cross. When they do, most readers (and definitely agents) will question the authenticity and purpose of the story: whose is it and why is it being told.

      When writers want to “teach a lesson,” they better be clever. Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax” teaches us about the environment and “Sneetches” shows the absurdity of discrimination (and Hitler’s yellow stars); but, first and foremost, they’re good stories where the “lesson” is an undertone and delivered in a whimsical way. The same holds true with fairy tales (though not whimsical) and Maurice Sendak’s “Pierre” and what could possibly happen if you’re not polite (“And so the lion ate Pierre”). It’s funny, children laugh, and told by an authentic voice.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Darn! Given my first response, let’s call my second “a motif,” another literary element for another day.

    Liked by 1 person

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