A glance at agent websites shows that they are looking for “strong voices,” “novels with a distinct voice,” and “writers with a unique voice.” What is voice and how will you find yours?
You are the treasure you seek. I mean this seriously. As author Heather Sellers says in her book The Practice of Creative Writing,
“It’s your specific repertoire of emotions and details that make good writing.”
This means that we writers can develop our voices by conveying our genuine selves. We need to include our idiosyncratic observations and revise our words until they contain our personal flavor.
Dancer Martha Graham knew how to infuse her motions with individuality. She said,
“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one you in all time; this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and be lost.”
Practically speaking, then:
- Use strong verbs. We hear this all the time, but it is powerful and true. “The car went” is bland compared to “zoomed.”
- Cut pre-packaged phrases out of your writing. Heather Sellers gives these examples: “gaping hole,” “awkward moment,” and “red rose.” Instead, she suggests fresh combinations such as gaping moment, awkward rose. (The Practice of Creative Writing)
- Stop trying to sound fancy or high-falutin’ just because you are writing a book. Bring your diction down to the level of real people, specifically your characters. If your piece includes a teen or Marine, don’t write “That’s terrible.” More realistic is “That sucks.”
- Don’t always use the body language short-hand of rolling eyes, shrugging shoulders, and a tapping foot to indicate emotions. Visualize your character’s unique body language.
- Use apt, interesting metaphors. Recall Tom Robbins’s famous line, “The moon looked like a clown’s head dipped in honey.”
In fact, Tom Robbins spoke to this point of voice-y writing in an interview on reality sandwich.com. He said,
“Bland writing — timid, antiseptic, vanilla writing — is nearly as unhealthy as the brutal and dark. Instead of sipping, say, elixir, nectar, tequila, or champagne, the reader is invited to slurp lumpy milk or choke on the author’s dust bunnies.”
Here’s another taste of Tom’s writing:
“She lunched on papaya poo poo or mango mu mu or some other fruity foo foo bursting with overripe tropical vowels.”
SO, voice is partly word choice. What else is it? Angle of vision.
Your way of viewing this world is unique. I like this poem for its unusual way of looking at death. It’s not the lament one might expect.
by Linda Pastan
her coming death
as if it were a coat
she’d learned to sew.
When it grew cold enough
she’d simply button it
I like a lot about this poem, but the idea that preparing for death is somehow like a warm, comforting coat — that’s a new one for me! The poem’s title character will be ready for departure, even if the speaker (who will miss her) is not. Notice that Pastan’s words are fairly ordinary. The perspective, the angle of vision — that’s the startling part. The reader says, “I never thought of it that way.”
Is there more to voice than word choices and angle of vision? I might add tone and attitude, but when I open books by favorite authors, I’m mostly thinking, “I can’t wait to see their take on this topic! I can’t wait to see how they phrase things!” I can’t wait to encounter VOICE on the page.
How about practicing voice? I’ll give an exercise to do exactly that in my next post!