Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Finding your voice as a writer

Sometimes it's hard to find the right voice for a story.

During the two years it took me to write the first book in my series, I struggled mightily to find the narrator's voice.  My first writing efforts were dry and objective--the chapters sounded like they'd been written by a former journalist (which I was). In despair I hit the bookstores, looking for inspiration. Ultimately I came across a new (to me) genre called "chick lit". As I read the first few pages of a random book, I grew excited.

"I can write like that," I thought.

After going back to my manuscript, I injected it with the snappy, snarky rhythm of the chick-lit style, including (hopefully) lots of humor.  And voila! Dying to be Thin was born.

My new WIP is a thriller--and once again, it was a struggle to find the right voice. This time I  read Michael Crichton, Dean Koontz, and Lincoln Child, among others, for inspiration. I studied the way they pull off their narrators' voices, trying to find techniques that would work for me. I visualized how how their various styles would work with the particular story I'm  writing.

In the end it was no one particular author, but an amalgam of techniques, that worked. 

Joe had some good technical tips about creating voice in his post, "Look who's talking," and Jim has more suggestions in his post, "How can I learn to write like...".

How about you? Do you struggle to find a voice in your stories? What are some of the techniques that you use?

15 comments:

  1. I am always worried about finding the right voice. I'm afraid that each character or story might sound "samey", because well - I'm the same person. It is easier to see differences when I look at others' work sometimes than my own, again because it's me.

    The thing that helps the most is having my characters be well defined and laid out. The more I know about each character, the easier it is to have a distinct voice for each of them, because they are each distinct persons for me.

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  2. In addition to reading up on other authors, I've found that once I have a strong sense of character, voice comes easier.

    This works (for me) even for books I don't write in the 1st person. The type of character informs the way I describe them. Even if it's not a direct correspondence, it sets a tone.

    For instance, I might use a dry, cynical tone to narrate a young, edgy college grad at work. Or I might use a dry, cynical tone to narrate a cop with eighteen years on the beat discovering a body. Same voice, but two very different stories.

    (Of the two, the second one sounds more readable in my head. Maybe I'm just tired of "edgy" college kids)

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  3. It usually takes me a few drafts of just the first few chapters to find a voice I think is appropriate. First person stuff, not so much, as I have the narrator character well in mind before I start, but multi-POV stories take a while.

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  4. Chaco, you're describing well the challenge of differentiating characters in dialogue. In addition, there's also a narrative "voice" that exists throughout the story--it might be third person limited, transparent (third person objective), etc. The link to Joe's post goes into detail about that.
    Professor Coldheart, I hear you about the dry, cynical tone of post-collegiate youth. Not to mention the tough, cynical tone of streetwise cops!

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  5. I'm like you, Dana--I do many drafts of the first chapters. I can't keep going until I know I have the voice nailed down. I think I got lazy because I was so comfortable in the first person voice of my series--which makes it tough to switch. Speaking of which, what writers do we know about who are known for changing voices in their writing? It seems like they mostly change voice when they change genres or publish under a different name, like Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb.

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  6. Voice is elusive. It's "personality on the page" yet we don't want it to be obtrusive. I think the more you feel the story as you write it, the more distinct the voice. And turning off that inner editor we discussed a couple of weeks ago.

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  7. My voice? I have a hard time shushing all of the other voices.

    As I write I have found that I have to be careful not to put the voice of the characters into narrator pov of the story. The tendency for me is toward bits of comedy in the midst of tension, therefore I find the need to create at least one character in the book who can be that outlet for my silly side, while the rest keep it serious.

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  8. I read the other posts referenced and with yours i find this a most informative discussion. The issue of voice is challenging for me. Please give me your impression if the following makes sense to you or if I am confused.

    When one is writing in 3rd person limited each scene is told/viewed from the perspective of one character. Info relayed is only that the scene's POV character has access to (i.e. those things they sense or think and their internal responses/sensations). Consequently a description of what the POV character looks like or what occurs out of his sight in the scene can not be relayed unless by an authorial intrusion/narrator. This voice is a diversion from strict 3rd person.
    It seems to me that many writers use this author's voice (in contrast some e.g. J. Gilstrap are strict 3rd person within any given novel) Correct? If this narrator's (as opposed to POV character's)voice is not subtle or is at all long winded do readers find it off putting.
    If I understand correctly that this outside voice is 'okay' are their general guidelines to make it seamless?
    Thanks to any and all for any efforts at straightening me out!

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  9. tjc, I like to look at the 3rd person narration "rules" in terms of camera placement. In my books, the character who owns any given scene holds the camera, and the only action that's reported is what that character sees, hears and feels. Choosing the character to whom the scene belongs is one of the most critical decisions I make in every chapter or space break. I avoid author intrusions because that's the way I like to write the books. There's no loftier standard or set of rules that I'm trying to follow.

    I don't think there ARE any rules in this business. Writing ficiton is a continuous exercize in sleight of hand. If you can convince the audience that you know what you're doing, then you're doing exactly the right thing.

    My single greatest revelation regarding voice came to me when I made the conscious decision to stop focusing on "writing a book" and started focusing on "telling a story." People who know me often say that they hear my voice in their heads as they read my writing.

    John Gilstrap
    www.johngilstrap.com

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  10. I agree with John G that there are few hard and fast rules, TJC. Regarding your question about unsubtle or long-winded narration: That would, indeed, probably be off-putting to readers, no matter which POV is used.

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  11. I think I may have posted this here before, but it's worth saying again. From W Somerset Maugham:

    "There are only three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

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  12. Thanks John and Kathryn.
    Helpful and the I definitely agree on the point regarding absence of strict rules. I like the camera analogy.
    Hope i'm not belaboring the point but for my edificatiion - is it not true that many authors, while writing in 3rd person POV do introduce information that is not within the POV character's lens field and actually represents a different voice (author/narrator). Do the characterisitics of such additions contribute to over all voice/style? I suspect it is variable but it seems to me that in most circumstances these additions are best circumspect and do not draw attention to themselves.
    Story and character, while not the result of dialog exclusively, as Joe notes in his earlier blog, is most frequently delivered in character POV rather than authoral narrative voice.
    thanks - I'll cease flogging this horse. Nice post, Kathryn

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  13. Okay now you're making me work tjc, lol! I would say that if you're in a third person limited point of view, you wouldn't want to introduce anything your character couldn't know about. Say for example you have a section in which your character is in a knife fight. You couldn't mention the fact that there's a guy with a machine gun hiding behind a shrub who hasn't been spotted by your character, because your guy hasn't spotted him!. I think that's what John meant by thinking in terms of a camera angle.

    Harking back to an earlier question: One can get inside a limited third person POV character's head by using what we call a third-person multiple subjective POV. That's when you're using the "She wanted to...she had to..." but in a kind of stream-of-consciousness way that removes the need to use character tags. This POV lets you really get into a character's head in a first-person POV manner, even though you're in third person. For more good reading about POV, I recommend Chris Roerden's Don't Murder Your Mystery.

    Sheesh! I've overloaded my brain on writer-geek speak now...must go take a nap.

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  14. Mike, I like those no-rule "rules." Except I would say that one shouldn't switch POV's within a paragraph, or even a section. But that's just a point of craft, not a writing principle.

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  15. Voice is tricky. I'm working on a standalone right now, and after being spoiled with a series where the main characters' voices were as familiar as family, starting from scratch was a challenge. I'll be going back soon to make sure that the voices in the earlier sections mesh with how they developed.

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