Yep, you read that right, and I (sort of) haven’t completely lost my mind. I am going to attempt to discuss that most enigmatic component of the writer’s craft, the thing that is credited so often with being key to the success of a project. Recently, I’ve been fortunate enough to be told that my manuscript for 8-12s has a unique, distinctive voice, which has been ridiculously lovely to hear. But what does ‘voice’ really mean?
For me, voice feels like a magical thread pulling readers effortlessly through a story. It lends soul. It transports. Ideally, it should be hard to resist. It’s part self-expression, part putting on an entirely different skin. A great voice can be very distinctive, but shouldn’t smack the reader round the head with its cries for attention. A good, strong voice compels, lends believability to a world and offers the reader a sense of companionship, something I think is extra beneficial when writing for children.
On my creative writing MA, each one of my (supremely talented) classmates wrote in a voice distinct to them. I dubbed one in particular the ‘queen of voice’ (I’m looking at you, Annie, not that you’re likely to see this!) because I always felt in such safe hands as one of her readers. There was a self-assurance to her voice that conveyed an authority, and I believe that was because she was able to distil her warmth, humour and rhythm of speech into written form.
This is all very well, right? But what can we actually do to hone such an arguably crucial aspect of our craft?
When I first hear a glimmer of a new story, I listen to it and try to capture something tangible before it melts away. This is such an exciting stage! But rather than focusing on what the story is about, I try to pay attention to who is telling it. If you listen, the character will tell you. Your job is to capture their words, and before you know it you’re recording their voice on the page. You can worry about plot later (if that suits your process). It’s particularly helpful if a very insistent character wants to tell you all about herself. But even in these cases, at times the voice can still be tricky to sustain, so keep listening as deeply and attentively as you can.
Read your own work aloud. Inject it with energy, personality, test out the words on your tongue and roll them around in your mouth.
Read as much and as widely as you can and think about whether the voice feels authentic. If so, why? If not, what do you think is missing? Then apply your thoughts to your own work, but don’t be tempted to mimic others, at least not consciously.
We all know we should write as often as we can, and that we learn to write by writing (and reading). But it’s not just the frequency of the writing that I think is important—it’s also the variety of what you write that can help you discover your voice. Write whatever you want to and try not to lose your sense of the experience of writing for pleasure. Novels, short stories, poetry (whether or not it’s your bag it’ll certainly help you discover rhythm). Write letters and postcards. Would the recipients know who had written to them even if you didn’t sign your message?
Write freely, switching off the internal ‘editor’ for your first draft. Instinctively allow your words to flow, unfiltered, in your/your character’s/narrator’s natural rhythms.
Work on the voices of different characters
Something I learned when editing my manuscript is that just because characters belong to the same world, and may even be closely related, does not mean I can get away with writing them with identical voices. They are as different as we all are from our family members, friends, colleagues. The characters don’t know they inhabit a fictional world—and if you can give them believable voices, the reader will feel closer to them. I find it very noticeable when I’m reading something where the characters tend to sound identical to one another, and that distracts me from the story and reduces the believability of the world.
Point of view
If you find you’re struggling to find the voice of your story/character, try out a different POV, even if it isn’t the one you’re going to settle on later. A great exercise is to rewrite a scene in first person, and I think present tense lends a useful immediacy, at least for the exercise. You can write your way into your character’s voice and then rewrite in the POV of your choice once you’ve found it. Personally, I switched from first person present to a close third person past, then back to first person. But the point is, I allowed myself to experiment—fortunately, this freedom was actively encouraged during my studies.
Never forget you’re the only one capable of writing your world, your characters, your rhythms. Be yourself. No one else can tell your stories, and the main reason they can’t boils down to the uniqueness of each writer’s voice. Listen deeply to the story flowing through you, immerse yourself in the world, and keep writing.