Desperately seeking VOICE

“Voice – as distinct from style – has the whole weight of a life behind it.”

~ from the front flap of The Writer’s Voice by A. Alvarez             

Cheri Pray Earl wrote the workshop goals/objectives on a small whiteboard just out of my sight. But when she read them aloud, I thought, “Oh, I know what voice in writing is. I won’t have problems ‘finding’ it. Afterall, I’ve taught that trait to my middle, high school and even teachers for years!” Within hours, my smuggy confidence evaporated, disappeared, vanished!             

Voice, as I understood it, is only a teeny-tiny piece of the puzzle. And voice is a puzzle because its definition is multi-layered. When teaching students how to include this trait into their writing, I told them that their personality should show up in their paper. I sponsor 3 blog sites (and yes, I am crazy). One is associated with my profession; the other is my personal but public journal; and this one is my self-motivating, writing warm-up.             

While my quirky personality makes appearances in all three, readers are exposed to a different version of me in each one because the voice varies. Why? Because the purpose and audience of each blog varies. My writing is more formal in one, more personal in another, and more focused in this one. Does that make sense?    

But the author’s voice can be a HUGE problem when writing fiction, especially Young Adult fiction. I don’t want the voice of a 62-year-old grandmother, mother, and teacher coming through my characters or found in the narration. What 13 to 18-year-old wants to hear that?     

Whose voice needs to come through? THE CHARACTERS. If the character is a young adult, then a teen’s voice should be heard. I did not realize how hard this would be. With a story in mind, I wrote a couple of pages from the viewpoint of a 12-year-old girl. I simplified the voicabulary vocabulary and used a fair amount of dialogue. Because the scene went back and forth in time, readers caught a tiny glimpse of the main character’s personality before and after a tragedy. But the snippets were not enough to help readers to care about her. In other words, that time shift so early in the book weakened the voice and ultimately confused my readers.         


Visual representation of 2 different voices!


By Wednesday’s workshop, I struggled to believe I would reach that objective written on the whiteboard. I’d be a WIFYR flunkie. And it didn’t help any when an editor from a major publishing house spoke to us and emphasized that the #1 characteristic she looks for in a submitted manuscript is – yup, you guessed it. V.O.I.C.E. A unique, authentic, honest vOiCe! On Wednesday, that lofty goal grew to the heights of Mt. Everest.       

Thursday’s assignment was to bring in an example of writing that represented our best _ _ _ _ _. (I’m even tired of writing it!) I couldn’t bring myself to look at the latest revision that night. So I made an executive decision to work on something else I had written because I had questions that needed answering about that little number. Questions like –  Is the dialect overpowering and distracting? (That had REALLY been bothering me. The response from C.L.W. was “NO, the dialect was not overpowering or distracting – hallelujah – but she did suggest that I rewrite the scene in first person. I can do that AND keep the dialect I hear buzzing around in my head. YaY!)       

Back to the main point. (It’s hidden in this post somewhere. Oh, here it is.) Thursday night’s assignment was to polish our best efforts so we could read them aloud in class. As of 11:00 P.M., I had no best writing. Desperate, I decided to work on a scene near the end of the story that I had shared with a couple of workshop buddies.             

As I developed the scene, the main character turned into a sassy 13-year-old with a sarcastic wit rather than the shy seventh-grader with a dry sense of humor. And just as Johnny Depp developed his Captain Jack character after picturing the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, I heard bits and pieces of the slightly bratty 8th-grade ME come through my character’s voice. She absolutely took over. Seriously.             

The next day, after a couple more slight revisions made just before I left the house, I read the 3 pages. While listeners were not really supposed to comment, my instructor Ms. Cheri said, “You found your young adult voice!” I couldn’t have received higher praise.              

But I was not the only one. Reading after reading revealed a heightened intensity in colleagues’ writings because most – if not all – had learned a little more about finding the voice intended audiences will enjoy, AND about allowing characters to push aside the author’s voice to expose the “weight of [characters’] lives” behind the words.              

So, Dear Reader, what have you done to find the “write” voice for your characters? Do any of you have a VoiceMuse you turn to for help? How do you shut off your own voice when that is needed? What are some novels you’ve read that exemplify good voice AND bad?              

Love to hear some responses! Have a great day and write while the sun shines!