Burning Question: The Writer’s Voice – what is it? How did you find yours?
One day I was talking with my editor over at Random House about the sorts of manuscripts that come flooding into her slush pile. I asked what was one of the biggest problems a manuscript can have. Her immediate response: the writer’s voice. She knew she could use her editorial skills to adjust problems with things like pacing, structure, dialogue, plotting. But if there was something wrong with the writer’s voice, there wasn’t anything she could do about it.
Just one day later I found myself in a similar conversation with my agent. And her answer was the same. If the writer’s voice is off, that’s something no one can fix.
So the writer’s voice is obviously terribly important. If the reader hates the personality behind the written words, a personality that surely comes through in the way an author expresses herself, then they are not going to want to hang out with that author throughout an entire novel.
But you gotta be who you are, don’t you? If your style is sarcastic or playful or intense or passionate or ironic, then so be it. The good news is that writing is a very subjective business, and surely someone will identify with you and embrace your voice in a work. The bad news is that writing is a very subjective business, and surely someone will be turned off by your voice…and that person may be an editor or an agent.
Aside from being a voice that turns a reader off, how can a voice have “something wrong” with it? It can be inconsistent, so that it feels like you have multiple personalities. Or it can be so over-the-top that it overwhelms a work and gets in the way of the story – like if your voice is unduly pompous, or obnoxiously funny in that you-are-so-not-funny way. Another problem is if the voice is obviously not your own.
I started out like most young writers imitating the voices of writers I loved. T.H. White. John Steinbeck. Ann Tyler. I couldn’t help it. I was surrounded with their works, their words filled my head, and I didn’t really get that it was more important to be me. Truthfully, I didn’t fully know who I was yet.
I became most successful when I started seeing things through my own eyes, and when I started using my own language and my own quirky tone. I think this is tied into confidence. At least it was for me.
When an author believes they have something worth saying, and a point of view worth sharing, it comes through. Readers join in for the ride and feel the authority behind the writer’s voice. It makes them think, even when reading the most bizarre of tales, that there is something real about it all.
And it makes agents and editors believe they have something in their hands worth championing.
Marie Lamba is author of the young adult novel WHAT I MEANT… (Random House), her articles appear in numerous publications, including Garden Design, Writer’s Digest, and RWA – the national publication of Romance Writers of America.