By Mary Anna Evans
You already have a voice. You use it when you speak to friends and acquaintances. I’m using mine right now as I type. Nobody else sees the world the way you do. Nobody else has had your life experiences. Nobody else has your style of speaking, complete with favorite words, fantastical images, and quirky sentence construction.
All writers need to do to develop their own natural voices is write. Write stories that come easily. Write more difficult stories that make you stretch. Just write.
But I’m a writing professor. If I came to work every day and said to my students, “You don’t need me. Go away and write,” I probably wouldn’t have my job for very long. However, I can offer writers methods to speed up the process of honing their voices.
You want your author voice to be the best representation of you and your thoughts.
For a few minutes, forget about telling the story.
Be your protagonist
Most modern fiction is written in first person or limited third person point of view. In order for these storytelling styles to work, you must make readers feel that they are living inside the point-of-view character’s head. Your readers will not see, hear, feel, touch, or taste anything that the character is not experiencing. In the best case, you have a strong enough hold on your readers that they aren’t thinking anything that your character isn’t thinking. You have captured their imaginations. In that moment, you are in complete control of everything your readers experience.
Take a break from writing the story and devote time to exploring your characters’ experience of the world. You cannot describe every single thing in their fields of vision, so you must choose
Imagine a woman standing on a beach, wearing a floppy straw hat. Around her are children toddling around their parents’ picnic blankets, hot men in Speedos, less hot men who are also in Speedos, and teenaged girls who have untied the strings on their bikini tops so that they won’t have tan lines in their prom dresses. An older couple strolls among them, protected from the sun by neck-to-toe clothing and hats. The air tastes like salt. Dolphins leap between faraway waves and a dead jellyfish is rotting at the waterline. A black cloud is barely visible on the horizon and a cool breeze is starting to blow. Someone is grilling hot dogs, so the air smells like grease and charcoal.
If this woman with the floppy hat is your protagonist, she cannot possibly be aware of all of these things, plus the infinite number of other things that are also happening around her but that I don’t have space to describe.
Pick and choose what to tell readers
How would you write this woman’s scene? Because description alone is deadly dull, consider what in particular is going on in her life that brought her to this spot on this beach. Offer readers more of her inner narrative: Do her feelings reflect the beauty and excitement around her, or is she focused on dead jellyfish?
The choices you make when writing a scene—and this includes word choice and sentence construction—constitute your voice.
Make sure all your characters don’t sound like you
I am certain that you already have a voice. If in doubt, read a good long chunk of your own work aloud—at least a novel chapter or a short story. Soak up the sound of you.
Do you use short, pithy, Hemingway-esque sentences? Or perhaps you are more circuitous in your approach to story. Are you long on physical descriptions of characters and settings, or do you take the less-is-more approach?
Once you have a good idea of what you naturally sound like, study your dialogue. As above, read it aloud. Do your characters sound like you? Do all of them sound as if they have the same level of education as you do? Do they sound as if they read the exact same books you do? There are any number of tales to be told about enclaves of people whose backgrounds are so similar as to make every character’s manner of speaking sound like like everyone else’s—and like yours—but the story possibilities multiply with the introduction of even one interloper whose background is markedly different. After all, one of the oldest and most commonly told stories begins with “Once, a stranger came to town….”
Enhance the voices of all characters
An older person would choose different words and metaphors than a recent college graduate would. An impatient person’s speech might be peppered with sentence fragments. A timid person could be interrupted by a pushier character. And perhaps one or more characters sound like you, or possesses certain aspects of you, and that’s okay.
You will always sound like yourself when you write, and this is the definition of a writer’s voice. I also believe that writers get better with practice and the passage of time. They mature. You won’t have the same voice twenty years from now as you do today. It’s not possible.
So, now and then, stop. Read what you’ve written as objectively as possible and edit accordingly but try not to fret too much about acquiring a voice. You’ll always sound like you. You can’t help it.
Are you looking for your author voice? Let’s talk about it on Facebook.
Mary Anna Evans is the author of the Faye Longchamp archaeological mysteries, which have received recognition including the Benjamin Franklin Award, the Mississippi Author Award and three Florida Book Awards bronze medals. She is an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, where she teaches fiction and nonfiction writing. Publishers Weekly called her new release Catacombs “nail-biting” and “richly textured.”