That’s What She Said: Honing Your Author Voice
I’ve had voice on my mind lately since my eighth novel publishes in a couple of weeks (Strangers in the Night) and given that it’s a historical novel about true-to-life people, I’ve been stewing over how well I managed the voices of my two protagonists. Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner had strong personalities and distinctive voices, and given that I decided to write in first person to really underscore those voices, I’ve been chewing my nails, hoping my readers could hear them as well as I did in my head. So far, so good (whew!). But it got me to thinking…
In terms of craft topics, voice is one of those topics that can be really difficult to pin down.
It’s nuanced and it involves both author voice and character voice, and the way they twine together. Voice is one of the first things we connect to when we open a book. It’s very often what draws a reader into a story. It’s a big part of what makes a story come alive. In other words, learning how to channel voice is an incredibly important skill set, whether it be the character’s voice or your voice as an author.
Honing our author voice in particular can be a moving target, so let’s dissect what it is and how to bring it to its fullest potential.
• An author’s voice is many things, but at its most basic level, it comes from the stories buried deeply within us. From inner, unresolved conflicts tucked away in our subconscious, or from these sort of knots of pain and joy that make up who we are.
• Voice is about honesty—an unfettered and unique collection of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes. (Oh, that’s all? Lol.) But this honesty—tapping into your truth—comes through in every word you write.
• Voice is also about courage. Many of us are afraid of total, gut-wrenching honesty. Instead of revealing that rawness, we present to the world an image of who we want to be or should be, hiding who we are. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to uphold our façades, and in the process, we can lose touch with our true, unique selves. In essence, it takes courage to drop those walls and to seek out our truths, and let them flow freely onto the page.
WHAT MAKES YOUR VOICE UNIQUE
That honesty, tapping into the well of experiences and emotions, beliefs, passions, all make up your attitude. Your attitude encompasses how you view the world, and life in general, or how you feel about someone or something. It’s also revealed through the way you talk, your body language, and your actions. The author often portrays their attitude through the actions and thoughts of their characters.
An author’s writing style is also a key factor in making a voice standout from others. It’s a more technical aspect of writing and less of a touchy-feely and nebulous aspect. It includes the author’s choice in vocabulary (slang, dialect, swearing, erudite, sharp, accessible), syntax, the author’s cadence and rhythm, as well as the figures of speech they use and how they use them. Finally, an author’s style encompasses their preference for warm versus cool writing (or elaborate versus sparse).
Another piece associated with author voice is the way the author evokes emotion from their readers. Some writers aim for thrilling, fast-paced stories so the majority of the emotion they evoke is excitement. Some writers like George R.R. Martin, for example, kill off characters and use violence or other shocking events to elicit emotion. Nicholas Sparks writes stories where he creates yearning in the reader by separating loved ones until they come together in the end again, somehow. E.L. James elicits pleasure through sex scenes and love scenes.
Finally, an author’s tone plays into their voice and can become an essential part of their brand. Do you often write with a sense of impending doom? Or are your books light-hearted and optimistic? Funny? Do they carry an air of tragedy?
FINDING AND HONING OUR VOICE
There are some techniques that can help us hone our author voice, and below are just a few:
What is needed, above all else is self-confidence, and this comes through many small acts of courage. Some good places to start are 1.) believing what you have to say is unique and will mean something to someone, 2.) writing a story that challenges you, and 3.) opening yourself, heart and soul, so we may channel true emotion onto the page. Eventually making these acts of courage will lead you to confidence, and allow you to hone your own voice.
In terms of craft techniques, studying how other authors infuse their voice into their books is helpful. Compare and contrast them to your own. What sort of techniques do they use that you like? Don’t like? To really get a handle on author voice, you may read more than one of their novels, or at least passages from more than book so you can look for theconsistency in the author’s voice.
How is your own life story unique? What makes YOU unique? Despite the fact that every plotline has been told a hundred times, each one of us has a fresh viewpoint, emotional lens, a different set of circumstances, and differing life experiences. Emphasize these differences—this is where your voice will emerge.
Don’t Over-think it
Don’t try to sound like you, just relax and be natural. Think about one of the first academic papers you ever wrote. You wanted to seem smart so you dumped a bunch of fifty-cent words in the text. But it came off stiff, unnatural and at times probably didn’t even make sense. Don’t force your voice. It will rise to the surface if you listen to your heart.
Beyond working on your manuscripts, hone your voice with easy exercises. Think of three personal questions or beliefs and record yourself answering the questions. Play it back. What sorts of phrases do you use? Intonation? Thoughts?
With practice, your voice will grow and mature, and readers will delight in the confident voice they’ve come to know and love.
Is there a novel that sticks in your mind because the voice was so clear and compelling?Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook Page.
Heather Webb is the USA Today bestselling and award-winning author of eight historical novels, including The Next Ship Home. In 2015, Rodin’s Lover was a Goodread’s Top Pick, and in 2018, Last Christmas in Paris won the Women’s Fiction Writers Association STAR Award. Meet Me in Monaco, was selected as a finalist for the 2020 Goldsboro RNA award in the UK, as well as the 2019 Digital Book World’s Fiction prize.
Heather’s upcoming release is a novel of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner called Strangers in the Night.
To date, Heather’s books have been translated to 17 languages. She lives in New England with her family, a mischievous kitten, and one feisty rabbit.