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Voice: How do you find yours?

For those of you who may have heard the term ‘voice’ bandied about and are unclear as to what it really means, about.com has a decent definition: Voice is the author’s style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique, and which conveys the author’s attitude, personality, and character. In a nutshell, it’s the way an author expresses themselves in relationship to the world around them.

My super awesome friend and CP Kat Cantrell recently wrote a fantastic blog post on voice and show-versus-tell using song lyrics. I encourage you to pop over and read it. She makes an excellent point about songwriters having to showcase their voice in each and every lyric.

Voice has been on my mind a lot lately. I took a break from writing while I went through a difficult year of health challenges and thought I’d finally ease my way back into it by writing a novella. I’ve never written short before, so that was a struggle all in its own, but worse, I really struggled to find my voice again after being away from writing for so long.

The more I mulled over Kat’s blog post, the more I became inspired to think about voice in a different way. I decided to turn to some of my favorite musicians and just listen to what they were saying. And then I stumbled upon a cover song by Keith Urban and I thought, “Huh, same words, but vastly different interpretation.” Could that be applied to voice as well? I think it can. You’ve all heard the saying that there are no new plots/ideas. And yet, give two authors the same scenario and they’ll come up with completely different books. Why is that?

Let’s look at Keith Urban’s cover of Phil Collins’s “Can’t Stop Loving You”. If you haven’t heard this song before, take a listen to both versions:

Did you feel a difference?

What strikes me right off the bat is the tone. Phil Collins’s original has an urgency to it that immediately makes you feel his desperation at seeing the woman he loves slip away. It’s almost as if he’s saying he won’t let it happen. Keith Urban’s on the other hand is slower, it speaks of heartbreak and desolation. He’s already lost her, and he’s helpless to do anything about it. Heartbreak, loss, helplessness, those are all trademark Keith Urban.

Now, did you hear a difference? Compare the chorus of both versions.

Phil Collins:

Cause I can’t stop loving you
No I can’t stop loving you
No I won’t stop loving you
Why should I?

Keith Urban:

Cause I can’t stop loving you
I can’t stop loving you
No I can’t stop loving you
Though I try

Keith Urban chose to make a subtle shift in the lyrics. Instead of No I won’t stop loving you / Why should I, which implies a conscious control over one’s feelings, he keeps it as No I can’t stop loving you, and then changes that last line to Though I try. Why? Because it fits better with his interpretation—that of a heartbroken man helplessly watching his love leave.

The song is about losing love, no matter who sings it, but I imagine two vastly different storylines when listening to each version. Keith Urban and Phil Collins interpret the lyrics based on their personality/attitude/world view (refer back to the about.com definition). And, that, folks, is what voice is all about.

What can you do to find yours?

*Give yourself ten or fifteen minutes to journal or free write. Don’t censor yourself, don’t edit your words, just let them run free on the page.
*Retell a classic tale in your own words–think fairytales: Cinderella, Snow White, etc.
*Make a list of your favorite themes
*Listen to your favorite songs. What draws you to them?

The floor is open. Have questions about voice? Comment below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

 

50 Responses to “Voice: How do you find yours?”

  1. Tamara Hogan says:

    Cynthia, I think you put your finger on one of the reasons I enjoy music covers so much. Each artist’s interpretation can be so, so different, and bring something entirely fresh, unexpected, and new to the work. One of the best examples of this that I can think of is “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. Fabulous song. But when Johnny Cash covered it? Absolutely devastating.

    I did a book signing with some chaptermates last Saturday, with a short presentation by each of us followed by a Q & A. One of the teenagers there asked each of us whether we wrote YA, or would consider writing YA. My answer? An immediate, emphatic “no” – and my answer was entirely voice related. My writing voice – adult, snarky, foul-mouthed – is still emerging, still developing. I’d have to seriously throttle that back to write YA, and I don’t feel I have enough of a handle on my native voice yet to start playing around with it. Voice, to me, seems like a kind of magical, alchemic thing, something that I can’t improve with craft books. It’s not something I feel comfortable experimenting with at this point in my development as a writer.

  2. Kat Cantrell says:

    Great post Cynthia! I love the way you compared the lyrics and likened it to the artist’s brand, if you will. That’s another important aspect of voice – establishing what kind of experience your readers will get from you time and time again, which is the core of branding in my mind. Nothing like a little more pressure, right? Not only do we have to discover our voice, we have to replicate it and maintain consistency!

    I believe that’s where authenticity comes in. If you’re faking it or forcing it or copying someone else’s voice, you can’t keep it up and I think Tamara nailed it in her post above. You can’t learn it from craft books and it is sort of magical.

    I’ve heard it said that revisions are where voice comes out the best because you’re focusing on the words and language instead of getting the first draft down. Do you think that’s true or is voice something that is either there or not from the get-go because it’s part of how you tell the story?

    • Thanks, Kat! I couldn’t have written it without your inspiration. :) Love what you said about branding and authenticity! They both go hand and hand with voice.

      As for your question–you would think of a tough one! ;) I think that revisions area a great way to bring out your voice…you can play with word choice and sentence structure until it feels right to you…however, I also think that drafts are where raw voice shines through so if you’re not careful you can edit and revise your voice right out of a book.

      How’s that for a non-answer! ;)

      • Kat Cantrell says:

        That’s not a non-answer, it’s a great response and makes sense besides. I agree, I think voice almost has to come out in the first draft. You can refine it, sure, but the roots are there.

  3. Rita Henuber says:

    For me voice comes from who we are. What our life experiences are and where they have taken us. Ask two women to write a story about lost love and heartbreak. One is a smart, beautiful, rich, 20 year old college student who has never worked a job and has never had a guy break up with her. The other woman is 35, comes from a working class middle-income family has worked since she was 16 and took 6 years to put herself through college. The man she loved was killed and she has suffered through several bad breakups. One is an astist the other and accountant. Each of those women will bring their experiences to the story.
    The suggestions for finding your voice are excellent. Great post.

    • Excellent point, Rita. Voice is totally shaped by our life experiences. But here’s a question for you. Do you think that means that our voice can be changed as our life experiences change?

      I ask because I’ve had a pretty huge life experience change over the past year and I’m beginning to wonder whether that’s altering my voice a bit. Or maybe I just want to have an excuse as to why this novella is kicking my butt!

      • Rita Henuber says:

        I think it does change. Only to the extent of growing as a writer and adding more layers to your voice. If you’ve always written hot suspense will a life changing experience turn you to writing inspirational? Maybe, but I don’t think it will. I think it will bring out more character depth in your writing. Adding that complexity to your stories certainly makes it more of a challenge.

        • Great answer, Rita! :) I love reading a book that has lots and lots of layers just waiting to be discovered. Life experience definitely helps add texture to a story.

  4. kelly fitzpatrick says:

    I find my voice comes out louder and stronger writing in 1st person POV. I feel freeer to speak my mind. Or have my character speak her mind. And let’s just say my mind is a very busy place.

    • First person POV can be a very freeing experience. Sometimes when I’m stuck on a scene, I will try writing it in first person POV and then switch it back to third later on. Sometimes the he/she distance gets in the way, doesn’t it?

      • kelly fitzpatrick says:

        Even in 3rd person, I love a little internal dialogue. Okay, alot of internal dialogue.

    • Writing in first person really helps me to get in the character’s head. Great point!

  5. Anne Barton says:

    Cynthia, what a fabulous post! You’ve really got me thinking about voice. I love the idea of comparing two versions of the same song. One year at Nationals, a panel discussed how artists (i.e., painters) have a “voice” similar to writers. That was really interesting too, but the music analogy is easier for me to grasp.

    Now I want to go dig out all my old Phil Collins albums.

    • Ooh, that’s very interesting, Anne! I can see where painters would have their own unique voice as well, but I think I’m much more of an auditory learner than a visual one, because music just resonates with me so much easier.

  6. This is a wonderful post! Great job, Cynthia.

    I have found that my voice goes through subtle changes depending on the project I’m working on. At first, that really worried me, but like you said with the songs, it depends on the mood and the point/emotion you are trying to convey. So right now I’m just trying to go with the flow and let my voice do its thing in different projects. Hopefully it knows what its doing. :)

    • Thanks, Darynda! I think tone is one point of voice, but I also think authors can alter their tone and still maintain their voice. The romantic suspenses that I’ve written vary in tone–some darker than others and one (my GH final) a whole lot lighter than anything else I’ve written. But my voice is still there.

      I have every confidence that your voice knows exactly what it’s doing! :)

  7. Laurie Kellogg says:

    Great comparison, Cynthia. Voice is why two authors can write almost the exactly the same plot and create two totally different tones and moods. Word choice, syntax, emphasis, emotion, and humor, play huge roles in shaping an author’s voice.

    • You hit the nail on the head, Laurie! All those elements make up author voice, and I love that no two authors are exactly alike–makes for some pretty great reading!

  8. Hope Ramsay says:

    Cynthia,

    Wonderful post. One of my CP’s asked me about voice not long ago and I answered her using a musical metaphor, too.

    And that’s because a writer’s voice is most definitely aural thing. It’s what the reader “hears” in their head — like a song.

    Unlike singers, though, we put it all in the words, and don’t have the luxury of actually producing sound. For a novelist it’s all about the word choices, the placement of commas, and the rythm of the sentences you write. And often you can’t even hear your own voice unless you read your work aloud.

    It gets even more complicated, too, because if you write in deep third person, as I do, you have to temper your writing voice with the point of view of the character you’re writing. My writing voice changes when I’m writing a six year old POV character, or when I’m writing my current hero who is an Englishman.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      –> It gets even more complicated, too, because if you write in deep third person, as I do, you have to temper your writing voice with the point of view of the character you’re writing.

      So true, Hope. Funny how, in my first drafts, almost all of my POV characters mentally swear like Merchant Marines. Just like I do. ;-)

    • -> For a novelist it’s all about the word choices, the placement of commas, and the rhythm of the sentences you write.

      Yes, exactly. All of those things are why I believe books have their own kind of music.

  9. Kim Law says:

    This is a really great post Cynthia! I’m not a big music person, so I’ve never really sat around listening to music and thinking about voice, but wow. These two examples were exactly as you said, and it came out within the first line! Makes me a little intimidated to think that our voices need to be so clear on line one. I know they do…but to see it so clearly like this, it really hits home.

    • ->Makes me a little intimidated to think that our voices need to be so clear on line one.

      Excellent point, Kim. Just like with songs, we don’t have pages and pages to get into our voice. We have to nail it right of the bat.

  10. liz talley says:

    Nice post, Cyn!

    I find my voice grows and changes, but has an element always present that is essentially “Amy”.

    I have to be careful what I read because often the voice of the author will bleed over into my story. This happened when I read Darynda’s book (man, does she have a strong voice). I was writing the opening of A Touch of Scarlet – the upcoming Oct. release – and in the opening chapter Scarlet, my actress on a vampire soap opera, gets pulled over for speeding. My idea for her character was a bit over the top, drama queen, but because I was in the middle of First Grave, she came out sounding like Charlie. I didn’t realize until I started revisions because, as most characters do over the course of a book, Scarlet settled into being herself. So when I reread the first of it, I was like “Huh?” LOL. She was a snarky, smartass. She could be a little of that, but not that much.

    So I have to be careful about enjoying someone else’s voice so much that I coat my voice in their’s.

    Also, I think I found my voice when I switched to contemporaries. My Regency voice was much different. I remember one agent telling me, “I read the Regency and thought ‘this is solid’ but then I read your contemporary and knew where you were meant to write.” I’m actually playing around with my first Regency, rewriting it to see if I can translate my contemporary voice into my historical.

    Great topic!

    • That’s interesting about your Regencies not being your “true” voice, Amy. I had a similar experience. I started out writing contemporary romance and although the writing was decent, once I tried my hand at romantic suspense I just felt this sense of rightness. But I would love to be able to write some straight contemps one of these days!

    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Amy,

      I had a similar experience, when I tried to write something funny set in the South. And then batta, boom, this VOICE was there. Like it had been lurking just waiting to come out.

      I’d always had a strong writing voice. But this was different. This was something really alive that came from out of nowhere.

  11. Tina Joyce says:

    Great post Cynthia! And the music example definitely hit it for me. Love both versions of this song. So much of who we are works its way into our manuscripts, and I think that’s true of musicians as well. Maybe that’s why we gravitate toward certain musical genres or styles. Something about it just resonates with us.

    You’ve got me thinking! Thanks!

    • I definitely think that our personality influences our music choices as well. If I had any doubt that I was meant to write romance, all I’d have to do is look at my music collection. I love my romantic ballads!

  12. Kate Pearce says:

    One of the good things about growing older is that you find your ‘voice’ in lots of different ways, and for me, one of those was my writing voice. I can ‘hear’ when it’s right-it’s rather like pinging the edge of a crystal glass-I can also tell when I’ve got it wrong and like a songwriter I rewrite until I hit that right note. Apologies if this sounds pretentious, but it’s the best way I can think of to describe voice, which is almost indescribable but is there in every word we write. :)

    • Kate, that doesn’t sound pretentious at all! I think the more we write the easier it becomes to recognize when we’ve written something that isn’t true to our voice. I finally feel confident enough to trust my instincts with stuff like that, but it took a long time.

  13. Hope said–> It gets even more complicated, too, because if you write in deep third person, as I do, you have to temper your writing voice with the point of view of the character you’re writing.

    Tamare replied->So true, Hope. Funny how, in my first drafts, almost all of my POV characters mentally swear like Merchant Marines. Just like I do.

    Cyn commented-> I have a much easier time with male POV, so does that mean that I have a natural male voice.

    You all hinted at the this. I think we always have a voice. It’s just there, but making it strong happens during revisions where we actually focus on the emotions we’re trying to convey for each character and not on the plot.

    BTW: I don’t think you have a natural male voice. Like me, we just know what we’d like in a man and that’s an alpha male. GRIN

    Great post, Cynthia.

    • -> BTW: I don’t think you have a natural male voice. Like me, we just know what we’d like in a man and that’s an alpha male. GRIN

      Good point. LOL. ;)

      I love revisions, the fine tuning of each sentence and phrase. *happy sigh* It’s the first draft that kills me.

  14. Elisa Beatty says:

    Great post, Cynthia! What a fabulous example… the differences in tone and emotion are powerful.

    For me as a reader, voice is the single biggest attraction. A fabulous plot in a flat voice bores me to tears, while I’ll scarcely notice a weak plot if I’m loving an author’s voice. I just want to be in their world, see their perceptions of things.

    I do have to be careful not to have my own voice waver too much as I read different authors…

    • There’s a reason agents and editors say they acquire books with fabulous voice. Plot can be learned and fine-tuned and rewritten. Voice is that raw element that is essential for an engaging story.

  15. Great post! (We have such a variety of topics on the RSS, I love it).

    I think a lot of people confuse voice with theme. Theme is that thing you can’t seem to stop writing about. Voice is the way you write. As Hope said, “it’s all about the word choices, the placement of commas, and the rythm of the sentences you write.”

    I personally think that an author’s theme reflects a challenge that she repeatedly confronts in her own life. I think many writers (not all) work out their demons over and over again through writing, and that eventually comes across as an author’s theme.

    Sure, you can consciously change themes — just like I believe you can consciously change voice. But I still think that many writers have a running theme through their work — and a running voice — that might be obvious to an objective observer, but can be hard for an author to recognize, let alone adjust!

    • Great point about theme, Jamie. I know that I tend to gravitate to the same themes when writing. Which sometimes worries me because I don’t want all my stories to start sounding the same!

  16. Great post, Cynthia!

  17. Diana Layne says:

    This is so cool. Since I’m a pianist, I can really relate to this as music can be interpreted in so many different ways. Actually, though, to liven up my classical songs I had to practice over and over I used to make up stories to go with them. It actually made me play them with more feeling. Getting off subject, though, this was a really good example!

  18. What’s weird for me is that my non-fiction writing voice is so much like my fiction voice. (Hmmm. Maybe that’s why I’m not published in fiction. . .) Even weireder is that I recently reread a non-fiction piece I published in college, eons ago, and it was the same voice. So when people talk about finding their voice, I’m like “Huh?” Guess everyone’s different.

  19. Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

    Sorry so late, doll. Doc day.

    I’ve been told I have a strong voice. Singing, yeah, but anyone can be taught to project. Writing? You couldn’t prove it by me, but I guess it’s one of those everybody sees the resemblance but the person doing the resembling things.

    Thus, it’s a good thing I love history because my writing voice tends toward formal (so does my speaking voice, to a degree—apples/trees, you know.) Writing within the realm of the peerage is a natural fit. Which presented a dilemma with the Sci-Fi stories—at first. A little innovation (mostly following my own instincts), and VOILA!

  20. Excellent post, Cynthia. I so agree that voice is something that comes from within — it’s part of you and can’t be taught. When I first started writing, I imitated others’ voices (Hello, Jenny Crusie!) until I eventually I found my own way.

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