Thursday, December 1, 2011

What's your 'voice'? by Terry Burns

How did you find your unique writing voice? Did you struggle to find it or did it come easily to you?

Let me put my writing hat on for a minute, the one in the picture, I don't get to wear it much these days. In my opinion if somebody is struggling to find "their writing voice" they're trying to force it. My writing voice is not the way I talk, my West Texas Drawl, it is who I am.

It's the sum total of my education, my upbringing, my faith, my family, my experiences and it comes through in the way I write, even when I am trying to craft dialogue where the character speaks far differently than how I would speak myself. Some of my characters would speak much as I do, others speak far differently, but always no matter what is going on in the dialogue there are ways I would phrase things and ways that I wouldn't. There are things I would allow in my writing and things I wouldn't. The way I craft sentences, the pacing of my writing, these are the things that make up voice, not the way I speak or make my characters speak. I think far too many writers mistake dialogue for "voice."

--How would you describe your unique writing voice? What is it that you do to make sure your writing "sounds like" you?

My writing style is simple, because that's what I am, a simple old cowboy. If I tried to write complicated literary fiction it wouldn't work because then I would be outside my voice. I write simple, fast-moving stories and even if I'm not trying to do so, my faith is still evident. As long as I stay true to my upbringing I don't have to worry about my voice, it'll be there.

--When reviewing submissions, what do you as an agent look for in others' writing? How do you identify a writer's voice?

I look for the same thing, is the writing natural? I don't try to identify a writer's voice and style but I can tell when it is contrived, when it is not natural. When it is forced it can seem pompous, the story doesn't seem to flow easily, it sounds like the writer is using words and phrasing they are not comfortable with. It feels very much as if they are trying to be something they aren't.

--What advice would you give to beginning/intermediate writers to help them find and develop their unique writing voice?

Don't over-think it. Tell your story, then look at what you've written and see if it sounds like you or if it sounds like you are trying to be someone else. Not the dialogue, we all try to be someone else in the dialogue and sound the way we feel that character should sound, but in the general tone and style of the writing. Does it feel natural, or does it feel like you are trying to write like somebody else? If someone were sitting there with you, is this the way you'd tell them a story?

That's voice.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post and so true.

Timothy Fish said...

Well said. That's the way I see it. I've noticed that in all the novels I've written, they all have a similar sound to them. The stories and the characters are very different, but the voice is the same. If people like it, if people don't, it is what it is.

Kristen Joy Wilks said...

Something interesting, my sister read a few of my terrible terrible writing "masterpieces" from Jr. High and we had a good laugh, but then she said that I still write the same.

I was understandably horrified and she reassured me that I had improved in immeasurable ways...but the pacing and word choice and feel, very similar to my evil Jr. High self.

How strange, I didn't even know for sure if I had a voice and apparently I do, and have had it for awhile. In fact, I'm revising my WIP right now and according to some feedback I have too much voice. Oops!

Valerie Comer said...

It took writing a few novels to find my voice, and now I'm working at honing it. An interesting journey :)

Rick Barry said...

My main advice for a newcomer would be to read widely, expose yourself to many voices, but don't try to copycat any of them. Just tell the most interesting story you can using all the experiences and words accumulated so far in your life.

Sharon A. Lavy said...

I used to worry about voice. Until a freelance editor I paid told me that frankly, I had no voice. So I quit worrying about it.

I just keep trying to learn the craft. And for my more or less final edits I read out loud. If the word is not something I would ever use, I change it, even if my favorite critique partner suggested it.

And my characters do not all use perfect grammar. Maybe none of them do. But they sound like themselves.

Linda Glaz said...

I agree, Rick. Just tell the best story you can and your voice should come through.

Jeanette Levellie said...

I use fragments, which drive my English major son nuts. But it's the way I talk. So there.

And I had a writer friend tell me that "good" writers don't start sentences with But or And. But I noticed all the sentences in the Bible that begin with But and And. So they're stayin'.

Excellent post, Terry.