When I'm sent manuscripts, I can usually tell in the first few pages if this is a beginner writer's first book, or if they have a little experience under the belt. The clue has nothing to do with the quality of the writing or with the story, and everything to do with Voice.
Voice is that elusive quality that is so hard to put into words. You know when an author has it, and you know when they don't.
Voice is a lot like dating. When you first start dating, you want to impress your new date. You dress up. If you're a woman, you put on make-up and do your hair. You splurge a little on going to a really nice restaurant. If you're a man, you might shave or put on cologne. Throughout the evening, you'll be on your best behaviour, careful not to say or do anything that might make the other person not like you. But unless you're the kind of person who oozes confidence, or you don't give a damn whether your date likes you or not, behaviour like this can lead to awkwardness, to stilted conversation and tension. Too often, if we don't 'gel' with our date and start to relax and be ourselves, we part ways without arranging a second date.
That's how most writers begin their writing journey. Our first books are us on our best behaviour, following the rules of writing, and writing in a way we think will make people like us. But it's often stilted and unnatural. It makes readers not want a second date.
So we need a few tips and tricks to overcome that initial awkwardness and gain the confidence to be ourselves enough that when we find readers we 'gel' with, they want a second date (or to read more, buy the book, buy the next book).
In the same way that it takes time a little to relax into the date, it takes a little time to warm up to our writing, to get to the point where we're comfortable just to be ourselves; to go out for squelchy burgers wearing jeans and with no make-up on. We need to get comfortable enough with our writing that we can say what we think, and laugh even if it means we make that funny sorting noise we tried so hard to hide on the first date.
Voice is a naturalness to writing, as if the author herself is telling you the story over coffee and a slice of a cake at your favourite coffee shop.
It's deceptively simple, because as easy and natural as it seems, it takes years to hone this skill. For most of us, revealing ourselves through our writing takes a confidence we don't yet have. In the beginning, we're very conscious that someone will be reading, and possibly judging, our work, and it take practice to grow that confidence.
Here are two example which show how distinctive voices can be:
From a distance, turreted Urbino looks like a town created by a clever six-year-old from architectural blocks bought by indulgent grandparents. Dome towers, campanile, and stacked buildings of golden brick layer and rise as you approach by an upwardly swooping road.
- Frances Mayes, Every Day in Tuscany
Grandma Mazur was seventy-two and didn't look a day over ninety. I loved her dearly, but when you got her down to her skivvies, she resembled a soup chicken. Tonight's dress was a fire-engine-red shirt-waist with shiny gold buttons.
"It's perfect," I told her. Especially for the funeral home which would be cataract central.
- Janet Evanovich, Two for the Dough
You'll notice that these voices:
showcase the writer's personality
sound different from other writers
contain emotion / perspective
are genuine / come from the heart
suit the book's genre
Here are a few tips to help you find your Voice:
Write more. You won't find your natural voice in the first book you write. Hopefully by the second or third book you complete, you'll have started to find it. The more you write, the easier it gets.
Write for yourself. For the words to come from your heart, you need to write what matters to you. Not what you think might matter to your readers or to editors.
Be yourself. Don't imitate other authors. The world already has a Nora Roberts and a Stephen King. It doesn't need another one. What the world needs is YOU. There is only one of you.
Write as if no one is watching. In the words of Barbara Kingsolver: “Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer.”
Today the world mourns the loss of Burt Reynolds. He was one of the heroes of my childhood, and when I think of him I can conjure up a very clear image of him. The image it's so much more than his looks or his trademark moustache. It is his cocky, self-deprecating charm, and his wise cracking humour.
Burt Reynolds admitted he wasn't the greatest actor. He wasn't likely to win awards, but he was popular, his movies were successful, they brought a great deal of joy to audiences, and he is still remembered and loved today. We don't remember Burt Reynolds because of his fantastic movies, or the well written lines he spoke. We'll mostly remember him because of his 'voice' - that sum of his looks, his distinctive personality, the types of roles he chose in his career.
Voice is Burt Reynolds being himself rather than Burt trying to be Marlon Brando. It is you trusting yourself to be you. Guaranteed, if you can relax into your natural voice, then you will find readers (and editors) who will want a second date with you.