Find a Voice That's Unique to You

Wednesday, January 03, 2018


It’s something we hear about all the time. It’s why the opening pages of a story or novel are so important. If the voice of the writer isn’t right—if it doesn’t ring true—there is nothing to keep the reader engaged. Right now I’m reading a historical fiction novel I received as a Christmas gift. The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash chronicles the story of 29-year-old mill worker Ella May Wiggins, who was murdered in Bessemer City, N.C. shortly after attending a union rally in the hopes of making a better life for her and her children. The novel starts out in third person, telling a bit of Ella’s story, and then segues into a letter written by one of her daughters, who is now 75 years old in present day.

The opening chapter featuring Ella piqued my interest and tugged at my hearstrings as I read more about the plight of the mill worker during that time period—particularly a female one with four children whose husband had deserted the family. When I got to the next chapter, the one told in the voice of Ella’s daughter, Lilly, I thought to myself, “This is kind of long-winded and rambling and going all over the place.” For example:

And she was right, Edwin. You exist whether it is written down or not, and you are dead whether it’s written down or not too. If I decide not to send you this letter, that will not mean that the things I have written down never happened, that they are somehow less significant because I a the only one who has seen these words.

Then I smacked my forehead with my palm. Of course, that’s what it sounded like, because the character telling the story was an elderly woman who is trying to get all her thoughts on paper before she loses them altogether. The author had created a voice that was very authentic and completely different from the chapter before and after. As an author, that’s a very difficult thing to do.

Another one of my favorite novels, All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, is told from the point of view of a teenage girl and boy who are both struggling with depression. While the girl’s voice works, it was the voice of the boy, Finch, that really drew me in. It’s clear after the first few chapters that he has bipolar disorder, but does not want the stigma of treatment or taking medication. His voice will break the reader’s heart into pieces:

Before he died, Cesare Pavese, believer in the Great Manifesto wrote, “We do not remember days, we remember moments.”
I remember running down a road on my way to a nursery of flowers.
I remember her smile and her laugh when I was my best self and she looked at me like I could do no wrong and was whole. I remember how she looked at me the same way even when I wasn’t.
I remember her hand in mine and how that felt, as if something and someone belonged to me.

I have a middle-grade novel I once submitted to an editor I met at a writer’s conference. After she read the first ten pages, she gave me a kind piece of advice. The concept was interesting—the voice not so much. I had not nailed the voice of the 10-year-old girl telling the story and I knew it meant I needed to go back and work on the novel more.

So you may wonder how to nail down the right voice in your writing. From everything I’ve ever read on this topic, the two tips that stand out to me are “read everything you can get your hands on" and “write, write, write.” It can take writing drafts upon drafts of short stories and several novels before you get the voice right. This is not meant to be discouraging by any means, but it helps me understand why my middle-grade novel needed work. It’s also why I’m still revising my other novels—I know the voices aren’t quite there yet. But I’ll keep writing, and revising, because I know that’s the only way to nail the perfect voice.

Do you struggle with creating an authentic voice in your writing? I’d love to hear your tips!

Renee Roberson is an award-winning freelance writer and editor who also blogs at Her short story, “The Polaroid,” recently won first place Suspense/Thriller category in the 2018 Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Contest.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Renee--Great post. Voice is that ethereal thing. You know it when it's there, but when it's not, it's hard to "teach" someone how to create a distinctive voice.

I try to "act out" the inner dialogue as well as the conversations. I don't always do it out loud. Sometimes I just envision it in my head, like a movie, to see if it sounds stilted or off.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Renee, those are great examples of character voice! Voice is so hard to have to basically climb into the skin of your character and channel their energy. One exercise I've heard of is journaling or writing a diary entry or letter or blog post from your character.

Mary Horner said...

Finding the right voice is difficult for me, and I struggle with that and many other aspects of writing. Thanks for sharing some good examples.

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