Deb: Voice Matters

“Typically, when your mother starts to dislike your writing,
that’s when you’ve really found your voice.”

~Abraham Verghese

Voice matters. A lot. “Voice is the number one thing that
separates the published from the unpublished and, after that, the good books
from the mediocre ones,” says Mary Kole of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
Agent Donald Maass, author of The Fire in Fiction, elaborates:
 “By voice, I think they [agents] mean not only a unique way
of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of
looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre.  They want to read an author that is like no
other.  An original.  A standout. 
… To set your voice free, set your words free.  Set your characters free.  Most important, set your heart free…Your
voice is your self in the story.”
It sounds easy enough: be yourself. But Maass admits that
voice is a notoriously fuzzy concept, one that embraces everything from style
to sensibility to purpose.
The terms voice
and style may have once been almost synonymous,
but in modern usage they’re more distinct. Style feels deliberate, something to
be honed and shaped. We speak of it analytically, mostly from a reader’s
perspective. Voice, on the other hand, feels organic. As readers, we’re more
likely to appreciate than to analyze it. As writers, we discover it, unlock it,
free it.
When it comes to voice, there’s plenty to unlearn from years
of trying to sound like the teacher or sound like the book. Even after we’ve
committed ourselves to the creative process, we fall into the academic habit of
connecting dots for the reader, a sure voice-killer if ever there was one.
“My beginning students never write better than when
responding to an in-class assignment so challenging that it leaves no room for
stylistic self-consciousness,” says Adam Sexton, author of The Master Class in Fiction Writing. “So try to be yourself when
you write. Focus on the story you want to tell, and tell that story as quickly
and naturally as possible. Then go back and analyze, evaluate, improve.”
Grace Paley discovered her stylistic self-consciousness when
a high school teacher questioned her stilted use of words like trousers and subaltern in her poems. Paley admits it was only when she began
writing short stories that she was able to let go of such language. “When I was
able to get into somebody else’s voice, when I was able to speak in other’s
people’s voice, I found my own,” she says.
Author Jayne Anne Phillips, professor of English,
Rutgers-Newark MFA program, echoes the importance of voice in the narrative
form. “I don’t work with
ideas, which for me would limit the material,” she says. “Voice itself has no
  I work by ear, in a sense,
in that I hear the voice, follow the voice into the narrative…For me, voice
establishes the world of the novel and begins to hint at a kind of chimera of
Voice is easy to recognize. Watch for it as you read.
Compelling voice sounds more natural than artificial. In your own work, play
with voice on the page. Switch it up, depending on your audience and your
purpose. Trying out other voices is paradoxically one of the best ways to
develop your own. Experiment with point of view, narrative distance, and
narrative intelligence, all of which affect voice. Keep in mind that voice
develops both consciously and subconsciously. Be patient. Voice matures over
Attend to voice when you revise. Boot out jargon, clichés,
and weak words. Reject parts that sound unnatural, language that seem to be
trying too hard. Find where the piece first takes off, gets its legs, finds its
rhythm. Could you start there? Can you rewrite other sections to match the
strongest passages?
Try This Out: Imitation isn’t just the sincerest form of
flattery. It’s also one of the best ways to develop an awareness of voice. Rewrite
a page from your work in progress in conscious imitation of the voice of an
author you admire.
Check This Out: Ben Yagoda’s The Sound on the Page explores
the concepts of style and voice in writing. He divides his approach between
theory and practice, with interludes that include quotes from authors and
marked-up excerpts that show revision for style and voice.

1 thought on “Deb: Voice Matters”

  1. The musician Billy Bragg once said that it's pretty hard to be a rock star if you're writing songs your mom likes.

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