Finding Your Voice

OTRAS (4)During the recent SCBWI conference in LA, a panel of editors talked about what writers should and shouldn’t have in their manuscripts. The one thing they all agreed every manuscript should have is voice. They’re looking for unexpected and surprising voice, the kind that gives them goosebumps.

But voice can be one of those things that’s difficult to pin down. Most of the time, I find it easiest ti identify in other people’s work.

When it comes to narrative/authorial voice, I immediately think of Neil Gaiman. When I read his stories, I can his Neil’s voice in my head, narrating along. If you’ve read his work, you probably can, too. Everything he’s written, from The Wolves in the Walls to The Ocean at the End of the Lane, has a certain Neil-ness to it.

When it comes to character voice, I think of Tom Leveen. He’s very good at nailing character voices. In his debut novel, Party, he wrote each chapter from a different character’s point of view, and each character’s voice is unique. In his recently released novel, Random, he tells the story from the point of view of a 16-year-old girl, but also peppers in bits of text and online posts from other characters with their unique voices. Looking for good examples of character voice? Read Tom Leveen.

The fun and interesting part is when narrative voice and character voice mingle in the same story. One example would be any of the Harry Potter novels, when Hagrid comes on the scene. Hagrid has a very distinctive voice, much different from the narrative voice telling the story. Sometimes authors don’t do this as successfully, though, and their narrative voice will leak into their characters’ voices. Ever read something and think, “That doesn’t sound like something that character would say?” That’s inauthenticity in character voice. That’s the author getting in the way of the character.

So….how do we do this as writers? How do we find our narrative voices? How do we lock onto our characters’ voices? How do we mingle the two and keep it all authentic?

The editors on the SCBWI panel gave this bit of advice, for knowing when you’re doing it right: if you’re writing authentically, it will automatically have voice.

I think the answer comes from lots of writing. But also, I think, lots of listening. Listening with our minds as we write. Listening to our work as we read it aloud after we write. Listening for those times it sounds real, and fixing those places where it doesn’t. It takes work–as does everything–but with time and practice, we’ll find our voices, just as Gaiman and Leveen and Rowling found theirs.