Finding my voice through blogging

Literary agent Nathan Bransford had a great post recently on finding your literary voice.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot as I dig into another revision of my travel memoir. One of the elements I’m focusing on is my voice. Rachelle says my voice is still too journalistic, not memoir-y enough. I know she’s right. This is something I’ve struggled with from the beginning, since my writing experience is mostly in news.

No matter what I do, my style will probably always be slightly journalistic, since I’m a journalist. That’s okay. Some of my favorite memoirs have journalistic voices, including Helene Cooper’s The House at Sugar Beach. (My sister tells me Roxana Saberi’s Between Two Worlds does too, though it’s still in my to-read pile, or as an agent at the conference this weekend called it, Guilt Mountain.) But even with that journalistic undertone, I need to let the reader in. I need to help the reader get to know me, to hear my personality in my words.

So whenever I find myself writing stiffly, I remind myself to create like I do on this blog. To write casually. To string words together like I would in a conversation, not like I would for a news story. On this blog, I’ve developed a conversational tone, one that really sounds like me. (Agree? Feel free to shoot me down!) Little bits of my humor come through here. A taste of my personality. Yes, in some ways I still write like a journalist, but on this blog I feel like I’ve found my unique voice.

That’s what needs to come across in my manuscript. Perhaps, during this revision, I should pretend I’m blogging.

Playing Hide ‘n Seek With Literary Voice

Everyone agrees a writer’s voice — or lack thereof — can make or break a manuscript.

But what is literary voice? And how do you improve something that’s so hard to define?

Voice is one of those things you recognize when you see it. It’s what a reader refers to when she says, “I really like the way this is written, but I can’t put my finger on exactly why.” It’s writing style and tone, a reflection of the writer’s personality.

When I first started writing this travel memoir six months ago, I had trouble getting words down on paper, even though I was following an outline. It wasn’t until later, when my writing began to flow, that I realized what had stood in my way: I hadn’t found my voice. As one of my fellow newspaper friends likes to say, it was buried under years of inverted pyramids.

The best newspaper reporters write with subtle voice. But most of us trade in voice for objectivity, straight talk, low word counts and meeting deadlines. For me, realizing my voice was missing wasn’t enough to make it reappear. It took practice to let it shine naturally through my writing again.

So how did I find it? Partly through blogging. When I write for a blog, my style is rather casual, sometimes funny, showing slivers of my personality. That’s why keeping a travel blog was so great for my book. Sure, the blog provided content that I’m now using in the book, but writing it also helped me escape my strict reporter mentality and embrace writing with voice. My blog writing isn’t perfect — I often rushed to write posts, hoping the African Internet connection would hold up — but it has personality. (Still not sure what I’m talking about? This post about marriage proposals in Cameroon is a good example.)

What I’m suggesting here is that blogging can improve your literary voice. But what if you don’t have any voice to begin with? Is this something a writer can learn?

Perhaps, as Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen suggests, writers should focus more on freeing their voice rather than learning to write with one. She and Holly Lisle both offer ideas about how to develop personality in writing.

At a critique group meeting recently, a fellow writer commented that she could hear my voice in my chapter. To her it was a small compliment. To me, a show of achievement, how much I’ve improved.

The truth is, I can hear it, too. This week, I revisited a chapter I wrote months ago, and I was surprised to see how obviously it lacked my voice that saturates chapters I wrote more recently. Now I’m in the process of going back through that chapter and inserting my voice, not only to improve the writing but also to make it match the personality of the rest of the book.

What’s literary voice to you? How do you work to improve it?

My nonfiction novel

I know what you’re thinking: It’s an oxymoron. Novels are fiction.

But when it comes to narrative nonfiction, the genre of my book, labels aren’t that simple. My travel memoir tells a true story, but it’s meant to read like a novel.

That means I’ve got to work elements of fiction into my book, including dialogue, character development, conflict and literary techniques like the metaphor, which I haven’t used since college.

This isn’t easy for me. As a journalist, I’m used to writing short, true stories that are straight to the point, not subtly dramatic. I’m used to quoting scarcely. I’m used to keeping my voice and humor out of the story.

But for this memoir, I want my voice to shine through. To help me along, I’m reading Peter Rubie’s The Elements of Narrative Nonfiction (a book recommended by a literary agent on Twitter, which is where I seem to get all my good leads these days).

To tell you the truth, it has taken this long — four months of delving into my book — to figure out my own voice, my style, my writing humor. But now I’m finally getting it! My nonfiction novel is starting to come together.

What makes my book unique?

A big part of selling my book will be convincing both an agent and a publisher that it’s unique, different than travel memoirs already on bookstore shelves.

So from the beginning, I’ve asked myself: What makes my book unique?

Travelogues written by women voyaging alone have become so popular, they’re practically their own genre (Think: Eat, Pray Love.) And plenty of travel memoirs are set in Africa.

But put those two themes together, and you’ll recognize the niche I’m about to fill: Very few travel memoirs have been written by women traveling in Africa. It’s even rarer for a female author to backpack the continent alone.

My book, however, must be unique for more than its plot. Publishers and readers will look for a literary voice that stands out, a style that’s fresh. I’ve got to let my dry humor and perspective shine, while shedding light on far-away places and foreign friends. That means inserting my personality into my writing.

In the end, that’s what’s going to make this book sucessful: my writing personality. My style. My voice.

Watch out, literary world.