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?

Writers’ Roundup

Thanks to everyone who offered advice about getting over the fight with my manuscript. After a weekend break, I forced myself to get back at it, and completed drafts of chapters nine, ten and eleven! Largely because of that progress, I’m in back in love with the story. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel!

Helpful links from this week:

  • What’s a book club hustler? An author who markets her work to book clubs by showing up in person. Sounds fun, albeit a lot of work. On that same note, author Galen Kindley offers practical advice about how to find book clubs open to author visits and prepare for the meetings.
  • Penelope Trunk on staying disciplined. More reasons why it’s important to stay focused and on track with my writing every day.
  • While documenting her path to publication, writer Jody Hedlund explains the slew of committees her book has to go through before (hopefully) publisher acceptance.
  • Lastly, a post from author Janice Hardy about why you should kill your prologue. This spoke to me because I killed my prologue months ago, after realizing that I fell into her category #3, thinking that it had more oomph to grab readers than the first chapter. But that was taking the easy way out. As she writes, instead “make your first chapter sing.”

Now put that pen to paper this weekend!