Tuesday, January 18, 2011

8 Developing a Unique Voice - Links, Tips, and a Useful Tool

"A writer's voice is not character alone, it is not style alone; it is far more.  A writer's voice line the stroke of an artist's brush- is the thumbprint of her whole person- her idea, wit, humor, passions, rhythms."  
Patricia Lee Gauch

There are a gazillion and one posts out there about Voice and how important it is in order to make your book UNIQUE. And pretty much every one of those articles mentions how ‘you know good voice when you see it.’ And yet, no one can really define what makes a Voice good because, like pretty much everything else in the publishing world, it’s subjective. But all good depictions of Voice have two things in common – it’s seamless and addictive. It’s packed within the pages of every book you’ve stayed up until the wee hours of the morning reading because you Couldn’t. Put. It. Down.

So…why is that? What’s in Voice that makes a book unputdownable?

Let’s break out the two reasons I just listed:

Seamless (adj)
(of a fabric or surface) smooth and without seams or obvious joins : seamless stockings | figurative seamless dialogue between the two pianos.

I’m going to shine a spotlight on the one word in the above definition that I think says it all. Smooth. What do you think when you see that word? I think of melted chocolate. Bailey’s Irish Cream. Expensive perfume. Velvet and silk and glass. I think of things I can touch and taste and smell. Good voice is rich. It’s full of senses that immediately draw you in and make you feel like you’re the one experiencing what’s in the book. Good voice is like putting on 3D glasses—like living in a virtual world…but through WORDS. That’s pretty darn powerful stuff.

Here are some examples of how Voice can suck you into a landscape—even with no context of the story—just by using seamless language to engage your senses.

I knew it was coming, but it’s still hard to understand that after I read this, there will be nothing left of her for me to discover. I turn my flashlight off and all the light that’s left comes from the moon and the living room of my house. A gust of wind comes. All the leaves above and below and around me rustle. It’s the sound of losing, or of starting over. I can’t decide which.
I turn my flashlight on. I read. (Hold Still, Nina LaCour)

The last mourner was always a boy, whatever boy I had a crush on at the time. He’d be a wreck, totally destroyed by my death. When he saw me in my coffin, he’d suddenly realize that he’d loved me all along. The other kids in school, the fools who had ignored me all year, were wrong, so very wrong. The injustice of it would overwhelm Crush Boy, who’d run into the street and throw himself in front of a truck.
It was all very satisfying. (How to Say Goodbye in Robot, Natalie Standiford)

Hey. It’s me. I’m e-mailing you, and on a WEEKEND. That’s because I’m e-mailing you from Dolly’s laptop at her place, and she has DSL. Oh my God, you guys would DIE if you saw this place. Dolly lives in a penthouse, overlooking the East River. You can see BOATS going by. BOATS.
And that’s not all. She’s got THREE bathrooms—THREE—and three bedrooms, each the size of your living room, and a living room the size of your whole apartment, and a terrace—a terrace—the size of your building’s roof. (Boy Meets Girl, Meg Cabot)

When Christy Bruter hit the floor in front of me and the room erupted into this screaming rushing chaotic emergency, I had a bizarre moment where I felt sure that I was imagining all of it. Like I was still at home in bed, dreaming. (Hate List, Jennifer Brown)

Addictive (adj)
(of a substance, thing, or activity) causing or likely to cause someone to become addicted to it : a highly addictive drug | gambling can become addictive.
• of, relating to, or susceptible to the fact of being or becoming addicted to something : addictive behavior | I have a very addictive personality.

Sometimes there are books so good you literally feel like they’re a part of you. Like if someone near you talks smack about it, you might just have to engage in either eye-poking or skin-pinching or worse. These books are the ones you read every year without fail. The ones you own in every format available. The ones you recommend to family, friends, and that guy standing behind you in the DMV line.

The Hunger Games trilogy was that literary addiction for me. I still go online every day for movie news or the latest rumor on who they’re going to cast for Katniss. I don’t have a Mockingjay pin, but…I secretly really, really want one. And if I squint out of one eye, I swear my cat looks like a muttation. Anyway. My point is that addictive writing—which stems from addictive voice—gets under your skin and stays with you. It’s passages like this:

A sound escapes me. The same combination of gasp and groan that comes from being submerged in water, deprived of oxygen to the point of pain. I push people aside until I am right in front of him, my hand resting on the screen. I search his eyes for any sign of hurt, any reflection of the agony of torture. There is nothing. (Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins)

Or this:

I felt the heat flood my neck and I could sense myself blushing. I stared at my shoes. I knew that Adam was looking at me now with as much certainty as I knew that if I looked up he was going to kiss me. And it took me by surprise how much I wanted to be kissed by him, to realize that I’d thought about it so often that I’d memorized the exact shape of his lips, that I’d imagined running my finger down the cleft of his chin. (If I Stay, Gayle Forman)

Or this:

We three, each with the same unruly hair that sits on our heads like a bustle of shiny black crows, stay like this, staring at nothing, for the rest of the afternoon.
This is us since my sister Bailey collapsed one month ago from a fatal arrhythmia while in rehearsal for a local production of Romeo & Juliet. It’s as if someone vacuumed up the horizon while we were looking the other way. (The Sky is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson)


For a solid week, ever since the pep rally, I’ve been painting watercolors of trees that have been hit by lightning. I try to paint them so they are nearly dead, but not totally. Mr. Freeman doesn’t say a word to me about them. He just raises his eyebrows. One picture is so dark you can barely see the tree at all. (Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson)

The thing about all these passages—aside from being smooth and addicting—is that they do all the things we suspect voice should do. They:
  • Show the narrator’s personality
  • Contain (though not necessarily state) feelings and emotions
  • Bring scenes and language to life
  • Speak with authenticity and heart
  • Connect the reader to your character(s)
  • Sound different from the work of other writers

Part of the uniqueness of your voice is the uniqueness in your characters, world, and story. You can have the same exact character, plop her in a different world with different rules and all of a sudden—her voice will change because she’ll have to adapt to that new world. Or say I give an assignment for everyone to write a story about a terminally ill girl who just wants a puppy for her birthday. If there are fifty kids in the class, I guarantee you I’ll have fifty different stories. And so what you thought was ‘the same,’ really isn’t the same anymore. 

Why? Because voice is you. YOU make it unique. Like any part of you, you can slap some makeup on it, dress it up in fancy clothes, squirt some bronzing lotion on it, or buy a really fantastic pair of heels. But ultimately, your voice is your essence as a writer. You just have to take all the sparkles off and open your eyes in order to really see it for what it is.

For help on that, Kathy Kulig recently did an excellent post recapping a lecture by Sophia Nash on Creating Empathy for Your Characters. Another great post to help ensure that your character is real and breathing was written by B. Mac last week over at Superhero Nation with some Tips for Fixing a Mary Sue, a Protagonist That Is Insufficiently Challenged by His or Her Story. And here are some additional links that provide tips and exercises for helping you find your voice:

As an added tip, I wanted to share something that I started doing a couple of years ago. I call it my Voice Book, which is basically a notebook that I use to write down examples of first lines, sentences, words, or just gorgeous writing from authors who I think show great voice. My objective isn’t to mimic these writer’s, but to study them and learn what they’re doing right (or wrong). I genuinely believe that masterful writing isn’t just made up of raw talent. In fact, I think masterful writing comes with constant exercise and attention to what you’re doing because improvement is limitless. By studying those who you think exude a Seamless and Addictive writing style, you can create your own personal Encyclopedia of Awesome to use as a tool.

What do you do to tone your voice? Any great examples of authors or books who you think showcase excellent voice?


For this week's writing exercise, finish this prompt: 

Every Tuesday she took__________________________.

Make it as long or short as you want. Read it over. What kind of words do you use? What does it tell us about the character? Do you get a sense of your voice? If you want, feel free to share what you come up with in the comments (no more than 250 words please!).  And as always, we’d love to hear from you even if you don’t participate in the exercise. One lucky commenter will win Melissa Marr's voice-drenched book, Fragile Eternity. All you have to do is fill out the entry form below by 8pm EST, Monday 1/24.

Last week’s winner of a pre-order of Falling Under by Gwen Hayes is:

Alicia Caldwell

Congrats Alicia. You’ll receive an email with further details on how to claim this debut release.

Until next time, Happy Voice-Toning!
Cam & Martina


  1. This is so helpful because my next and maybe last revision before submitting to agents will be to work on my character's voice. I'll be referring back to this when I get ready to start the revisions. And I am reading more to recognize good voices. Studying them like you suggest does help. Thanks.

  2. Great post as always. Thanks for the wonderful links. I've been thinking about voice a lot lately because I've finished my first manuscript and starting another one, both very different in theme and tone.

    And GREAT examples on voice!

  3. Wonderful post. And I love that quote. Must add to my collection! Voice is truly threads weaved into an intimate tapestry for each writer within each character. Connecting the breath, gestures, and styles are so important.

  4. I love it! A great voice is definitely addictive! Thanks for all the wonderful links. :D

  5. Wow, this is such a useful post. I have class in an hour so I can peruse it at the moment but I know I'm going to come back to this and read everything you've linked to! Thank you.

  6. What a great post! I love your concrete examples and usable description of "seamless" and "addictive." Nice work...thanks for posting!

    ~Carla (carla-jansen.blogspot.com)

  7. This blog always has interesting tips that I always save to go back to again. This one is no exception. I know I will be referring to it again and again.

    Here's my exercise entry:

    Every Tuesday she took a stroll across the Bourne bridge and contemplated jumping into the frigid waters below.


  8. Fascinating, all the examples. Such great voices, very strong ones.

    I also think some voices are more universal, more appealing to a LOT of people. With those, there is a more general and widespread connection, whereas other writers/voices are unique in ways that fewer (yet perhaps stronger?) connections are made. Ya think? Just a thought.


Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)