A writer sent me an email asking me to talk about voice. I instantly groaned. Because I knew we should talk about it, but I also knew it was going to be an impossible thing to teach.
Whenever I've read an interview with an agent or editor, and they're asked "What are you looking for in a writer?" the first thing they usually say is, "A great voice."
Your writing voice is your unique way of phrasing things. When you say something and your friend says, "Oh, that's so you," or, "I knew that's what you were going to say," they're talking about your voice.
Are you familiar with the band Cake? (Click here if you're not, and you can listen to some music off their web site.) Nobody sounds like Cake ... except Cake. And Cake sounds like Cake all the time. Whether they're doing an original like Never There or covering I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor.
In the music business they call it a "sound." In writing we call it voice. And even though it seems like it should be the easiest thing in the world to write in your voice, it's not. It takes confidence and honesty and practice. And a lot of times you don't even know that you're "there" until someone - a writing friend, your agent - says, "You have a great voice."
I wish there were a recipe for voice, but there's not. Instead, I'll tell you what helped me, and hopefully it'll do something for you:
My door stayed closed for 3 years
When we talked about writing your first draft with your door open or closed (click here for the post) I mentioned that I believe I got published so young in part because my friend scared me off from sharing my work. After that happened, I wrote for years (three, if my fuzzy brain can be trusted) without showing anyone anything. I was determined to not be hurt again. (Which was dumb. Getting hurt is just part of a writer's life.)
While in some ways it slowed my progress to not have anyone critiquing me, I honestly feel it helped more than it hurt. Because I was free to write without concern of what people thought. By the time I entered into my first critique group, I was (unknowingly) only a few months away from acquiring my agent. I had found my voice, and I was secure enough to not let anyone mess with it.
I studied writers I love
One of the ways I found my voice was to read lots of good books by writers I love. I don't know how to explain why this helps, but I'll try anyway. When we fall in love with a book, it's because the author has touched something inside of us. Sometimes they articulate things that we didn't even know we felt.
I felt that way when I first discovered Sarah Dessen. Reading This Lullaby unlocked something inside of me. When I went back to writing after having read that book, the first few pages were pure imitation. But then, a chapter or two in, a phrase popped out that was all mine, that sounded like me. Slowly, I was no longer imitating.
Reading great writers helps our voice evolve. Yes, I've had the experience of getting so captured by a book that my voice momentarily suffered. This happened a couple years ago when I was too sick to write and wound up reading all four books of the Twilight saga in one week. I came back to my manuscript and had a major identity crisis. At first my voice was a little bent, but it self-corrected pretty quickly.
I wrote. A lot.
You're not going to find your voice by taking a class or reading a blog post. I've yet to hear a writer say, "I had no voice, and then I read Find Your Voice in a Week by Sue Smith, and presto!" You will find your voice by writing. Particularly, I think, by writing the stories you want to write, not just ones you think will sell.
Those are the three things that helped me most. What about you? Do you feel like you have a voice? Do you have any other tips?