Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Understanding Voice

The voice of a story is often a difficult skill to teach. In fact, this is one of those elements of a story that just comes along naturally. You either get it, or you don't. This does not mean that a writer cannot figure it out over time. It is possible. And, since it can't really be taught, I will take today to "talk around it."

The voice of a story is simply how it sounds. This is not to be confused by your own personal voice, or your image. The voice involves things such as sentence structure, pacing, word choice, paragraph length and structure and so forth. If the voice of a story really works, everything is going to flow together smoothly. In many ways, it is similar to making a great meal that was really complicated to put together - a lot of spices and so forth. When you take a bite, all of those flavors just burst together. Think Ratatouille:

Another example would be learning a foreign language. You can take 3 or 4 years of a foreign language and yet the voice is not there. It is the feel of the words that truly gets you to the fluent stage.

Too often, authors are so obsessed with fine tuning a character, or getting the right phrasing down, that the voice is often ruined.

I just passed on a project where the author had a great premise and yet the voice was not there. As I read the story, I felt as if she was trying so hard to create the perfect phrase, the perfect image, and the perfect mood. While these passages were beautiful, "the voice" simply did not work with the story.

The voice of a story also varies from one publisher to the next. I have spoken about this here before. When we talk about what one publisher likes will differ from the other publisher, this is often due to the voice of the story and not the plot, character type or word count. This is also a key difference between stories that are considered "category" or "series" versus a "single title feel."

Right now, I am seeing so many authors just writing words on a page and not really thinking about "how it sounds" or "how it flows off the page." Essentially, these authors are hearing the story they feel they are telling, but it is all in their minds. What they have written and what they are personally perceiving is not quite there.

It is also for this reason that editors and agents ask to see the writing after a pitch session or an initial query. What you tell us your story is about is one thing. How it reads is completely different. I will say, the majority of time, if I have requested a to see more of a project, the issue often comes down to voice.

To get to an understanding of voice takes time. It takes a lot of dissection of novels. Reading those that you like and then watching carefully how the author is doing something different from the other authors out there. Study it. You might surprise yourself.

And, because it does take time, do not expect to figure it out today. Give it several months. You will figure it out.

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