Voice in writing: what is it and how should you use it?


Voice in writing
Voice: louder isn’t necessarily better…
“You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression” is possibly one of the most commonly given pieces of advice to prospective job interviewees. At least part of the first impression you give comes from your voice – its volume, pitch, tone, speed, and, unsurprisingly, the words themselves.

Well, it’s exactly the same with writing. Your voice, or the specific, almost indefinable way in which your words are put together, will help a reader (or literary agent) decide within a matter of seconds whether or not they can be bothered to turn to page two.

So what is voice? How do you know yours is a good one? And how can you find it if you have no idea where it’s gone?

What is voice?

Voice was one of the weekly topics covered by my self-editing course, and, to me, the single most useful thing we learnt.

Many elements contribute to voice and these are just some of them:

  • Atmosphere – whether you want the reader to instantly feel the story is spooky or funny or sad.
  • Whether a character or separate narrator (or some combination) is telling the story – you might want the voice to differ drastically between characters / narrators (should you write from the perspective of more than one). Whether you want to write from a first person or third person perspective (broadly “I went” compared to “Kirsty went”) will also have a bearing on how you employ voice.
  • Where the storyteller is “standing” in a figurative sense, i.e. whether they are experiencing events along with the reader or looking back, and who they are telling their story to (and why) – do they know, and therefore, allude to later events of the book, or is everything as much of a surprise to them as it is to the reader?
  • Dialect – do you want this to be more authentic to the character or (potentially) easier for the reader to get to grips with quickly?
  • Rhythm of your prose – sentence length and structure, how varied they are, any patterns you employ.
  • To what extent the character’s thoughts and emotions colour the prose – psychic distance (i.e. how far inside the character’s head the reader gets) is closely linked to voice. I plan to cover it more fully in a future post, but read this very useful blog if you want to find out more (incidentally it is by Emma Darwin, one of our course tutors).
  • The types of words you use – big ones, small ones, descriptive ones, functional ones, commonplace ones, unusual ones etc etc.
  • The things you focus on – people or objects, colours or shapes, the big picture or small details, the whole forest or an individual tree.

In short, voice comprises both the style and substance of your writing. It is the thing that makes a reader want to read on for a reason they can’t quite put their finger on – essentially, they like both what the storyteller is saying and how they are saying it.

So how did we use this information to enrich our writing on the course?

Voice – what did I learn?

Before the course, I already knew what voice was, at least theoretically, and I knew that mine was reasonably good (or “idiosyncratic” as my year 10 English teacher put it) but I had never really thought about it, or experimented with it in any way. I mentioned in a previous blog post that I have always favoured writing in third person, and this is the perspective I have chosen for my book.

So when we were told that our week 3 exercise was to take a two-character passage from our book and to make three versions of it (third person, and then first person from the perspective of each of the characters), I was very excited about the challenge and what I could make of it. The purpose of the exercise was to see how our voice differed from extract to extract.

Here’s what I did:

Third person (as in my book draft)

Sadie frowned as she scanned the pack.

‘Tell you what?’

She already knew what her friend wanted though. Her pulse raced as she reached towards the cards. She picked them up, looked at them one by one. Five cards. Five ambiguous cards. Lora beamed.

‘Tell me whether I’ll see my baby again.’

Sadie patted around the blanket for the bottle, unwilling to look up from the cards, to see the look on her friend’s face. Her mouth felt dry – she needed more brandy. The magician. She had always liked that card, liked to pretend it was her. Fortune telling was magic, was it not? The brandy slicked her tongue but her lips still rubbed like parchment. The empress. Perhaps a Peruvian empress? She looked exotic in the picture, a bit like Lora’s sister but less surly. The next card was justice. She put it to the back. The hermit. The moon. What did they mean?

Sadie had asked a question once before. Three pence, no refunds. The answer had been no in her case. Lora wanted to see her child again – her friend Lora who was always so happy. She didn’t look happy now though, biting her bottom lip, a crease of skin between her eyebrows. Perhaps that was a good thing. Use your skills to get what you want, the old man had said. Sadie wanted happiness. She looked up at her friend.

‘No, I don’t think you will.’

First person (Sadie)

’Tell you what?’

I didn’t need to ask that but I wanted to buy some time, to delay a moment longer. My heart raced, my temples began to burn. I picked up the pack of cards, slowly, slowly. There were five. Five cards that I stared at but didn’t really see. I glanced at Lora. She was smiling.

Why did she have to be smiling?

‘Tell me whether I’ll see my baby again’, she said.

Just as I had thought. Where was the brandy? Perhaps I’d let liquor make my decision for me. I opened the canteen, tipped it back. I was parched anyway, tongue like a paper bag. I flicked through the cards again, anything but see the look on Lora’s face. The magician. I swallowed a smile. I’ve always liked that one – fortune telling is magic, is it not? I licked my brandy-laced lips. The empress. Exotic, Peruvian perhaps. Better not tell Lora the empress looks like her sister, that’d snatch the smile from her face. The next card was justice. I put it to the back. The hermit, the moon. What did they mean, really?

I had asked a question once, a long time ago. Handed over my coins but the answer was no. I looked up at my friend. So happy usually, but not today. Why should the answer be any different for her? She bit her bottom lip, creased her eyebrows. Use your skills to get what you want, the old man had told me. I wanted to be happy, like Lora.
I took a breath, my pulse slowed.

‘No, I don’t think you will.’

First person (Lora)

It was just a bunch of symbols really. Nonsensical magic-type stuff. But Sadie glanced from card to card, searching for an answer or reading something I couldn’t. She obviously hadn’t found it this time. She looked confused, distracted. I wasn’t sure if she’d heard my question but she looked up.

‘Tell you what?’

I clutched the blanket to my neck. It was itchy, but better itchy than cold. I looked back at her, forcing a grin I didn’t want to give. Just ask the question for God’s sake. She’s your friend.

‘Tell me whether I’ll see my baby again.’

There. She had to answer now. She had to say yes. The cards always said yes. I waited. Sadie clawed at the lid of the canteen, glugged back my brandy. The air inside the tent was hot with the fumes of her breath, my breath. I didn’t want any more to drink though. I just wanted my answer.

Sadie looked at a card, smiled, looked at the next one. Why was it taking her so long? The canteen lay on the camp bed between us, soaking the blanket, water droplets reflecting the lantern light. I wanted to reach for it but I couldn’t, not until Sadie answered. I waited, nails digging into palms. The cards always said yes, didn’t they? She stopped shuffling, looked up. She took a deep breath.

‘No, I don’t think you will.’

***

That single exercise took less than an hour and yet it taught me so much – one of the main things being that I should use “close-in” psychic distance a lot more when I get down to the nitty gritty of editing my book. This will hopefully add to the distinctive flavour of each character’s voice even though I am writing my book in third person. I thought I was doing a pretty decent job of using psychic distance effectively until I read my original third person piece straight after my first person pieces – it felt rather flat and dull in comparison.

I also realised how useful it is to consider the wants and needs of the other characters in any given scene – you might not want them to be the focus but how do their emotions colour any interactions they have with the main character? Finally, the most important thing it taught me is to experiment, experiment and experiment some more! Write in first person and third person, in past tense and present tense. Write scenes about characters you love and characters you hate. Write comedy even though you hate laughing, and tragedy even though you can’t bear to cry. Much like your speaking voice, the more you practise, the more confident your writing voice will become. And much like your speaking voice, should you lose it, well, that’s nothing a tot of whisky, honey and lemon won’t solve…

-Kirsty

Self-editing – what did I learn?

Self-editing
Self-editing – will it take forever?
Short answer = a lot! When my husband first suggested that I sign up for this self-editing course, I wasn’t sure. Forever stubborn, I ummed and aahed, said maybe the September running would be better, that I wanted to see how well I could self-edit before turning to others for help. But how glad I am that he persevered and my curiosity got the better of me! So why was the course useful? What EXACTLY did I learn?

I have skipped a lot of blog posts recently, which makes me feel a bit like a naughty child late with her homework (*flashback to GCSE year*). You can blame the course for that though. I wanted to get the most I could from it (I mean, I paid perfectly good money – these things don’t come for free, right?) and that meant spending time and energy, both creative and analytical. Now the course is over, I need to continue with self-editing proper, which is very scary but also exciting, and I aim to post on here more frequently again. First up, I thought I would share with you what I have learnt from the course, both as a reminder to myself and in case anybody is thinking of doing anything similar in future.

But there are many self-editing courses out there…

So why did I choose this self-editing course?

  • It was online and flexible – people are great, but only when I’m in the mood for them (forgive me, I’m an introvert). This course took place in a private online forum, and the weekly exercises could be done whenever you had the desire and inclination. A lot of the value came from the feedback discussions that we all chipped in to, and you could add as little or as much to these as you were able.
  • The course leaders were both published authors with extensive experience in editorial input / feedback / and, most, importantly, writing – I loved getting advice from somebody who has seen the whole book process through from start to finish, and emerged successful on the other side.

Now for the important question…

What did I learn on my self-editing course?

  1. Giving constructive criticism is still no easier to me – although I am getting better at constructively criticising in itself, I just need to be less afraid of speaking my opinion out loud.
  2. And I am getting better at receiving it – it is very daunting to put a piece of your writing out there, knowing not everyone will think it’s brilliant, but you get used to it, and the negative feedback makes the positive feedback all the sweeter.
  3. You can’t please everyone, so just please yourself – one thing I noticed was that one person might think an idea of yours is the best thing since sourdough bread, and another might feel pretty meh about it. So what do YOU think? That’s what really matters, and, in my case, other people’s opinions of my work usually served to confirm that I already knew there was a problem, or that I wouldn’t be willing to change it unless on pain of death.
  4. I was already on the right track with my editing before I started the course – I had started a chapter-by-chapter summary with notes around what the reader should learn and how the chapter could be changed to make it even better. I am going to carry on with this as a first step. If nothing else, the necessary skim-reading is a great reminder of what has actually happened in my book so far (you’d be surprised how many of the details you forget, even when they came from your own mind in the first place).
  5. The editing process is LITERALLY (okay, maybe not literally) going to take forever – please don’t laugh, but I was somehow under the highly misguided illusion that it would only take me a month or so to edit my book. Not because I think I am super-brilliant at editing, rather the opposite. I didn’t have confidence in myself to recognise and react to potential issues in my story before the course, and now I do. We learnt how to edit effectively by working on small chunks (around 200 words) of our own manuscripts, and so I now need to multiply the effort involved in each week’s exercise by about 400. See? Forever.
  6. I have a few minor plot issues to clear up, e.g. an unfinished subplot here or an unclear character goal there – this is most likely because my view of the story changed as I was writing it (pesky story), and should hopefully be simple to fix.
  7. Characters with contradictory traits are fine (even desirable) but you need to make it convincing – for example, one of my protagonists is simultaneously scornful and fearful of the gods. A few of my coursemates queried this, but I feel it is a very important aspect of her character that explains a lot about her behaviour. I just need to get this across in the book. After all, readers aren’t mind readers – clarity is everything.
  8. I am still vindicated (for now) in my decision to attempt a complex plot / story structure for my first book – my worry was that readers wouldn’t understand the ending, but my coursemates seemed to. A few of them told me the non-linear, multiple timeline, multiple point-of-view story structure intrigued them and so I am hoping other readers feel the same.
  9. It is good to leap out of your comfort zone occasionally – I mostly write in third person, and I thought I was doing a good job of conveying characters’ thoughts and feelings UNTIL I tried writing the same passage in first person. It was a revelation and made me realise there is so much more I can do. So I’m going to vary my practise exercises a lot more from now on – write in third person past, first person present, why not even second person future?! (Now that would be a weird read…)
  10. One of the most common pieces of feedback I gave to others (e.g. if they asked whether enough happens in their book) was that I think it’s okay if big things don’t happen, as long as what does happen seems big to your characters. I think this is true – what matters is what the character feels. It doesn’t matter if you, as the reader, couldn’t care less about the fate of the green tree frog – if green tree frogs are the most important thing in the character’s life, and that is properly conveyed, then you will care when they become extinct and the character is left devastated.
  11. The feedback I received confirmed my belief that the beginning of my book will have to be more closely edited – the comments given on my writing in later extracts and from freshly written pieces were generally more encouraging. This is not a surprise as, when I started my book, it was my first piece of creative writing in a very long time.
  12. Using your phone to post in online forums while in the bath is going to lead to steam-induced typos and RSI at best, and a drowned phone at worst (luckily, only the former happened in my case, but the latter was oh so possible).

So now all that remains is for me to put everything I have learnt into practise. I will be very interested to see if my shiny new knowledge of self-editing will influence the way I write my next book from the very beginning, but that’s a question for another time. Right now, I have a book to edit, and, like I said, it’s going to take forever…

-Kirsty

Inspiration in writing – where does it come from?

Creativity and inspiration
Is inspiration a spark from a match or a slow-warming, energy efficient lightbulb?
Creativity (noun): the ability to make new things or think of new ideas.

But what if you aren’t feeling creative?

Inspiration (noun): something that makes someone want to do something or that gives someone an idea about what to do or create.

So where can you find this elusive elixir?

According to a quote often attributed to 19th century novelist Jack London, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club”. Is this true for everyone? Is this true for you, or me? Or is it better to sit and wait for a story to pop into your head fully formed, like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter?

My inspiration

While I am quoting other people, there is a well-known adage that you should only bother writing a story if you have a tale that you simply cannot keep inside your brain. It hasn’t really happened like that for me. I have pretty much always known that I wanted to write a book (or, hopefully, books) someday. It was the subject matter of that book that was hazy. About a year and a half ago I decided that today was the day my fledgling writing career would begin and that I probably ought to think of something to write about.

Fortunately for me, characters have been spawning inside my brain (not literally, obviously) ever since I was a child. My head seems to occupy itself by making up fiction, whether about me or these make-believe characters. (On a separate note, does this mean I’m crazy?) So I knew it wouldn’t take me too long to come up with something that felt “right”.

How Mamacona was born

My thought process was as follows:

  1. I still have no idea why, but a few minutes after opening a Word document and calling it “Book”, I realised I had a desire to write about a fortune teller. Perhaps I thought it would be fun to research or easy to maintain a sense of…
  2. Eeriness and the unknown – I have an affinity for such atmospheres and I wanted my book to have a similar tone. First I thought “Transylvania” then decided that, as much as I love Dracula, I didn’t want to go down this well-trodden route. Next I turned to the Inca Empire – it was certainly unknown to me at the time and I could imagine a young woman from Victorian London (our fortune teller) feeling similarly.
  3. I wanted the story to feel dark, and I wanted to use elements of Inca ideology, not just the empire’s geographical location. I decided my fortune teller would become obsessed with a woman from the past, and that their lives would become inextricably linked.
  4. As I started to research the Incas more thoroughly, I realised that I wanted to ACTUALLY be among them (well, in the story at least). What started out as a bit of fable-telling around the circus campfire turned into a separate story arc with its own characters and sub-plots.
  5. As the plot began to take shape, I decided that my intended ending (where the Victorian and Inca elements tie together) would be stronger if we saw what led Sadie the fortune teller to join a travelling circus in real time, rather than just hearing it from her second hand. So a third story arc came into being – Sadie’s past.

I tell you the above so you can see what works for me. I am relatively early on in my writing career, but coming up with story ideas is something I have been doing from a young age – it’s just the actual writing them down that has taken me a while to get to. I have a natural love for making up stories and find they do just tend to pop into my head (albeit not quite fully formed a la J.K.). There are, though, things I can do to put me in a more receptive frame of mind should I find the ideas aren’t flowing quite as quickly as I’d like…

When inspiration doesn’t strike

  • Figure out what IS a receptive frame of mind for you. I know some people take inspiration from despair and anger and the bad things that have happened to them. I am not one of these people. I don’t feel able to write unless my life is going swimmingly and I don’t have any niggles worrying at my brain. If I do, then I’ll do something else.
  • If you already have an idea forming (a setting, a time period or even just a person), then commence the research! I found that a lot of my plotting and character ideas developed at this point. Something you hadn’t previously known about (like the Inca penchant for child sacrifice in my case) might spark further ideas in the back of your mind…
  • If you don’t have any ideas yet, perhaps you can try something I like to call “cross-creativity”. Do you like singing, or sketching, or moulding dinosaurs from Plasticine? If you have another interest that engages the creative side of your brain, then use it. I find this helps me in much the same way as using the elliptical machine has helped me to run faster.
  • Conversely, I sometimes find inspiration in relatively dull tasks that DON’T require any creativity at all. I hate cleaning (just ask my husband or parents) but one advantage washing dishes does have is that your hands are busy but your mind is free to wander (or maybe that’s why I’m so bad at washing up). If I have a writing project on the go, then I find my idle mind keeps returning to it.
  • Travelling somewhere new can be very inspiring, but assuming you aren’t willing to hop onto a plane just to come up with a story idea, then maps and photos are the next best thing. Think about somewhere you have been or somewhere you would like to go. Who might have lived here? In the past? In the future? In a parallel universe? Photographs and stories often go hand in hand, as in the case of Erin Morgenstern’s flax-golden tales. I also love looking at creepy works of art like these ones…
  • Use writing prompts. Even consider making up your own. Think about what has happened in your life so far. Observe people and places when you are out and about. Even the most mundane could sprout an interesting story.
  • Finally, think about the books and films you like. Figure out whether there are any common threads running through them that particularly interest you. It’s probably no surprise that I’m often drawn in by a creepy setting or a character’s psychological change / madness – think The Skeleton Key or Shutter Island in film, and Rebecca or The Little Stranger in books.

What if that fails?

It won’t. If you REALLY want to write a book, you will get there. Ideas might pop into your head five times a day entirely of their own accord or they might not. The important thing is to enjoy the whole process, from idea generation to last minute fact checks. I certainly have so far. Just heed Jack London’s advice and don’t forget your club.

-Kirsty