Skip to content

Full Voice

I’m sure everyone is getting tired of hearing me tell this story, but one of the “minor” breakthroughs on my way to wherever I am now in writing was this conference I attended with some of my fledgelings.

I was standing at the back of a Dave Weber panel (the man does pack them in!) and one of my fledgelings decided it was time to embarrass me.

Okay, that was probably not what he thought he was doing. He was (is) a very earnest and hard working man, and he has some issues realizing that everyone who constitutes himself/herself an authority doesn’t necessarily know what the heck he/she is saying.

The end result of this is that things he found on the internet achieved the quality of gospel to him. I don’t remember which in particularly he was angsting about at the time. I think it was the old chestnut about never starting a sentence with That, or perhaps with Because.

Anyway, he told Dave Weber he had learned this, and should he now go over all his old stories to “fix” them?

Dave blinked owlishly at him and then said, “You know, none of that matters. What matters is having a confident voice. If people feel they’re in the hands of someone who knows what he or she is doing they won’t look for little flaws. It’s all in the voice. The voice covers a multitude of sins.” (Or something like that. Despite the quotes, it’s been ten years, so it’s more of a paraphrase.)

This was sort of a wake up call for me.

You see, this might not be immediately obvious, but I’m a neurotic writer. What I mean is that I question every line I write. When I self-indulged in this doubt, in my younger days, I once produced 200 and some FIRST pages for a novel, because none of them was quite perfect.

The thing is if you sit there and fuss over every word and every action you describe, you self-obviously don’t come across as confident. You come across as fussy or overwrought, or even overworking. If you fuss too much with your opening, you come across as stuttering and uncertain. “The room was blue. No, I really mean blue. Sort of a cerulean color.” It just gives that effect, even if it’s not that silly.

So, what to do to find your voice? I don’t know. For one in my case it’s not MY voice but the voice of the character, which means each book I do this again. (Though there is my voice too, in there. It’s complicated.)

I can tell you what I do to find my voice:

  • Imagine the world and the character as vividly and confidently as I can.
  • Let it come through (this is more difficult than it sounds.)
  • Don’t fuss with it.

Does it always work? Well, sometimes I can’t get to 1. I’ve been stuttering for 2 years over a character who wouldn’t TALK. (She is, now, at last, but gosh.)

When that happens you forge ahead and hope – just hope – that it will break through before the end. Then you go back and fix the beginning.

And exception to “Don’t fuss with it” – if it’s a short work, and the voice never came through, it will improve it somewhat if you go back and remove all the “beg” words. “Almost” “Probably” “Likely” all the words where it looks like you’re giving yourself an out. Unless of course, you’re first person and your character is almost certainly probably too diffident to live.

I realize this is not a great manual for finding your voice, but it is the best I can do. Hopefully something will click with you.

Go forth and sing.

  1. Martin L. Shoemaker #

    One exercise I stumbled upon has helped me a lot: take a passage written from the POV of one character (either first or third) and rewrite it from the POV of a different character. As I do this, often I find word choices that just sound wrong; and when I do, I stop and analyze the reason, and I learn something about the voice of both characters in the process. “Oh, he’s the captain’s friend, so in his head he thinks ‘Nick’, but in public he says ‘captain’. She’s a new officer on board, so it’s ALWAYS ‘captain’ for her. He’s a programmer, so he sees things in terms of data and transactions. She’s a doctor, so she sees patients and symptoms.” I’m more conscious of their separate voices as a result.

    March 4, 2015
  2. I had one character who just showed up cussing. He mistook the F-word for punctuation. Nothing I could do about it until he fell for a nice girl and tried his best to clean up his speech. Not terribly successfully.

    I think a lot of confidence in voice come from the existence of this sort of rock solid, nope not going to change, this is me, character.

    In our heads! Honest, we know it’s imaginary! Put away the funny extra long sleeved jacket . . .

    March 4, 2015
    • But… you can hug yourself all day in one of those! 🙂

      March 4, 2015
  3. Bob #

    At this point, I’m noticing that I’ve developed maybe five or six basic ‘personality types’ for POV characters. I find I can add and twerk their qualities to make as wide a variety as needed. The really interesting thing is how the POV segments change according to who the character is. Not just dialogue, but type of vocabuary used in descriptions, what is emphasised or noticed, etc.

    That’s also why I have to stick with one project till its completed. Try to work multiple projects at once and the books lose their flavor. The characters begin to lose their individual voices and just sound mushy, that make sense?

    March 4, 2015
    • I started out with multiple viewpoints, so I don’t have (I hope!) problems keeping them individual. I have found it hard to work on two things at once if they are in two different worlds. But in between books of my main SF/F series, writing in a very different world helps clear the mind.

      March 4, 2015
  4. Laura M #

    I noticed the voice issue very strongly in my second book. The MC is an engineer, the other MC a lawyer. I know a lot of engineers, and at one point it occurred to me that she didn’t sound enough like them. And, like with Bob, I found that I changed vocabulary, dialogue, descriptions, and observations.

    The current WIP has a young man as the main supporting character, and I wish most earnestly that he were more lighthearted and young seeming. I even changed his age, but to no avail. He is who he is, and his voice is way more scholarly than the MC’s. It makes him seem a a wee bit pedantic, but I’m starting to understand him and accept him as he is. I’m still a little annoyed.

    March 4, 2015
  5. I don’t know squat about voice, but I just posted my review of thewriterinblack’s novel “Survival Test” on Amazon and on my blog. It’s worth reading just to discover the breath-stopping surprise at the end (after the book is OVER!)

    March 4, 2015
  6. Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter #


    It happens to a lot of people. I came to writimg through Sales, and in Sales I learned that is never matters how nervous you are, BECAUSE NO ONE CAN TELL MOST OF THE TIME.

    It is the same with writing. No one can see the sweat pouring down your body.

    Once I realized that I became more confident both in sales, and in writing. Of course then some people on realizing this instantly go berserk the other way to 100% arrogance (something I’ve been accused of).

    March 5, 2015
  7. If you start every other paragraph with “Too…” instead of occasionally using “Also…” you might be John Norman.

    March 5, 2015
  8. Just started reading gnardopolo’s “Cricket’s Song.” I do hope I like this book; it starts out so beautifully I’m all warm and cuddly on the inside.
    After that I’ve got “The Sky Suspended” by Laura Montgomery and then two by Cedar Sanderson. I do not know that I’ll get any of them reviewed and posted today (1), which will give me a great opportunity to post some of my earlier reviews on my blog.
    (1) If I don’t get them done, it’s not due to sloth. My gift-from-God, happily-ever-after trophy wife Vanessa, the elegant foxy praying black grandmother of Woodstock, GA, and I have been invited to go babysit this morning for Master Heath Jordan Patterson, age two years one month, who happens to be my first bio grandchild. YEE-HAH!!!!!!

    March 5, 2015
  9. I’m starting to think after 11 books that some people read to be entertained and some people read to find your errors because that’s the only way they have found in their dreary lives to feel smart. I can only imagine them sitting in gloom straining to diagram your book one sentence at a time.

    March 7, 2015
    • And the instant feedback mechanism of reviews and author websites allows them to express that superiority….

      March 7, 2015
      • Actually for people who are deeply aspergers, I’ve found that’s often how they read books. No, no help for that.

        March 7, 2015
  10. Voice is a challenge for my present novel. My protagonist is tight-lipped. And he’s not the sort to go over things in his head much either. Yet he’s the “victim” of hero worship,” which matters not at all to him. Thanks for the post, Sara.

    March 7, 2015
  11. Off topic, but I just read A Few Good Men. Awesome. Cruel in places … you’re not afraid to … (won’t say for spoilers, but you do it at least twice in the story, and once with one you’ve developed to be very sympathetic). Reminds me of Heinlein at his BEST.

    March 7, 2015

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: