The Importance of Voice

Last Saturday I attended a writer’s conference in Melbourne, KidLitVic. It was sensational! I got to meet other writers, rub shoulders with well known writers (Leigh Hobbs and I stood next to each other in the lift) and talk to kind and enthusiastic publishers and agents. I also attended three workshops.

On of the workshops I went to was called Finding Your Voice, and was run by Jane Pearson from Text publishing. She emphasised that all publishers are looking for manuscripts with authentic, resonating, voices.

So what does that mean for you and me?

There are two types of voice – the author’s voice which boils down to writing style and the character’s voice which is how the characters (especially the point-of-view character) speaks.

Author Voice:

Just as art experts can tell who painted a painting by the brush strokes (or marks), you can often tell who wrote a book by the style of writing. Your voice takes time to develop. When I go back and read my first crack at a novel from nine years ago, it doesn’t sound like me. I was still finding my voice, the style that suits me and represents me best.

The best way to develop your voice is to keep writing and keep reading. Don’t fall into the trap of emulating the another writer’s voice. It may be great. You may love it. But it won’t be authentic and it will make it harder to be consistent.

Character Voice:

The message that Jane gave us was, it’s hard to add voice later. By that she meant, you can’t write the whole story, get it perfect and then tweak it here and there to reflect the character’s voice. You need to know your character inside and out from the beginning, and write in their voice.

Don’t think though that your character’s voice has to be perfect from sentence one, draft one. For me, character voice develops with each draft I do. It’s definitely in the first draft, but the first draft is also where I’ve just bashed out the story. The second draft, where I’m reworking everything, is where the voice really starts to strengthen. I’ve spent a lot of time with my character by then. I know them not just as dot points in a notebook but as people who moves and acts and thinks and feels. It just gets better with draft 3, 6 and 10.

The key, I think and Jane mentioned, to getting a good, authentic, consistent, voice is to know you character. Before I even start writing my story, I sit down and write my character’s details in a notebook.

MaggieDetails0001

An example for my character Maggie. I bubble writer there names…because why not?

I didn’t always do this. In fact for my first three novels I didn’t (two of which I completed and one I am still trying to find a home for) and it made it harder, not just to find the right voice but to know what my character would do in any given circumstance.

Voice is Important:

Voice can make or break your work. I sat down with the super lovely Kristina Schulz from University of Queensland Press on Saturday and voice is one of the things we discussed. Maggie’s voice was reading too young for her. Maggie is sixteen but Kristina (who has to work up an assessment from around 2000 words or ten pages) thought she was much younger. And Maggie’s sister, Isi, was reading too old. Isi is six but her voice is definitely off.

Now, luckily for me, I had sent Kristina an (very) early draft. Not something I would usually do and I won’t go into my reasons now. But, I still have room to find Maggie and Isi’s voices. I know I will flesh them out and make them sing in later drafts.

The Take Away:

I’ve written a lot here but I want to stress that voice, both yours and your character’s, is vitally important. Don’t leave it until the final edit. Know your characters. Know what they’d say and how they’d say it. And let their voice shine through.

Everyone has an opinion

What Should You Consider When Writing Characters Who are Have a Different Race, Religion, Gender or Sexual Preference to You?

Book characters are amazing things. They drive the story and they invite the reader to journey with them. As readers they can become friends. As writers, they can be anything we want to be, however they are often, in part at least, a reflection of ourselves. But what if you want to write a character who differs from you in a significant way? What if the character you’re writing doesn’t share your gender, race, religion, sexual preference and/or nationality? In this case, I believe there’s some extra considerations you should make.

 

Character Hierarchy:

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The image above shows the hierarchy of characters. Because the protagonist is the most significant character and the one you need to know the most about when writing you’re characters, that’s the character I’ll be focussing on here.

 

Authenticity:

When we say something’s authentic we mean it’s the real thing or as close to it as you can get without it being the real thing (my husband once told me that the lamb curry I made was too authentic – is that a compliment?). As writers, we strive to create authentic characters living authentic lives and to do that we need to understand our protagonist and his/her life as well as we understand our own.

This can be trickier when our protagonist is significantly different to us. I’m a white, heterosexual, woman (I know, I know. I’ve got it made.). Understandably, it’s going to be more difficult for me to write an authentic black, homosexual, male character than a white, heterosexual, female character. While there are experiences all people share (love, loss, fear for example) our race, culture and sexuality alters our perceptions of them and how we express those perceptions. That’s not to say you can’t write an authentic character who differs to you, my protagonist for All My Father’s Secrets is a boy, but you may need to do more work to ensure they ring true for your reader.

 

Respect:

I’m a child of the 80’s and 90’s. For a while in the 90’s there was an influx of sitcoms that featured sassy, black, women. They were there to tell the main character “how-it-was” and they said “mmm-hmm” a lot. These women were always strong, no-nonsense and independent – on the face of it, a positive image. Also a stereotypical and two-dimensional image.

Don’t be lead astray by stereotypes or media-images of a group of people. If you don’t know enough about the life and culture of the protagonist you want to write, think twice about writing them. And if you’re writing your protagonist as being a member of a certain race/culture/sexuality etc. so that you can shine a light on the failings of those people, take heed, you are asking to get decked.

 

Rights:

Just because you can write a story, doesn’t mean you should. Some stories are not yours to tell. No writer has the right to appropriate the stories and experiences of another group of people. I would tread very carefully with anything that is culturally or historically sensitive. I, personally and as an Anglo-Australian, wouldn’t write a protagonist who is Aboriginal and experiencing displacement due to the colonisation of their country. Not only would it be insensitive to the reality of Australian and Indigenous history, it’s not my story to tell. There are Indigenous-Australian authors who are far more qualified and capable of telling that story, the story of their people and their ancestors. That’s not to say I couldn’t write the story from the perspective of a white settler in Australia, even one who is sympathetic to the Indigenous people, but I would be appropriating someone else’s story if I did it from another perspective.

 

There is no rule that says you should limit yourself to protagonists that share your gender, colour and culture. But you should be careful that you can do the character, your story and the real people who may see themselves in that character, justice.

Everyone has an opinion

Why the World is a Dark and Dreary Place (Sometimes)

As a writer you have the opportunity to make the world, any world, and it can be as filled with rainbows or as dark and depressing as you want – so long as your characters see it that way. Scene setting is a big part of writing. Without it your readers can be lost as to where your story (or even just a scene) is taking place and without this context they may find your story difficult to follow. But setting isn’t just influenced by the time and place in which your story takes place but by the emotions of your POV character. Continue reading