Finding Your Voice

by Katherine Reay, @Katherine_Reay

“Voice” is so important – and, in many ways, so illusive. It’s unique. Yet every writer has one. It’s the narrative tone in which you feel most comfortable and it conveys your story with the greatest strength.

I was at MIBA’s (Midwest Independent Booksellers Association)fall conference last week and participated in a round of “speed dating” with bookstore buyers. Another writer and I were paired together and we traveled table to table to pitch our stories. Five minutes each. Talk fast. Move on. While some writers, I heard, had a bit of competition over their five minutes, my partner and I had a blast.

She was amazing… She finished her MFA a couple years ago and hated the literary fiction she was writing. She felt it was boring, and she said everyone else did too. She couldn’t sell anything. Then she started writing a humor column for a blog and a street-smart-bold-sassy-brash voice came out of her. She started having fun with the blog and the character, and the words flowed fast. A couple years later find her sitting beside me, pitching a hardcover book ready to drop next April by Random House.

I’ll tell you more about her book another time because I don’t want to get away from the point: VOICE.

Reading the story above, a writer might think it best to adopt a provocative, snarky, funny, or cynical voice to attract agents and publishers. But that would be missing the point of the above writer’s experience. It wasn’t that my new friend adopted this new tone to attract a contract; she unleashed it within her to tell a story. Catch the part about the words flowing? She said she couldn’t put them down fast enough –t the voice was within her and it wouldn’t be silenced. I experienced that myself with Dear Mr. Knightley. Sam Moore would not leave me alone until I laid out her story – and let her live it.

I suspect that happens often that happens when one finds a story’s voice. Thoughts and words, emotions and drama, flow more freely because they come from something creative, organic and exciting within the writer.

Without honing, refining and delivering your own voice, your story can create a layer of distance between you and the reader – and everyone can feel it. You never want that. Yes, you want to deliver 3-D characters, strong plot, and tense conflict – but most of all, you want to deliver impact. Distance dimishes impact. I say investing a little effort to discover and hone one’s voice is time well spent…

  1. Don’t think. Don’t edit. Plan to throw it away. Simply sit down (or stand at your desk as I do) and have fun writing whatever comes to mind,in whatever tone evolves. This is a great exercise to get the juices flowing and dig around for your unique voice. Don’t let this distract you from your work, but do give this a few minutes everyday. It may surprise you.
  2. Read novels with a strong sense of voice. Filling up your well of great stories is always a good idea. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is one of my all-time favorites. Death has a fascinating voice… To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Phantom Tollbooth and The Catcher in the Rye are other great examples – the last two being a couple of my favorite books.
  3. Share your writing with trusted readers. This is a tough one, but I do recommend it. Find a couple people you trust and share a variety of writings and ask what they think. In fact, that is how the woman in my story came to find her voice. Friends called her again and again asking, “Why don’t you write like this all the time?”
  4. Have fun! You’ll find my posts almost always include this. Perhaps because I need reminding myself. I can take this journey far too seriously at times and that is a sure-fire way to kill creativity, voice, expression and joy. So have fun!

Thanks for spending some time here with me today! A little time working on this all-important and somewhat illusive aspect of writing will make your stories more powerful, more authentic, and more saleable. All three are exciting adventures. Enjoy!


The Austen Escape

Mary Davies finds safety in her ordered and productive life. Working as an engineer, she genuinely enjoys her job and her colleagues – particularly a certain adorable and intelligent consultant. But something is missing. When Mary’s estranged childhood friend, Isabel Dwyer offers her a two-week stay in a gorgeous manor house in England, she reluctantly agrees in hopes that the holiday will shake up her quiet life in just the right ways.
But Mary gets more than she bargained for when Isabel loses her memory and fully believes she lives in Jane Austen’s Bath. While Isabel rests and delights in the leisure of a Regency lady, attended by other costume-clad guests, Mary uncovers startling truths about their shared past, who Isabel was, who she seems to be, and the man who now stands between them.
Outings are undertaken, misunderstandings play out, and dancing ensues as this company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation, work out their lives and hearts.

Katherine Reay is the award-winning author of Dear Mr. Knightley, Lizzy& Jane and The Bronte Plot, an ALA Notable Book Award Finalist. Her latest novel, A Portrait of Emily Price, released in November 2016 and received Starred Reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and a Romantic Times TOP PICK!All Katherine’s novels are contemporary stories with a bit of classical flair. Sheholds a BA and MS from Northwestern University and isa wife, mother, rehabbing runner, former marketer, and avid chocolate consumer. After living all across the country and a few stops in Europe, Katherine now happily resides outside Chicago, IL.

What do you mean “Find Your Voice?”

Fiction writers
are told to find their voice. Well, what is voice, and for that matter, how do
you find it?
I mastered the
mechanics of good writing by learning and following the guidelines or … stay
with me here … the rules. Then, I began to understand when and how to break
them to turn my manuscript into a symphony or a dance of words.
About that same
time, I started a new series, and when I sent my critique partners the first
chapter, they told me I’d found my voice. Cool. I didn’t know I’d lost it. I
mean, I didn’t have laryngitis or even a sore throat.
Okay, I’m being
silly and probably not that funny, so you can stop rolling your eyes. In truth,
I’d been working on voice. I read Les Edgerton’s book Finding Your Voice. I highly recommend it if you’re still looking
for yours.
In Edgerton’s
book, he said go back and look at letters you’d written when you were young or
at least before you began to write. There was your voice.
As I thought
about that, I remembered how our friends always told me they loved my Christmas
letters. Mine were the ones they actually read and looked forward to. When I
was late with it one year, I received a few “Where is it?” emails.
Instead of a
travelogue or a report on the kiddos’ doings, I made up stories about the major
events of the past year, poking fun at us and liberally adding embellishments.
I pulled out
those past Christmas letters and studied them. I noticed the cadence, the
style, and the sound of them. That’s what I wanted to get in my fiction.
I then tried a
new game of “Name that Author.”
First, I went to
a multi-author blog—it doesn’t work on any other type. (NOTE: This needs to be
a blog of authors well known to you.) I chose Girls Write Out. Before I
looked at the signature or by-line, I tried to guess who wrote it. 
Between the post
and their fiction, I could see the similarity in the “voice.” It was
natural and organic to the author. While some may have similarities, especially
if they write in the same genre, each author does have a unique voice.
If you’re still
developing your voice, read … a lot. Don’t copy another writer, but rather
study what they do and how they do it. Then look at
something you wrote before you started perusing a writing career. Forget the
mechanics for a moment. What did the writing sound like? That’s most likely your voice.
Try it for a
while and see what happens. 

Stop Whispering ~ Thoughts on Finding Your Voice ~ Nava Atlas

Stop whispering! 
The eternal
quest to find your writing voice
By Nava Atlas
When the movie Dirty Dancing (1987) came out, I was often told that I resembled
“Baby,” the lead female character played by Jennifer Grey. If I
sat in a corner at a restaurant or at a gathering, friends sometimes
delivered the film’s iconic line—”Nobody puts Baby in a corner!”—
considering themselves completely hilarious. But I liked corners, and
I still do. They’re cozy, and it’s easy to blend into the woodwork.
Putting oneself in a corner, though, either in the real world, or on
the printed page, is the equivalent of whispering. Women tend to do
that a lot, especially when we’re unsure of our own voices.
When I started working on The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life,
a collection of first-person narratives by classic women authors on
their experiences and challenges as writers, I was content to whisper
in the margins of the pages of the book. Alongside the musings of twelve
classic authors of the past (Alcott, Austen, Brontë, Alcott, Wharton,
Woolf, and six others), my role was to comment on how their experiences
and challenges resonate with today’s writing women. Since I myself
designed the pages, I set my comments in tiny type, and tried to hide
them as best I could in the pages’ gutters. That ended when the book
found a publisher, and the editor firmly told me I could no longer whisper
in the corner, neither metaphorically or literally.
At first, raising my voice above a whisper wasn’t easy. All those
familiar “Who do you think you are…” demons rushed in to fill
the void where confidence should have been firmly in place. “Finding
your voice” is a writing directive that teeters on cliché. Yet, what’s
more important than developing a distinctive personality in print? Without
a firm grip on voice, you’re left either with whispering shyly, or
its flip side, endlessly blathering streams of overwrought prose or
poetry, the literary equivalent of nervous chatter
What advice would revered classic authors have for those of us still
seeking to find or define our voice and style? Here are a few thoughts
from writers who went through much the same as most of us, and emerged
to tell the tale:
“Every young writer has to work off the ‘fine writing’ stage.
It was a painful period in which I overcame my florid, exaggerated,
foamy-at-the-mouth, adjective-spree … I knew even then it was a crime
to write like I did, but I had to get the adjectives and the youthful
fervor worked off. I believe every young writer must write whole books
of extravagant language to get it out.” —Willa Cather, from an
interview, 1915
“I didn’t have any particular gift in my twenties. I didn’t
have any exceptional qualities … The only reason I finally was able
to say exactly what I felt was because, like a pianist practicing, I
wrote every day. There was no more than that. There was no studying
of writing, there was no literary discipline, there was only the reading
and receiving of experience.” —Anais Nïn, from an essay, 1975
Each person’s method is no rule for another. Each
must work in [her] own way, and the only drill needed is to keep writing
and profit from criticism … Read the best books, and they will improve
your style. See and hear good speakers and wise people, and learn of
them. Work for twenty years, and then you may some day find that you
have a style and place of your own, and you can command good pay for
the same things no one would take when you were unknown. —Louisa May
Alcott, from a letter to a reader, 1878
I suspect that most of us have an inkling of what our literary voice
should be, but what’s missing is the courage to use it. Raised to
be good girls, many of us are reluctant to sound too strong, assertive,
unconventional, or too much like the self we know is in there somewhere,
clamoring to come out. The best remedy, simple though it seems, is to
write in quantity, vast quantity if possible, allowing yourself to do
mediocre (or even terrible) work, a practice that will eventually peel
back the layers of self-consciousness to reveal a true voice. As for
me, I still like to sit in corners in restaurants and at parties, but
on the page—not so much any more.
Nava Atlas is the author of The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life.
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