Voice: Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are!
ave you ever noticed how writers always speak of “finding” their voice? As if they’re on a hunt, searching high and low, under rocks, inside nooks and crannies, between sofa cushions, hoping their voice will somehow magically show up?
Oh, if only it were that easy! Voice is not like a lost key, waiting around to be found. But voice is key in creating an authentic story, whether characters are discussing picking pockets on a 19th century London street or spells at a fantastical school for student wizards. Zeroing in on the right sounds and patterns makes fictional worlds real to the reader.
As important as believable dialogue is, though, it’s not the whole story. A writer’s voice can also carry through the narrative, setting tone and providing layers of depth to the novel. The stronger that voice, the better the novel. It’s that intangible in a manuscript that agents and editors are always looking for. And if they don’t find it, then your wonderful manuscript will receive that dreaded rejection letter.
So, how’s a writer supposed to find the magical key that makes a novel stand out? A good place to start is in front of a shelf—as long as that shelf is filled with books. It’s time to check out how other writers distinguished their voice.
Reading great books is the first step to understanding great voice. You want to make sure that you, like editors and agents, know that intangible “it” factor when you see it. The more you read, the more you’ll recognize the standards of voice-rich writing.
The standards are award-winning and timeless in my favorite, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.This Southern tale of judgment and justice, told through the voice of nine-year-old Scout Finch, earned this book the Pulitzer in 1961. Seeing events unfold through the eyes of a young girl combines an innocent simplicity with complex themes; Scout’s voice pulls us into a South long past, yet keeps us riveted by conflicts still present in today’s society.
Want a few more great reads to round out your journey? We asked WOW! readers to share some of their favorite books—those stories brimming with that elusive voice quality that makes us want to plead like Oliver Twist, “Please, sir (or madam), I want some more.”
Speculative fiction author, Beth Cato, recommends The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. “This YA novel manages to be addictive and gasp-causing suspenseful despite (or because of) a first-person present tense narrative. It’s not like the story subject is all new and fresh—it takes place in a far-future dystopian America where teenagers are used as pawns in a sort of reality show. However, The Hunger Games works because of that voice.”
The Hunger Games works so well, in fact, that it’s burned up the bestseller lists, along with the second book in the series, Catching Fire. The third book, Mockingjay, has fans holding their breath, waiting for its August release (including me)!
But you don’t have to depend on what’s hot to find a breathtaking voice. Poet Cara Holman was enchanted with a used copy of I Capture the Castle, written by Dodie Smith, the author better known for 101 Dalmatians. The first sentence from the Castle novel drew Cara into the story: I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
“I just had to know what Cassandra Mortmain was doing in the kitchen sink...I found her voice funny, charming, wistful, engaging, believable, and altogether fresh. And all this from a novel first published in 1948!”
Some authors are so adept at voice that their novels jump from the pages on to the big screen. Think Stephen King, says short story writer Madeline Mora-Summonte. “...his voice comes through loud and clear. Whether it’s boys (The Body made into the movie Stand By Me) or prisoners (Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption made into the movie The Shawshank Redemption) or insane female fans (Misery made into the movie Misery), the man’s voice is distinctive. He is a true storyteller.”
Pre-published novelist, J.M. Kelley, weighed in on another classic voice. “I’ve always considered J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye the ultimate example of strong voice. It was the first book I opened and could truly hear the protagonist speak in my mind as I read. A third-person narrative wouldn’t have captured Holden Caulfield’sdisillusionment. The voice is loud, bitter, hypocritical, and utterly mesmerizing.”
To complete your stack, compare the voice of Scout Finch with that of India Opal Buloni in Because of Winn Dixie. Writer and book reviewer, Donna Volkenannt, recommended this juvenile novel with a simple question: “How can you not love the voice of a character in a book that starts like this?”
My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer, my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes, and I came back with a dog. This is what happened...
Kate DiCamillo, the author of Because of Winn Dixie, has sucked us in from the very first line, using the everyday voice of the girl-next-door. It sounds so natural, doesn’t it? But that kind of writing takes practice.
Now, it’s your turn to practice, practice, practice. Before you can find the voice of characters from A to Z, you’ll want to find your own individual voice.
Remember when you opened that little notebook and scribbled “Dear Diary”? All those words that flowed from your pen were likely the truest thoughts you ever wrote. That’s because you were writing for yourself. Journaling can be helpful in finding your voice because no one will read it but you. After you’ve completed a few months of entries, take a close look at your style. Are you witty or whiny? Confident or tentative? Do you ramble or get straight to the point? That’s your natural voice—both the fabulous parts and the flaws.
Ready to introduce your voice to the world? Start a blog. You can create an online presence with a simple click on Blogger or Wordpress. Because you’re writing for an audience, you may be self-conscious at first, but stick to it! Eventually, your true voice will come shining through.
Even if you write only one sentence, you can practice your voice. Twitter allows 140 characters, so it’s the perfect challenge for fine-tuning your voice! Or join Facebook and comment along with like-minded friends at spots like WOW!’s Facebook Fan page. For those who like an extra challenge, tweet or post comments under a nickname or pseudonym. If someone recognizes your style and says, “Oh, I’d know that voice anywhere!”, then give yourself a pat on the back. You and your voice have truly arrived!
“Staying true to your own voice will help you create the conversational tone that makes a novel so engaging to readers.”
Now that you know your voice, why not experiment a little with voice? Writing the same story from different points of view is a useful exercise, allowing the opportunity to see the role that voice plays in a story. You can try this technique with a familiar fairy tale or one of your own stories. Or read Wicked and see how Gregory Maguire turned The Wonderful Wizard of Oz around, giving us the Wicked Witch’s side of the not-so-wonderful story!
Staying true to your own voice will help you create the conversational tone that makes a novel so engaging to readers. So, whether you’re writing for tweens, preschoolers, or adults, tap into your personal experience to bring that voice to life. For historical novels, research the period through books, newspapers, and museum records in order to lend an authenticity to your dialogue and narration. And if you’re writing fantasy, experiment with different kinds of voices until you find the one that fits your world. When it comes to voice, practice makes perfect!
You’re wondering about the numbers connection to voice, aren’t you? It’s elementary, my dear. You’ve read hundreds of books, and you’ve written thousands of words. Still, there’s one question rattling around in your brain. It’s that little voice asking, “Have I got IT?” Double-check your voice with critique.
A good critique group can be invaluable. Fellow members can give you feedback on whether your dialogue or voice rings true. And if you’re able to afford a manuscript consultation at the next conference you attend, be sure to ask the critiquer about the strength of your work’s voice. If you have a few more dollars, take an advanced writing class. It’s worth the investment to hone your skills in this hard-to-pin-down element.
Reading, writing, and critiquing add up to success when it comes to finding the key to taking your novel from slush pile to bookshelf. Because once you find “it,” you won’t have to go looking for voice again!
Cathy C. Hall has a note posted above her computer that reads: I LOVE this voice! She’s pretty sure those were the exact words from author, Jane Yolen, after reading the first page of Cathy’s YA manuscript at an SCBWI conference. Cathy is a humor writer who’s published in both fiction and non-fiction for children and adults.
Find out more at her website, www.cathy-c-hall.com.
Enjoyed this article? Check out some of Cathy’s previous articles on WOW!:
How to Find the Perfect Horror Fit for You
Making Time for Right and Left Brain Writing
The Cheap Writer's Guide to Conferences
(Almost) Everything I Really Needed to Know About (Humor) Writing, I Learned for Free
Getting Your Author Brand On, An Interview with Shelli-Johannes-Wells
Say Yes to Success: An Interview with Career Expert Maureen Anderson
How to Write a Picture Book: Interview with Eve Heidi Bine-Stock
Channeling the Voice of Youth: An Interview with Ellen Hopkins
The YA Voice: Do You Hear It?
Recommended Resource: Finding Your Writer's Voice Class
Pacing: Finding Your Rhythm
acing is the rhythm or tempo that determines how fast or slow a story reads. It’s also what writers use in each scene to hook their readers and draw them into the emotion or mood of their characters’ experiences and into their fictional world.
My first introduction to the term pacing was when I received a critique of a writing sample that I submitted to a writers’ guild. Although I could make a vague guess, I have to admit that at the time I didn’t know what pacing actually was. Fortunately, my feedback was positive; but just as I needed to know what I was doing wrong, I also needed to know what I was doing right. And I was clueless.
My newly discovered ignorance was incentive to educate myself on writers’ terminology and what it means in terms of becoming a successful writer. So, here is a little of what I have learned...
Pacing can refer to a scene, a paragraph, or the entire novel or piece you are working on, and each one of these elements are very important to your completed project. Even if a story is good, if the pacing is off, it can bore someone to tears (too slow), leave them panting with exhaustion (too fast), or just plain confuse them.
Pacing Your Scenes
Writing is an art; but instead of clay or paint, words are the medium that you will use to create your masterpiece. However, words alone are not the only thing that sets the tone or the mood of a scene; it is how you string those words together that will create the pace that you want to set. Just as you can’t randomly slap slabs of clay together without any thought and expect to produce something worth looking at, when it comes to developing a convincing scene, you can’t just throw words out there without considering how they will affect the pace of the scene.
When you’re working on a particular passage, think about the mood you want to convey to your reader. Is the scene more somber, more pensive? If so, then you want to slow it down. You want the reader to feel what your character feels. If your character is grieving and the scene is moving too quickly, it won’t draw your reader into the emotional distress she is experiencing and won’t seem realistic.
On the contrary, if the scene is action driven or a dramatic portion of the story, then you will want to speed it up. This will give the reader a sense of urgency, which is the emotion that you want to communicate in the more intense passages.
About now you might be asking yourself: that’s all well and good, but how do I actually go about slowing the story down or speeding it up? In answer, there are a number of techniques that are used as brakes or accelerators in writing.
“Brief, concise sentences will speed up the pacing of your scene.”
First the Accelerators:
Example one: See Jane run. Run Jane, run. See Dick catch the ball. Don’t drop the ball, Dick.
Brief, concise sentences like these will speed up the pacing of your scene. However, your sentences don’t have to be as sparse as this example. Fast paced can still be fast paced with a little detail, such as including the color of or the type of ball Dick is catching. The scene will still move quickly, just not as quickly.
Another effective way to increase your story’s pace is the use of dialogue. Dialogue naturally moves the story along faster. There is less description being used; and the discourse between the characters generates and maintains a quicker flow because in a sense, it is telling rather than showing, and showing takes time.
Using less detail and writing shorter paragraphs will also keep the story moving. These techniques keep the reader from loitering too long in any particular scene or paragraph—pushing them into the next.
“The use of internal monologue, which is essentially narrative, is another approach to slowing down the story.”
Example two: See Jane run through the blossoming meadow where flamboyant, yellow snapdragons lift their heads, nodding off to sleep under the warmth of the golden sun. Run Jane, run.
Jane is still running, but we have slowed the scene and the reader down to a more temperate pace by using longer sentences and including sensory descriptive words.
Narrative also slows down the pace. Narrative is simply the telling of the story. The above examples of Dick and Jane are narrative. It is an observation and narration of the setting, the landscape, or things that are taking place in the lives of the characters that tie into the story being told.
Backstory is another form of exposition that works well to put the brakes on a rapidly moving pace. Every story has a starting point. Anything that you bring up that happened to a character prior to that starting point is considered backstory. Backstory is a character’s recollection of past events or experiences that are relevant to the tale, such as a traumatic childhood experience or a previous marriage. If done right, using this method will slow the pace down while simultaneously moving the story forward.
Finally, the use of internal monologue, which is essentially narrative, is another approach to slowing down the story. Internal monologue not only accomplishes your pacing objectives, but it also allows you to take readers inside your character’s thoughts. It is in that hallowed space that readers learn what the character is really thinking, giving them deeper insight into the character’s personality, her motives, and her desires. It shows us who she really is.
Pacing & Paragraphs
When it comes to the pacing in a well-written paragraph, it makes me think of rolling hills. You want movement and flow—not a flat monotone comprised of evenly structured sentences. To accomplish this, alternate sentence and paragraph lengths. This is what creates the rhythm.
Example of a bad paragraph: We walked down the street. The street was torn up. Construction workers were the cause. We moved to the sidewalk. The stroll was much nicer.
This passage is dull and monotonous because the lengths of the sentences are pretty much the same. There is no flow. There are no “rolling hills.”
Example of a better paragraph: We walked down the street that construction workers had torn up. When the potholes and remaining debris became too difficult to traverse, we moved to the even pavement of the sidewalk. It made for a much more pleasant stroll.
The varying lengths of the sentences in this paragraph allow the words and the sentiment behind them to flow instead of stalling and starting before and after each period.
The Whole Enchilada
Pacing also extends beyond the individual scenes and paragraphs and carries throughout the book. Remind yourself that too much narrative is a bore and will make your story drag. It is like listening to someone drone on and on. Eventually, the listener will tune out. In real life, we might be too polite to walk away from an excessive talker, but a reader will have no guilt over closing a book that doesn’t entertain. For this and other reasons, it is important to balance your use of narrative and dialogue throughout your story—using too much of neither and creatively alternating their use.
Although there are no set rules on how fast or slow a particular genre moves, certain genres do tend to keep to a similar pace. One example is Regency romance novels. These incline toward a slower pace where you take everything in little by little like a leisurely stroll through the park. Of course, there are peaks where the story climaxes and valleys where the tale gradually builds, speeding up and slowing down; but overall, the story plods along rather than races. With a suspense novel, the story usually moves at a faster rate than a Regency novel—where not only the storyline, but the pacing, brings about the desired intensity. Just as with a slower paced novel, suspense will have its peaks and valleys, but it is moved along with a little more energy.
To speed up your pace:
- Use shorter sentences.
- Use dialogue.
- Write shorter paragraphs.
- Include less detail/descriptive words in the scene.
To slow down your pace:
- Use longer sentences.
- Use more descriptive words.
- Write in narrative form.
- Use internal monologues.
- Use backstory/flashbacks.
Hearing what you have written is the best way to test the pacing. Read your work out loud. This will tell you whether or not the pacing sounds natural and if it suits the scene. Pacing is something that can be learned (or I wouldn’t be writing about it), but it is also intuitive. Don’t think too hard on it while you’re writing; just walk around in your character’s shoes, feel the mood, and your instincts will kick in.
If the pacing doesn’t sound or feel right when you assess your work, employ some of the tips included here and see if that doesn’t solve your problem. The more you write, the more you’ll grasp how you’re story should sound.
Writer of fact and fiction and lover of ideas, Julie Momyer has published several articles on a variety of subjects. She is the author of, 2010-2011 Inventor's Market: Where to Sell or License Your Ideas, Products & Inventions, a directory of manufacturers for anyone with a great idea. Her first novel, Kiss Me Awake, was a finalist in CWG's first novelist contest, for which she is currently seeking publication. She also shares ownership of Claude & Monique, designer handbags by Brit, with her daughter.
You can find out more about Julie by visiting her website https://wheretosellyourideas.com and her blog https://claudeandmonique.blogspot.com/.
Enjoyed this article? Check out these related articles on WOW!:
How to Make Dialogue Tags Work for Your Story
Tips for Making Dialogue Stronger
Creating Scenes: Fiction's Building Blocks
Backstory: Relevant Information or an Inconsequential Event?
Where Are We? Using Setting & Description in Creative, Yet Crucial Ways
Using the Law in Your Story: Characters, Plot, and Professions
hen I speak at writers’ conferences about how to use the law in stories, the first reaction I usually get from anyone other than mystery/thriller writers is: “But the law doesn’t apply to my story.”
Yet the law is everywhere. From the second they wake up in the morning, the law touches everything your characters do. Your romantic heroine brushes her teeth when she wakes up. Does her toothpaste have toxic chemicals in it from China or is it safe? Your literary fiction main character drives to work in a car that doesn’t explode when hit from behind thanks to civil lawyers. He goes to work, and because of employment laws is paid wages and overtime and isn’t subjected to discrimination. Or does everything go terribly awry despite the law?
The claims characters can make are almost infinite. Anything that can go wrong for them could end up as a court case. Whether your character is in an accident, faces discrimination in the workplace, or is in a relationship gone sour, the law can offer a slight plot twist or an entire plotline. You think the law doesn’t affect your character? Think again.
The law can also provide characters who can observe things in your stories. And of course, murder victims. Let’s discuss some of the ways law can help your stories, some legal-type characters who are useful if you need an observer to any event, and some folks who just may need killing.
How the Law can be Used to Enhance Any Story
As previously mentioned, the law affects every character. Here are some more ways, by genre.
Romance writers: Your characters come from a background that affects the way they view romantic relationships. If they’re divorced, do they have custody or visitation of their children? Is the case still in court? If the characters’ parents are divorced, the nature of the divorce could color their view of romance. In another plot, dating can turn to stalking, and stalking can turn into an injunction hearing. Maybe that’s where your heroine meets Mr. Right. Is your character dating someone from work? He’ll encounter sexual harassment laws or anti-nepotism policies. In The Mentalist, the boss made two characters choose between transferring away from each other or breaking up. In Dexter, two characters pretended to break up yet are still together, violating their employer’s policy.
Children’s and young adult writers: Are the parents dead or divorced? Most kid lit authors write about characters who have an absent parent or two. Which parent makes the decisions relating to the child, or do they both make the decisions? Where does your character live and with whom? All these issues can add depth to your character as well as angst, conflict, and relationship issues in the novel. If Bella’s parents weren’t divorced, she wouldn’t have moved to Forks, Washington in Twilight. If one or more parents are killed, did the main character inherit anything? Is there life insurance? The Series of Unfortunate Events book series is related to issues of custody and inheritance.
Sci-fi and horror: Your story involves world building. What rights do the monsters or aliens have? The True Blood/Southern Vampire series deals with the supernaturals’ rights, which are to own property, marry, and work. Is your world just or unjust? Are the courts and law enforcement fair or biased? Star Trek used court proceedings a fair amount of time, including in the pilot of the original series.
Comedy: The Wedding Crashers started with a mediation scene. Juno used collaborative law in a scene. And who can forget My Cousin Vinny? Whether you make fun of the court system or use it to establish your characters’ personalities or situations, the law can come in handy even in comedy.
Which Characters from the Law Make Great Observers or Witnesses?
Some people operating in the legal system move around, whether in the courtroom or in the outside world, and have enough information that they might be useful to your stories. Here are five common helpful observers or witnesses. (More types are included in my book, The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers.)
- Bailiffs keep order in the court. They see and hear everything that goes on, so it’s their job to observe. As characters, they can be witnesses, blackmailers, or heroes. Maybe they overhear jurors calling home to check the Internet about the case. Or they witness the prosecutor accepting a bribe.
- Runners and messengers make deliveries for the attorneys. This puts them in a place where they can move around and observe the activities of your characters. Did they deliver flowers to a couple having an affair? Did they take the package of incriminating tapes home instead of delivering them?
- Process servers hand official documents to people who don’t want them. Maybe they see the character having an affair, or they witness an accident while they’re delivering papers. Having a character who moves around a lot, who is observant, and who may have a law enforcement background could come in handy in your story, couldn’t it?
- A court reporter’s job is to listen to every word of every legal proceeding she covers and record it accurately. Court reporters are almost invisible, which makes them great witnesses. During breaks, lawyers and witnesses forget they’re even there. Court reporters hear all kinds of things they probably shouldn’t.
- Paralegals assist lawyers, prepare documents, and interview clients and witnesses. They may know about bribes, malpractice by the attorney, or perjury. Maybe they were instructed to shred documents. Remember the paralegal character in The Riches? She found out Doug Rich may not be who or what he said he was.
So, next time you say the law can’t help with your story, think about characters whom you need to observe something. It doesn’t have to be a murder. Characters who are in a position to observe are handy in any type of story.
Who Might Your Murderer Want to Kill Off (Besides Lawyers)?
If you’re writing a murder mystery, you need a victim. Who gets killed and why are central to your story. Everybody knows the first thing you do is kill all the lawyers (at least if you want to overthrow a government, as was the context of Shakespeare’s quote). So I won’t bore you with why lawyers make good murder victims. Res ipsa loquitur (the thing speaks for itself).
Here are some more legal characters who might have too much information and become the next murder victim.
- Legal secretaries handle scheduling, draft some minor court documents, deal with client and opposing counsel, and keep the lawyer’s office running smoothly. You could have a legal secretary who steals a trust account check, and the lawyer faces disbarment, or who knows the lawyer is the perpetrator of a giant Ponzi scheme.
- Office managers handle the business and human resources end of the law practice. Do they get rid of staff, hide documents, or move people from department to department to keep any one person from knowing too much? Do they embezzle the trust money? They will probably have passwords and access to the firm’s accounts.
- Notaries witness and put their seal on signatures to verify that they obtained valid identification from the person signing and that the signature is true. Did they notarize a document with lots of white space and turn it into a deed in their favor? Do they uncover a forgery? Unscrupulous notaries can use the Spanish translation, notario, to bilk unsuspecting immigrants. Since notarios are similar to lawyers in some countries, use of this term can mislead people into thinking they’re dealing with a lawyer instead of someone who paid a few dollars to the state to purchase a notary seal and bond. This comes up frequently in immigration fraud scams.
- The judicial assistant, or JA, handles scheduling of hearings, trials, and other court proceedings. A nasty or incompetent JA can make legal life miserable. Your characters can show up to hearings that aren’t on the calendar, have evidence suddenly lost, and other JA-caused tribulations. These could drive anyone over the brink, couldn’t they? The JA could also witness bribery, threats, or jury tampering, which means he could blackmail a lawyer or judge. We know what happens to blackmailers and people who know too much, don’t we?
I hope I’ve provided you with some inspiration for your stories. If you use the law, do the research. Make sure your plot is believable and rings true. There are several resources available for your research. You can also ask a lawyer for advice on how to handle an issue in your story.
Now that you’re filled with ideas, start writing!
Donna Ballman has practiced employment law for 24 years. She was named in The Lawdragon 500 Leading Plaintiffs' Lawyers in America 2007 and has received numerous awards. Donna’s book, The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers, is part of Behler Publications’ award-winning Get it Write series. It is a finalist in the 2010 Florida Writer’s Association’s Royal Palm Literary Awards.
Donna’s blog is The Write Report. She covers writing and publishing news and some of the gaffes she sees writers make, along with tips for fixing those problem areas.
Donna Ballman’s website is https://www.donnaballman.com. You can use the contact form there to ask her about using the law in your writing.