By Rebecca Blevins
I’ve been enjoying literary agent Sara Megibow’s #10queriesIn10tweets Thursday afternoons on Twitter. In real time, Sara shares why she rejects queries or why she asks for samples.
I’ve noticed an interesting trend.
Besides factors like a cool premise, strong and likeable main characters, a well-edited manuscript, etc, there is one thing which keeps standing out as to whether a query works or not—voice.
What is voice?
I love how Julie Wright described it a few months ago on Twitter. “Every writer has a cadence, the beat they use to express life. Word choice, sentence length, pet phrases . . . all make us the writers we are.”
So, every writer has an innate voice. Is that it? Do you just have what you’re born with, and either you’ve got it or you don’t? I believe that whether we have voice that sells millions of books or voice which makes our blog followers feel connected with us, we can always improve in some form.
How can you develop your writing voice? I have discovered two ways thus far:
Last month here at the Think Tank Blog, Mikey Brooks wrote a great piece on why writers need to read. In this post, I’ll focus on how reading helps us find our literary voice. Stephen King had definite opinions on the subject in his book On Writing:
“Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing—of being flattened, in fact—is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.”
This next example—from the same chapter—is something I have personally experienced. Something about reading someone else’s prose gets those creative neurons firing in my brain, even when I’m not aware of it:
“You may find yourself adopting a style you find particularly exciting, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When I read Ray Bradbury as a kid, I wrote like Ray Bradbury—everything green and wondrous and seen through a lens smeared with the grease of nostalgia. When I read James M. Cain, everything I wrote came out clipped and stripped and hard-boiled. When I read Lovecraft, my prose became luxurious and Byzantine. I wrote stories in my teenage years where all these styles merged, creating a kind of hilarious stew. This sort of stylistic blending is a necessary part of developing one’s own style, but it doesn’t occur in a vacuum. You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. . . . If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
So, thanks to Mr. King, we see that in order to help find our style, our own personal voice, we need to experience as many other authors’ voices as we can.
Ready for the second tip?
“Why, thanks, Captain Obvious!” But really, we can use our own writing to help us discover our style of voice.
Write about Harry Styles. Uh, I meant write in different styles. (Got your attention though, if you are a teen girl or know one, right?)
If I’m only writing first-person picture books about an octopus named Sal who has a thriving medical practice in the ocean, am I going to venture very far in developing my voice? I guess Sal could escape from a fishmonger or live in someone’s aquarium for a while, but he’s pretty much going to have his tale centered on his doctoring and the sea where he lives. (Can you tell I write for children?) However, if I then write a third- person suspenseful romance—told from two points of view—about a hunk o’ burnin’ love wilderness-
survivalist who’s sent to the Alps to rescue an emperor’s daughter being held for ransom, I’ll develop a whole new set of storytelling skills. In turn, those new survivalist and future empress-saving skills will have expanded and deepened my voice, and when I go back to writing about Dr. Sal, who knows what new depths of the ocean I can plumb?
“Well,” you might say, “I write epic fantasy but have been secretly inspired by Dan Wells and am tempted to write a twisty murder mystery. But I don’t really want to write a full-length novel about it, or a novella, or even a two-thousand-word short story, so should I forget the idea?”
Here’s the answer: flash fiction.
From Jason Gurley at writing-world.com: “If you’re anything like me—the traditional short story writer—then perhaps you’ve had the same reaction I exhibited when I first heard of something called ‘flash fiction.’ I stopped, stared, then turned to a writer friend of mine and said, ‘What?’”
Further on, Jason explains, “In brief, flash fiction is a short form of storytelling. Defining it by the number of words or sentences or even pages required to tell a story, however, is impossible, for it differs from writer to writer, editor to editor. Some purists insist that it is a complete story told in less than 75 words; others claim 100 should be the maximum. For less-rigid flashers, anything under 1,000 words can be considered flash-worthy. And there are even a few who stretch their limits to 1,500 words.”
I was introduced to flash fiction a few years ago by my friend, Karen Hoover. We wrote from prompts and utilized specific rules—1000 word maximum, written in one hour, all editing included.
I quickly found I had to shut down my internal editor and write from the hip. Not gonna lie; some of my stories were awful. Yet there were good points here and there, and I grew as a writer. Then life happened and the weekly contributions fizzled out.
Fast forward to this January. Each Friday Suzanne Warr hosts a flash fiction link-up on her blog, Tales from the Raven, so I joined in. When I wrote a story about a boy breaking his New Year’s Resolution, which involved Winnie-the-Pooh, a brown bag, and a lighter, I remembered how fun it was to experiment with a short project.
Flash fiction is a fantastic way to try on different styles of voice, genre, characterization, etc. You’re only committed to that one story, so what’s the worst that can happen? You could—and likely will—figuratively fall on your face, but who’s watching? Even if you don’t share your story, the experience will help you develop and expand the richness of your writer voice.
So, in summary: How do you develop voice? The short answer is to 1) read widely and 2) write with courageous profusion.
Also, eat chocolate during either exercise. Somehow, I think that helps.
Rebecca Blevins lives in the Midwest, land of tornadoes and cows. (Hopefully not mixed together.) Her first book at age four was a huge hit, with a cover made out of a cut-up diaper box and pages of stick figure drawings. The title? Mommy and Rebecca Go to the Store. Now, Rebecca creates stories for several age groups, but she has a special fondness for writing middle grade humor.
You can find Rebecca on her blog at http://www.rebeccablevinswrites.blogspot.com/
Bonnie Gwyn wrote her first book, about a talking grandfather clock, when she was six – and hasn’t stopped writing since. In fact, she can’t “not write,” and she wouldn’t have it any other way. She hasn’t missed a day of writing in her journal for the past four years!
As a winner in this year’s National Novel Writing Month challenge, Bonnie produced her latest dystopian novel, "Escaping Safety," and is now working on its sequel. She is also close to completing a fantasy romance series, "The Legends of Elldamorae," whose characters have captured her heart and can’t wait to have their stories revealed.
Bonnie’s mantra is, “I write because I believe every story deserves to be told.”
You can learn more about Bonnie, and read her inspirational blog posts, on Where Legends Begin at http://www.bonniegwyn.blogspot.com/
Bonnie Gwyn handles all guest bloggers on this website. Contact her if you would like to volunteer your time to share writing advice for The Authors' Think Tank.