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The Golden Voice - Do You Have it?

by Sheri Gilbert

The subject has been debated a thousand times over in authors' round table discussions. What is the single most defining ingredient to an exceptional manuscript? What makes an editor or agent say, "This is the one!" while they snatch up the phone and punch in your number?

Some say it's the intricate weaving of plot and subplots—a story telling ability that hooks readers from page one—

Or, perhaps it's the nature of the characters themselves: stunningly original, quirky or unique—

Could be its highly fleshed-out tension and conflict within a brilliant, descriptive setting—

As writers we realize that great stories incorporate all these elements, BUT there is a key, an essential element, that many people overlook, simply because it is so hard to pinpoint and/or define. This is—the author's Golden Voice.


What is Voice?

I have found that the best introduction to the distinct flavor of excellent voice, is reading the opening tidbits from the masters of 'voice' themselves.

From Newbery Award winning author Jerry Spinelli's, "Maniac Magee:"                                                                                                          

"They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart a sofa spring."

From the undisputed master of horror, author Stephen King's, "The Stand:"

"Hapsomb's Texaco sat on the US 93 just north of Arnette, a pissant four-street burg about 110 miles from Houston."

Or, from exceptionally popular author J. K. Rowling's, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:"

"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense."

What do all these books have in common? Original, unique, sum-it-up from the get-go, voice. Where does this 'voice' come from? Nine times out of ten, voice originates from the main character, his thoughts, perceptions—inner personality—but that's only one aspect. As in the examples above, the way in which the author dictates how the reader will interpret the tone and flavor of the story and its characters, are what truly define voice.

What gives "Maniac Magee" a strong voice?

1. Bold, in-your-face comparison phrases - "born in a dump" - "stomach as a cereal box" - "heart a sofa spring" (which continues throughout the book)

2. Strong imagery

We realize right away that the story is being told by an omniscient narrator. It's his voice that will form our perceptions of the settings, characters and mood.

And in Stephen King's "The Stand?"

1. Instant, graphic, intimate views of the inner workings of his characters lives.

2. The 'every man' portrayal

This is a constant in King's work. A vital component that latches onto a readers attention like a writhing tentacle that never goes limp.

Although each story may contain subtle alterations in a writer's voice, in most cases there will be an underlying thread unique to that author that runs through each piece, identifying its maker, and if done well, galvanizing a readership.


How to find the right 'voice' for your story

Knowing your main character more intimately can help 'draw out' that voice and give it life. If you haven't already done so, do a character sketch, jot down character essentials and quirks: where they live - their favorite subject in school - hobbies - siblings - favorite types of music - likes and dislikes, etc. Once that is done, you might also consider interviewing your character. This is an excellent way to begin feeling out your character's unique voice. Let the character speak directly to the interviewer. This is a very telling exercise, as quirks and opinions you had no idea your character possessed may surface! Also, if you get stuck, go back to the character sketch and pick out essential elements of the character that may impact voice. For example, is the character belligerent, timid or blunt? Certain obvious qualities in your character should 'stand out' as you write, and in turn, affect the voice.

Looking to real life models can also help a writer develop a unique voice for their story. If you can, search out and study a personality that closes matches that of your view point character. If your MC is an outgoing child, take the time to listen and observe a child of this nature. Listen to the tone and even the timbre of their voice, their word choices AND their mannerism for clues to help you further define and create a compelling image of your MC. All this can lend to the authenticity and impact of voice in your story.

Role playing is another tool to use when searching for the 'voice' of your story. You can do this either on-line, or in person with a critique buddy. Interact AS your main character, using your MC's voice and perceptions for a predetermined length of time. Using instant message rooms or chat rooms, works well for this exercise, providing you, once again, with a chance to develop your character's voice freely, without any thought to plot, scene or story direction.

Once you have an idea what makes up good voice, and how you might achieve it, it's time to look at your work with a critical eye. Your voice should be apparent to the reader in that first paragraph, not a chapter or two later. That's too late to capture a reader's interest, especially an agent or editor's! It should convey in a sentence or two, what the reader might expect from your story:

While rereading your first few paragraphs, ask yourself if the tone of the writing reflects the main character or the narrator's voice clearly. Could it be a paragraph from any middle-of-the-road novel, or, does it communicate clearly that what they'll be reading is unique and worth investing time in? This doesn't mean you have to open with a graphic action scene, or dramatic event (although, sometimes it helps!) but rather, that you've created an atmosphere with your words that conveys that your novel is a must read!

Once you've captured that essential element of voice, maintaining it is just as crucial. It is often a challenge to sustain a distinct voice throughout a novel as plot elements and character dynamics heat up. Often details and plot can flood the story and potentially drown the voice if the author is not vigilant. During revisions, you might want to make a request of your critique group, that they be on the look-out for inconsistencies, or places where the voice may have 'fallen-off.' If you have developed a strong, distinct voice, these areas can be quite obvious to a trained eye or avid reader. Also, while writing, it is a good idea to reread previous chapters as you progress, to help to recapture and sustain the tone and voice--keep it fresh.


Examples from a middle grade novel—the third one being the final version.                                                                                        

Average Voice:

It was Beazer who helped me out that day. My glass eye popped out of my head when I sneezed. All the girls screamed and jumped away as the glass eye rolled across the cafeteria floor. I never realized how fast an eyeball could roll until that day.

Better Voice:

Beazer is the one who stopped my glass eye that day. It had popped out of my face when I sneezed, rolling across the cafeteria floor like it was racing for the finish line. The girls all screamed in unison, jumping out of its path. I didn't realize how fast on eyeball could roll until that moment.

Voice that can Sell:

Beazer was the one who caught my eye that day. It popped right out of my head and rolled across the cafeteria floor like a runaway grape. Karen Whittle and all the 'gigglies' at her table jumped up screaming, chairs falling backward in their haste to get out of Speedy the Eyeball's path. I never realized how rollable an eyeball is, until that ubiquitous moment.

We realize that the 'voice' of the story is clearly defined in the third example. These three sentences provide several clues as to what type of story is being presented AND the nature of our narrator, who in this case, happens to be the main character.

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Summing Things Up

Take some time to read the masters of voice in whatever genre you find most enjoyable. Identify what makes their writing unique . . . then put it aside. Your voice is yours alone. It can't be a copy of any other author's. And the only way to truly 'discover' your voice, is to WRITE. It may take a story or two or three before you actually identify that golden sparkle in your work . . . that special something, but you will find it. Be patient. Be aware of the subtle changes in your style as you mature as a writer. Each article, or novel, or short story you pound out brings you that much closer to refining a quality within your work that no one else can match.

You will find it . . . your own, golden voice.


by Sheri L. Gilbert June 2000 


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