Practicing and Improving VOICE

This blog post is a compilation of a tweet thread I posted this morning. I’ve added a few thoughts here and there to the original thread and a few extra exercises at the end. Hope it helps!

Ok #pitchwars You’re going to hear this a lot over the next few weeks.

You need a killer voice.
Paired with…
I can’t teach voice.

Which is true, but can be so frustrating to hear.
So, while I can’t teach you how to write a killer voice, you CAN practice.

Here are a few thoughts on how to practice voice if you’re struggling.

1. Write the same scene but change who the MC is. Perhaps in one form, they’re a dudebro, and then write it again w/the MC as a scientist. Notice what this changes in the narration. While the events of your scene may stay the same, a change in narrator should change everything else. What your character notices, how they describe it, how they react to it physically and emotionally. These are all elements of an immersive voice.

But there are other more subtle things you can practice, too.

2. Make a word/phrase list. Make two columns, in one write several different emotions or reactions. In the other column, write the go to phrases for that. In our 2016 mentee’s, CALL ME ALASTAIR, her medically obsessed MC writes “OMGAD” when exclaiming. (GAD=general anxiety disorder) My friend (and fellow mentor) Julie Artz likes to add to this list details like which of the five senses her character is most sensitive to, which part of their body reacts to things most.

It’s little details, but it makes a huge difference.

3. Try meditating as your character. I mean it! Close your eyes, take deep breaths, and try to become one with your MC. It sounds crazy, but that’s what I do. What do they see? Think about their height and literally “get on their level.” That alone should change how they describe certain things. How do they move through their world? How do they feel it? Try to make all of that a part of your body. Then bring it out and into the words you type.

Okay, hippie dippie enough for you? Let’s move on.

4. Try writing in another authors voice. Choose someone with a REALLY strong voice. Write in the voice of CATCHER IN THE RYE. Write in the voice of Douglas Adams. Or JK Rowling. Or Lemony Snicket. This is a great way to notice what makes those strong voices.

5. If you’re still struggling, or feel like you only have one voice, try an out there, totally different kind of MC. I was worried about voice for my last WIP, so I decided to try out a wise, British narrator. Because, hey. Why not? It worked. So go crazy. Give your character an awesome hobby that can leak into their wording and way they describe things. Have them be a collector or something, obsessed with some historical or pop culture thing. Whatever it is, just let it infuse into every chapter of your book somehow. I like this post from my co-mentor Cindy on letting your character’s “freak flag” fly.

6. Always remember, voice isn’t just the words you use but what your MC notices and how they react physically and emotionally.

7. Read Aloud. First do this with published books with great voice. Notice what a great written voice does to the way you read a book aloud. With the best, you will notice yourself actually falling into a cadence. A rhythm to the words. Almost like, this book can only be read one way. THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON is like this for me. Also, WOLF HOLLOW. I read that one aloud and even though I didn’t mean to, found myself taking on a light accent. Cindy’s WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW is the same way. You should be able to do this with your own writing, too. Read it aloud and notice where the cadence feels off or where you find yourself sort of stumbling or falling out of that rhythm. Then fix it. After that, give your manuscript to a really good friend or your partner to read aloud. See if THEY fall into a cadence reading it. If they can’t help bringing it to life. Notice the boring or less alive patches in their voice. Fix those!

Some additional exercises that might help.

Like the first exercise above but a little different. Think of a family story or scene from a recent outing. Imagine how your mom would narrate. Then imagine how your dad would narrate it.

This one won’t work for everyone, but it will for some people. Write for your character in free verse. I don’t know what it is, but verse helps me get to the heart of a character and their voice in five minutes flat.

Try just being yourself. How would you describe this scene to your very closest friend? Don’t clean it up. Leave in all the little asides, snide remarks, inside jokes, fragmented sentences. All of it. Be free and easy and totally yourself. What you come up with should be really voicey. After all, you are an awesome MC, right?

To finish off, I just want to let you know that the very first draft of THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC had very little voice. And what it did have was basically the voice of my last MC. I knew it needed work. But there were a few times as I was writing, that a different voice snuck in. I literally stopped writing, marked those spots and left a note for myself saying, “This is Kate’s voice!” Then after I finished drafting, I went back to those moments, read them, and kind of pondered them for a couple weeks before sitting down and rewriting the entire manuscript in the RIGHT voice this time.

Maybe nobody can teach voice. But you CAN practice it, learn it, and improve it. Good luck!

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