Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #11: Developing Your Voice

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Some novels seem to have everything right – cool characters, an exciting plot, and a fast pace – yet they are boring, boring, boring! How can this be?

In performers, this missing element is often referred to as the “it” factor. It’s difficult to define or explain, but when you see it, you know it!  As writers, our “it” factor is our voice. It’s the way we describe things and turn phrases. It’s our word choices, our ability to convey emotion, and our unique yet clarifying metaphors.

But many amateur writers struggle to find their voice. It feels so illusive, so impossible, yet voice seems to come so naturally to everyone else!

Sit back, relax, and have some coffee. I’m going to do my best to help you find your voice.

But first:

Why is Voice Important?

In a world where everyone and their dog has written a novel, the competition is fierce. I believe very strongly that the internet has created an insurgence of unskilled writers (and editors, don’t get me started…) who read a few articles online and think they’ve got this writing thing in the bag.

This means your manuscript must drip with potential in order to stand out from the pack. Unfortunately, a novel without a unique voice (unless the concept is knock-your-socks-off awesome) is going to struggle to get noticed.

Plus, voice is probably the very first thing an agent, editor, or reader is going to take note of. It will also likely be the deciding factor as to whether they like or dislike your writing.

How to Tell if Your Voice is Weak

There are lots of signs of a weak voice. Here are some of the most common:

  • Nobody will read your novel. You’ve given it to friends, family, and beta readers yet none of them ever got around to reading past the first few pages.
  • You get bored reading your own work. If you find yourself yawning while reading or skimming over sections of your book, that’s a good sign your voice is MIA.
  • You wish you could write like (Stephen King, Chuck Palahniuk, John Grisham, [insert favorite author here]). Sure, a certain level of talent envy is normal, but if you aren’t a fan of your own voice, there’s a good chance it isn’t quite there yet.
  • You get rejected a lot. Rejection is a normal part of the writing process and can be the result of a lot of issues (both inside and outside your control), so I hesitate a bit to include this. But if you get rejected on project after project after project, especially if you never get any requests for partials or fulls, there’s a good chance you’re lacking in the voice department.

Reasons for a Weak Voice

Now that we’ve gone over some signs that your voice is not as strong as it could be, let’s explore some possible causes of a weak voice:

  • This is your first novel. Developing a strong voice takes time. Every writer wants to believe that he is a prodigy with a naturally fascinating voice, but writing doesn’t work that way. It’s a skill, and one that takes quite a while to learn and perfect.
  • You’re immitating someone else. An immitation is always second rate. So long as you’re trying to write like your favorite author, you’re never going to find a voice that is truly and authentically yours.
  • You have boxed yourself into a point of view. Experimenting with third-person limited, third-person omniscient, and first person can help you hit on a style that suits your voice and plays to your strengths. Sometimes switching the point of view is all it takes to find your voice.
  • You’re thinking too hard. Sometimes writers think too hard while they’re writing (or they revise as they go) and this inhibits their ability to just let loose and allow the words t0 flow.

What to do if Your Voice is Weak

There is really only one way to strengthen a weak voice, and that is to experiment. Here are some great exercises to get you started:

  • Experiment. Go wild. Take a scene from your book and paste it into a fresh document. Rewrite it in a style completely different from how you wrote it initially. Do this over and over, fiddling with the word choices, the descriptions, the length of the sentences. Get a feel for what it’s like to write in different styles.
  • Experiment with point of view. Do the same exercise above except write your scene in third limited, omniscient, and first person. Get a feel for what each of the POVs has to offer. Read through the samples to get a sense of which POV is best suited to your voice and style.
  • Spend time on unstructured writing. It’s easy to get bogged down in writing and rewriting and re-rewriting your novels. Sometimes this can get writers stuck in a writing rut where they can’t see issues with their style. Spend some time (each day if you can) writing something that has nothing to do with your novel. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with anything. Just write for the joy of writing and see what style emerges.
  • Write from a different character’s perspective. Sometimes a problem with voice can actually be a problem with the POV character. If your protagonist is a whiner, is superficial, or is bland or boring, it can have a devastating effect on your prose. Try writing from the perspective of a different character in your novel (you don’t have to keep the scene when you’re done) and see if your voice seems stronger.

Homework: Experiment!

Choose one of the exercises above and experiment with a totally different style or perspective. It might be just the thing you need to hit on a voice that you can be proud of.

But more than anything else, remember that developing a great voice takes a long time. It’s not going to happen over night. It’s probably not going to happen within your first few years of writing. It’s tough and it’s time consuming.

But hey, if it was easy, everyone would publish a novel!

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

5 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #11: Developing Your Voice

  1. Patrice says:

    I’ve recently started interviewing my characters and I’ve found that it helps in this regard, especially if I’m using first person. Its also good for character development too

    • D.L. says:

      Interviewing characters- brilliant! Letting them each tell their own story within the context of the novel you’re writing would really bring them to life. It would also work out a lot of problems in the narration. Let you’re characters tell you what’s important to the story and what really happened to them.

      • Patrice says:

        Thank you :). I tend to do it in 1st person POV where I, the interviewer am also the narrator. That way I am able to describe unique things about them, non-verbal cues and such like. Surprisingly this has become more interesting to me than plotting (though I do have a rough idea of how I’d like the story to go). Plus I suck at description so it forces me to do so. I hope there’s a lecture on description coming up.

  2. Linda Vernon says:

    I’m going to start experimenting right now! I’m seeing that I have a tendency to get tied up in knots — I’m going to try some of the suggestions — I could use some unraveling . . .

  3. Rebecca P. says:

    Thanks Erin. I’m working on the exercises you suggested and also love the idea of interviewing the characters.

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