Camy here: This is a compilation of my short series of posts on Developing Your Writer's Voice that I posted back in 2006, but I have put them all in one article for you here.
One vital way to make your writing stand out is voice. In many of the contest entries I've judged and manuscripts I've critiqued, writers have muted their natural voice to sound bland and generic.
Writing that's alive with its own distinct vocal flavor is a joy to read. The prose is richer and more vibrant, the characters more three-dimensional--all because the writer opens herself to her own writing style and revels in it.
However, voice can also be the most difficult and slippery aspect of writing craft to discover and perfect.
Raw, creative voice often doesn't result in a polished piece. The key is to first lay down the story with your unhindered voice and polish later.
But how to unleash your voice?
Many times, a writer's internal critic is hampering the free reign of his unique style, but certain exercises can help him lift all restraints, open the cage door, and let the lion roar.
Not all these exercises will work for every writer, but some might enable you to find and/or further develop your voice.
(Most of these exercises are taken from Finding Your Writer's Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall)
Distill your raw voice.
Do automatic or free-writing writing and put it away for a week.
Return to it and pull out words or phrases that grab your attention. Do another free-write with those key phrases, and put it away for another week.
Highlight the passages that speak to you, and delete everything not highlighted. You should be left with writing that profoundly impacts you--your unique voice. If the writing still seems diluted, repeat the process.
Unusual situations and a sense of urgency will bring out voice.
External stimuli: Create a certain setting or mood by surrounding yourself with objects that will put you emotionally in different states. Try laying on your desk several things that make you mad. Or maybe things that make you sad. Be creative and utilize all five senses. Create different atmospheres that run the gamut of your emotions--don't hold back. Explore difficult emotions, intense emotions.
Internal stimuli: Use your mind to put you in different places, at different times. A cold, lonely prison cell. A loud, crowded prison cell. An abandoned warehouse during WW2 with bombs exploding. A desolate cornfield during the Depression. What's important is to put yourself in an unusual situation or one with some type of emotional urgency. Immerse yourself in your imaginary world, feel the culture and tension around you.
Once in that atmosphere, whether external or internal, free-write. Write about anything and everything. Use the computer or use a pen and paper. Don't let yourself stop writing--write gibberish or repeat yourself if you have to.
Do this for many different types of external and internal stimuli. The object is to experiment and discover what stimuli helps create that sense of urgency to unleash your voice.
Write your voice with your whole body.
An opera singer or a screaming child uses his entire body to project his voice. It's a comprehensive, total physical feat. A writer is the same. You want to use your entire being--your whole body--to bring out your writer's voice. This will mean different things to different writers.
The important thing is to discover your own all-encompassing combination of rhythm, force, and music that is your voice. The key is all-encompassing--try to involve all of you, not just your mind.
Try to imagine what it's like for you to write from your gut, from your toes, digging in with your shoulders, straining with your spine. Make it an energetic feat, requiring force and strength, pulling in aspects of your whole body. Then just do it--free-write.
Discover your natural rhythm.
All of us have a natural cadence to our speech and thoughts. It's a combination of our genes and environments. For every writer, it's unique.
Write nonsense words in grammatically correct sentences, or do free-writing--keep the pen moving even if you just write nonsense or the same sentence over and over.
You'll discover things about your voice. Your sentence length, your word choice. Alliteration, metaphors, similes. Twists of phrase, dialect. Learn to be aware of these aspects of your voice's cadence.
Take a lesson from children's storytelling.
When children tell stories, they improvise with things connected to their emotions, urgent and important to them at the moment. The duckie in their lap, the blue carpet, the stinky smell from the diaper bag, the lint under the table. It doesn't have to make sense, it doesn't have to be polished.
What makes their stories compelling is that it's raw and free. Our writers' voices come out when we can emulate their storytelling mindset.
This is related to what we say in public and private. There are certain things we will only say to our families, or sometimes just to ourselves. I'm not talking about foul language or unpleasant bodily functions. Opinions, one-line zingers, rage, frustration, joy, pride--good things, bad things. All uncensored.
Voice can come out when we start to blur the lines between the two, the way a child does. Children don't know what's acceptable to say in public versus private. They say what comes into their heads, guided by emotions.
Adults tend to edit ourselves, even when we don't think we are. But what if you didn't? What if you wrote everything and anything--the good, the bad? What if it was just a matter of getting it all down, no matter what it looked like, no matter that it didn't make sense, no matter that you'd never let another living soul see what you wrote?
Voice is that raw writing. Don't stress because the editing will come later. Write on any topic, going off on any tangent, making whatever associations you feel like. Just get it down. You'd be surprised at what comes out of you, and it might even start you off on new, uncharted ground.
Speak your voice through characters.
Like a ventriloquist, you throw your voice into a story character so that it's you and yet not you speaking. More than anything, it should be the character's voice that dominates, but your own voice will add vibrancy to your character.
Your heroine will have her own unique way of speaking, and it will also depend on her audience. She may speak one way to her mother and a different way to the hero. Through it all, don't be limited by her personality--rather, let her individuality unleash your own raw voice.
Take a persona and notice if you speak directly in his voice--in his skin--or describe him as if you're in the room. Sometimes, this can indicate a preference for first person versus third person.
Let this persona be uninhibited. Give her the quick mouth that would never survive in the real world.
Experiment with different personas completely different from who you are--an extrovert if you're an introvert, or a high-powered attorney if you're a teacher. Put them in different situations to discover who they are on deeper levels--stick your extrovert in a Hollywood party and then a monastery, or move your attorney from New York to Taiwan.
Voice is developed by writing, writing, writing.
Try doing a voice writing exercise each week. It only takes a few minutes, and that weekly stretching and warm-up will help your writing the rest of the week.
And not just short exercises--use your manuscript as practice ground for unleashing your raw voice. Take a scene, or a page of your manuscript. Work some of the exercises with that piece of your writing. Not only will you be developing your voice, you’ll also be working on beefing up your manuscript.
Don’t be discouraged if the exercises don’t seem to be showing dramatic results. Often a writer’s voice comes out subtly, in waves or glimpses.
Some writers’ voices are loud, others are soft and more subtle. Don’t assume you’re one or the other. Don’t fall prey to preconceived notions. Just WRITE. Be yourself.
With diligence and perseverance, your voice will come roaring out of you.