I was listening to the audio recording of LOVE IS MURDER in the car the other day. I will admit with no hesitation that I skipped directly to my story, THE NUMBER OF MAN, because I was curious to see what I sounded like. Yes, yes, ego-trip, check. Trust me, you’d do the same thing.
Because having someone else read your work is fascinating.
I think voice is the most important element of writing. It is also the most elusive. Voice is what makes you unique. It’s what sets your story apart from the other 70,000 books published last year. It’s what keeps reading coming back for more, what helps them feel like the characters are their friends, or at least someone they’d like to know. It’s why series are so popular, and why standalones can be so incredibly gripping. Good voice is like a whispered secret directly from the writer's brain to yours.
Thematically, there are only seven basic plots in the literary world. Each has to do with conflict. Each can be manipulated in many forms, but they boil down to these seven:
- Man versus Man
- Man versus God/Religion
- Man versus Nature
- Man versus Machines/Technology
- Man versus Self
- Man versus the Supernatural
- Man versus the Environment
You’ve heard people say there isn’t anything original out there. This is why. So if all stories fall within an agreed upon set of parameters, what makes them different? How is it that you can give five writers an exercise – tell me a story about man versus man – and end up with five WILDLY different tales? Imagination, individualism, quirks, prejudices.
I need a strong voice to hook me on a book. It seems rarer and rarer to find a book that’s transportive, that I can read without thinking about. Being a writer kills reading for fun in many respects, because if the voice isn’t strong and immediate and different, it’s too easy to start picking apart the pieces.
I know I have a unique voice because it’s so strong in my head I can’t shake it, and when I try to write outside my voice, I fail miserably. That’s why I love to hear my work read by other people. I get a chance to see how they perceive my voice. Where they put the emphasis. How they add a giggle here and a sob there. A pause where I didn’t put one, but should have. It is really the coolest thing ever, and it’s a great writing exercise to try at home.
Get a friend, or critique partner, and have them read your work aloud to you. Don’t follow along on the page, just shut your eyes and listen. Accept their voice into your head. You will hear the glaring errors, the passive sentences, the brilliant turns of phrase and the limp declarations. Dialog is especially important to voice, and this method will allow you to hear where you’ve got it right, and where you’re off the mark. I guarantee this will make you a stronger writer.
If you’re a reader interested in this exercise, get an audio book of something you’re very familiar with. That you’ve read multiple times. And listen to how different it sounds in someone else’s voice than in your own head. See? You have voice too.
So I return to the page energized after hearing my story read aloud. Many thanks to Shannon McManus who kicked ass telling Michael and Caitlyn’s tragic story. She nailed it.
Want to share some examples of strong voices? I’d love to hear who you think qualifies.