by Josephine Carr, @ThreeKingsBooks
When my writing career began thirty years ago, I got lucky. The young adult genre was just beginning, and the market was hungry for novels with teenage protagonists. This was a boon for any unpublished writer, of course, but the real luck was something else entirely.
By writing a young adult novel, I immediately found my voice.
In reading and mentoring other new writers, I recognize that their voice is often murky, or missing entirely. I’m not the first to say this, and I know you’ve read it all over the place, but here it comes again: voice is vital.
This is no joke. You can make any number of mistakes in plotting, character development, point of view, and theme, but if you haven’t found your voice, you will not be published. (Even if you self-publish, your success will always be limited.)
Voice is intangible, difficult to define, and impossible to teach, but if you have it, everything else you might do wrong will be fixable. So what’s a writer to do?
I have some practical suggestions.
(1) Write in the first person.
This can be instantly helpful to a writer searching for their voice. When I received an offer to publish my young adult novel, No Regrets, so many years ago, it was for one reason only. I sounded distinct and unassuming. This happened despite the fact that my prose style has never been lyrical or beautiful in any way. I am a prosaic writer, with a crisp style, but by writing a story that happened to be mildly autobiographical, and in the first person, I immediately tapped into my natural writing voice.
(2) Read your own writing aloud.
This is such an easy, yet profound, method for hearing what you sound like. As you read your prose aloud, you’ll be able to tell if it sounds like you. When the voice is off, it jars, often because there’s a pretentious quality, or there are simply too many words jostling for attention.
(3) Write from your stomach, not your mind.
By writing from your gut, as opposed to your conscious mind, you will find a voice that is compelling and real. When I begin writing a novel, I can literally feel my stomach speaking. I’m not being figurative or wishy-washy by this description. I mean it. My stomach seems to expand and send out messages. Indeed, it’s possible for me to feel ever so slightly nauseous, or a little squirrelly down there when I’ve begun and then realize it’s rolling along in a way I’d never have predicted. The words tumble out in a flow like water from a faucet. If/when that happens, I know I’ve got it. Let go of your doggone head and write from the stomach.
(4) Write for yourself.
I am a huge fan of story structure and planning out a novel because it will unquestionably enhance the reader’s experience -- I studied screenwriting, and I know it’s been an important factor in my success as a writer. But the architecture of a novel comes after you’ve found your voice. In the beginning of a novel’s composition, just write a sentence or two without thinking about anyone reading what you’ve written. Be loosey-goosey and relaxed.
Your voice doesn’t merely sound like you. Your voice smells, looks, and feels like you. Without it, your writing is like a cake that fails to rise in the oven. Flat, thin, compressed. And what makes a cake rise? Baking soda and beaten eggs, both of which form bubbles in the batter.
Your words are bubbles, and they lift us to create a buoyant world, uniquely you. When you write, be yourself, even if that self is somehow scary, a failure, or imperfect. Aren’t we all?
Josephine Carr is a thirty year veteran of traditional publishing (HarperCollins, NAL/Penguin, Dial Books for Young Readers) who’s thrilled to be relaunching herself under the banner Three Kings Books. She’d welcome your visit to her blog where she posts about how to write well, publish, and survive the trials of a writer’s life. The first mystery in her new series, The Rabbi’s Mother, will be published in September, 2012. Follow her on twitter @threekingsbooks.