Getting the voice right

Voice is something that a lot of writers have been asking me about recently when sending their work for feedback. I think when you are so close to your writing you can often feel that the voices you have in your story, especially when you have more than one narrator, are not distinct enough, or authentic enough.

I know I felt this way when writing As If I Were A River but in virtually every review I’ve had of the book the readers have said that the voices are really strong, really different, and really real. So, it can be difficult to tell when it’s your own work.

Part of the problem for me when writing that novel was that I became really annoyed with my main narrator, Kate, at one stage. It seems that I am not alone in this dilemma. Morna Piper’s guest blog for Mslexia What to do when you hate the sound of your own voice‘ reveals that she finds her narrator irritating. While a lively discussion of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel, Gone Girl, over On The Literary Sofa blog shows that voice can kill a novel completely no matter how clever the plot may be.

So how can you tell whether you are getting it right?

Well, as writers you all know that you are far too close to your own work to be able to tell. So my advice is feedback, feedback, feedback! Get as many writer friends as you can to read your work and let you know what they think. Use critiquing services if you can’t find anyone honest enough or if, like me, some of your most valued readers are now almost as close to your work as you are.

Even if I’m writing a story in third person point of view, I always do some exercises writing in first person for each character and find the ‘what if’ ones can work really well for this. Play around and get to know your characters well and you’ll find that the voices will come naturally.

Think about the novels you love and return to again and again. What are the voices like in those? Why is it that you keep returning there? Conversely, think about the novels you haven’t enjoyed and the ones you abandoned – why did they not draw you in?

As well as feedback, I definitely recommend reading more novels as a writer rather than just for pleasure and analysing them as you go. Also read Francine Prose’s Reading As A Writer, do the exercises in it, and eavesdrop whenever you can to hear different voices wherever you go.