There’s a popular sentiment in writing circles: You can’t teach voice. Want to learn to craft a strong plot? Check out the hero’s journey or Save the Cat. Want to make your characters come to life? Two seconds of Googling will give you more character worksheets than you could ever complete. But ask a writer how to develop a great voice, and…well. More often than not, you’ll hear something like, You either have it or you don’t.
So of course, when Rosiee very kindly asked if I’d like to write a post for BYOM, I decided to do that thing everyone says you can’t do: teach voice.
(Thanks, Rosiee, for indulging me.)
First of all: it’s true that some writers are more naturally adept at voice than others. But it’s also true that some writers are more naturally adept at plot, or character, or concept, or setting.
Second of all: it’s true that there’s some je ne sais quoi involved when it comes to voice. You can read and synthesize ideas about word choice, cadence, and syntax but still end up with a piece that doesn’t land. But again, this is also true about the other elements of fiction. A plot can hit all the guideposts and still lack tension; a character can be deeply fleshed out and still feel disconnected from the story.
In other words: voice is as teachable as any other element of fiction. So with that said, here’s a crash course in how to develop your very own brilliant, unforgettable voice.
Step 1: Know what’s in your toolbox.
At its most molecular level, voice is about three things:
- Word choice. (“Sneer” feels different than “smirk,” even though they mean the same thing.)
- Syntax. (English, the messy language that it is, gives us many ways to arrange every sentence.)
- Cadence. (Rhythm is just as important in prose as it is in poetry.)
There are variations on these themes, of course. But these are the core elements to keep in mind as you begin dissecting other writers’ voices and, eventually, crafting your own.
Step 2: Make a list.
Think of a book with a voice that gripped you—one so stunning that you’d read a scene about literally nothing just to immerse yourself in the words. Anything goes: it might be a literary classic (for me, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov) or a YA novel (I won’t tell you how many times I’ve read E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars). Make a list of voices you can’t forget. They shouldn’t all be the same: I love the sparkling, toothy prose of Dare Me by Megan Abbott and the lyrical voice of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple equally, and they couldn’t be any more different. Take a deep-dive into your Kindle or the local library and build your collection.
Step 3: Play detective.
Once you have a list of voices you can’t shake, dig in. Read and re-read the books on your list. Mark the paragraphs that make your jaw drop and underline the sentences that feel perfect. Type a killer scene out in a word doc or write it out longhand. Read it out loud. Look at the way the sentences flow—and then take them apart. Combine short sentences or chop long ones up. Replace nouns and verbs with synonyms. If your author uses lots of adjectives, take them out and see how it changes the scene. If they’re a Hemingway type, add adverbs. Cut sentences into pieces and then put them back together until it feels like you’ve written them yourself.
Step 4: Be a copycat.
Now that you’ve spent hours exploring books with voices you envy, try some low-key plagiarism! (Don’t worry: it will never see the light of day.) This is a tool I discovered during my Poe phase in middle school: I loved the gothic vibe of his stories and I’d never read anything like it. So I read my favorite stories over and over until I could recite them, and then I tried my hand at my own short stories in his style. As I wrote, I played around with word choice and sentence structure and rhythm, and after a few stories, I’d developed a decent imitation of that gothic voice.
The next voice that grabbed me was the middle-grade Sammy Keyes series by Wendelin Van Draanen. Again, my seventh-grade self was shocked that mysteries—a genre I’d been reading for years—could feel so fresh. The Sammy Keyes books were sarcastic and clever, with a close first-person narration and casual switches between past and present tense. I tried writing a middle-grade mystery that used the same building blocks.
I took this approach every time I discovered a book that left me speechless. Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides; Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho; Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak: they all gave me the chance to try on an entirely new voice.
It should go without saying, but remember that a “copycat” voice—no matter how great!—isn’t the voice you’ll use in your public work. In the same way that you wouldn’t steal another writer’s plot or characters, you should never adopt another writer’s voice as your own, and you should never mimic another writer’s voice in work you plan to query, submit, or publish. Imitating other writers is an exercise to help you learn the pieces that, together, make up voice. This is why it’s so important to try out the widest variety of work you can: old and new; diverse; your genre and others.
Once you’ve delved into a range of other writers’ voices, you’ll begin to find snippets of one that isn’t anyone else’s at all: it’s yours. When that fresh, authentic voice begins to emerge, you’re ready to move forward.
Step 5: Be a chameleon.
As you build your voice, don’t be afraid to play. Write a scene in your darkest, cruelest voice—and then turn the page and rewrite it as a comedy. Switch from first person to third, or past tense to present. Try a chapter in verse. Write a paragraph with no adjectives.
Your voice isn’t set in stone: it can and should change with every new narrator. If you feel yourself getting complacent, experiment! Take one element of your voice and push it to the limit. Write the same scene from a different character’s point of view, or from the same character reflecting on the scene years later. Let your voice be fluid.
Personally, I write in two very different styles. My debut YA novel, The Dead Queens Club, is quick-witted and funny (I hope). My second book, Foul Is Fair, is twisted and vicious and very, very dark. That doesn’t mean both books aren’t my voice: it means that voice, like plot and character and setting, is something to explore and build with every new story.
Step 6: Practice makes perfect.
A great voice doesn’t happen overnight. Even writers whose debuts absolutely kill it have been honing their craft for years. You’ll need to dedicate time, consistently, to building a stronger voice—sometimes in your WIP, sometimes in exercises, and sometimes in reading. If you feel yourself getting burned out, let your critique partners weigh in. Or take a break from writing and watch a film with a distinctive directorial voice and style (personal favorites: anything from Quentin Tarantino or Sofia Coppola). Find voice in the work of painters, choreographers, comedians, and architects. When you come back to your writing, let the rest bleed in.
It takes time to improve something as nuanced as your voice—but it’s absolutely worth it.
Good luck and happy writing!
Hannah Capin is the author of The Dead Queens Club (out January 29, 2019 from Inkyard Press) and Foul Is Fair (out winter 2020 from Wednesday Books). She’s also an AMM mentor who teaches YA workshops at the Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, Virginia. You can find her online at hannahcapin.com or follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @tldaaollf. (Fun fact: that keysmash is actually an acronym for the very first Poe-imitating short story she wrote: “The Life, Death, and Afterlife of Lamia Lucy Fireash,” out never from no one.)