Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 24, 2011

Developing Your Unique Writing Voice

Welcome to the first installment of Sensational Summer Fridays! We'll be finishing up each week with a stellar post to help you through those long Summer weekends of writing, starting off with the amazing Kristen Lamb. In addition to being renowned in writing circles for her social media savvy, Kristen is a wonderful writing teacher.

Kristen is the author of two best-selling books: We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. Her methods teach you how to build your author platform and still have time left over to write more great books! Be sure to stop by Kristen Lamb’s Blog at any time for a dose of excellence.


Developing Your Unique Writing Voice

When we begin as new writers, we often just take off like a shot. Who needs to plot? Plotting is for sissies. Of course, failing to plot is a lot like failing to read the instructions. *whistles innocently* At the end of the day, the shelf leans like the Tower of Pisa and we can’t figure out how we only managed to use half the necessary screws.

So nice of them to give us extras!


Fail to do at least a general plot, and I guarantee that your plot will have a lot of missing screws. But plotting ahead of time gives a newer writer an advantage that most people don’t think about. It gives us a playpen to contain our baby writing “voice.” Voice is one of those aspects of writing that is tough to define and quantify. Yet, it is at the heart of who we are as writers. The more we write, the more mature our writing voice becomes. Leave an immature, unformed voice to wander off on its own, and it will be wandering around getting into everything and making a mess.

We will get back to voice in a second…

In my opinion, there is a mistaken assumption that creativity is birthed by removing all boundaries. Just a blank page, a keyboard and your wildest imagination and GO! I disagree. I believe that limitations, boundaries, and constraints are necessary for creativity to thrive. Don’t believe me? Take a tour of Alcatraz. There are few people more creative than prison inmates.

On the positive side, if humans were born with the ability to fly, would we have invented such a vast array of flying machines? If we could communicate telepathically, would we have invented the telegraph, telephone, cell phone, or even e-mail? It is our inability to do something that focuses our energy and generates dynamic results. Light is wonderful, but when focused it becomes a laser.

An author’s voice is what defines his style. Dean Koontz has a distinctive voice when compared to John Grisham or even Amy Tan. Voice is defined by how we use words to convey imagery. I believe that when writers are new, most of us possess a voice that is in its infancy. I propose that this voice will develop more quickly if given boundaries. If an author will choose a genre, then whittle all the ideas whirling in her head down to one kernel idea, she will be closer to finding her unique writing voice than had she just started writing.

How is this?

The writer has erected boundaries that will focus her creative energy instead of letting it dissipate like white light.

Think of the preplanning for a novel as a series of lenses. You are going to shine the brilliant white light that makes up the whole of your creative capacity. Ah, but then we erect the genre lens. Genres have rules. Picking a genre will focus that white light creative energy. Then, the next lens is the one-sentence original idea. The energy focuses even more. With these two lenses, it will be harder for us to stray off on a tangent. Then, want another lens? Even a rudimentary plot outline will concentrate our energy even more. Finally? Detailed character backgrounds will add a final lens that permits us to take on that novel with all our energy at laser intensity.

When we are new, many of us have a lot of favorite authors. Our infant writing voice (tucked in its playpen to keep it out of the adverbs) is much like a baby learning to speak. It does a lot of mimicking. I find it humorous when I read first-time novels. I can read the prose and almost tell what author that writer was reading at the time he wrote the section. The voice is all over the place. That’s normal. When we are new, we are experimenting and looking for the influence(s) that will eventually take root and hold. The trick is to get past this stage.

So what are some ways we can develop our author voice?

1. Erect Boundaries

We just discussed this and it could wholly be my opinion. I believe that even pantser writers (those who write by the seat of their pants) will benefit enormously by erecting even broad constructs. You don’t have to outline down to the last detail, but a general idea of where you are going and the stops along the way are great.

Think of it like taking a road trip. When you begin a trip, how you decide to travel makes a huge difference. If from the beginning, I decide my trip will be by car, as opposed to by plane, train, bicycle, roller skates, or pogo stick, I understand my limitations. By car, I cannot, for instance, go to Hawaii. Then, if I choose an end destination, there are only so many possible logical routes. Say I am going to go to L.A. Well, from Dallas, TX, there are only so many highways that will get me there. Also, I know some routes are just a bad idea. I-20 East is not a consideration. So I know I want to take certain highways to L.A. Now my path is much clearer. Also, since I know the main highways I need to stay on, if, along the way I decide to amble down a country road (pantser) to visit the Alligator Farm and World’s Largest Ball of Dryer Lint, I know that I just have to be able to find my way back to the highway.

But what kind of trip do you think I might have if I just began driving? Sure, I might uncover some great places and have unplanned adventures….but those unplanned adventures might not be positive. They could involve getting lost in the projects or having a flat tire in the desert.

2. Read, read, then read some more.

The best musicians study all kinds of music and then blend elements with their own unique style. That is a great parallel to how we develop our own writing voice. Read other writers. What do you like? Try it. What did you hate? Lose it. What could have worked, but didn’t ? Modify it. The more you read, the more hues of color you add to the pallet that you will use to define your voice. You will have more subtlety, nuance and dimension than a writer who doesn’t read.

3. Write, write, then write some more.

Put it to the test. Does a certain style work for you? Did it feel natural or forced? When did you hit your stride? Can you push it to another level? Practice, practice, practice. Jimi Hendrix did not start out his music career playing Purple Haze. Elvis, Axel Rose and Meatloaf began as a gospel singers. Picasso began painting traditional subjects in traditional ways. All of these artists practiced and studied and added new elements until they created something genuinely unique.

What are your thoughts on voice? Do you guys have a different definition? What are your experiences? Frustrations? Does your voice climb out of the playpen and eat all the cookies? Do you have some suggestions you’d like to add? I love hearing from you!

CONTEST ALERT: The final days of the Going To The Chapel Contest have arrived! You have until midnight this Sunday to use one of our ‘processional lines’ to write the first scene of a fictional wedding. How fun is that for wedding season??! Click on the link above for all the details...

0 comments on “Developing Your Unique Writing Voice”

  1. Very nice, Kristen. I never thought of it this way, but it's true. We have enough to juggle when starting a new novel; characters we have to get to know, locations we may not be familiar with, etc. It's nice to have boundaries, and have something you DO know!

    Since I'm just starting my next novel, this helps.

  2. Kristen, great post. I'm running behind on blog reading and am catching up today. Thanks for making plotters sound creative. When I listen to the pantsers out there, I always come away feeling second rate. I constantly struggle with the concept of voice. Everyone tells us to find our voice, but then tells us all the rules we have to follow. I'm a rule follower at heart, so it's not that there are rules that's a problem for me. After I've applied them--kept the sentances short (My CPs call my regular fair "Marsha Sentances"), removed "those" words like "that," "so," "know" in any form, etc.--I wonder what happened to my voice? I loved the examples of Elvis and Picasso. Maybe the answer is it's all my voice, just in various stages of development. Lots to think about. Marsha

  3. Voice is difficult for me. I'm not sure mine is fully developed (but is it ever?), but it's gaining strength. I've settled on my genre for the most part, and I'm always looking for good writers in it so I can read (and study) their work. I like the way you put it, Kristen. It's definitely something to think about. I need those boundaries and guidelines.

  4. Excellent points, Kristen. While some may want to avoid any form of structure it is that very thing that gives us the freedom to build a powerful voice. One cannot have a house without a frame.

    Thanks for a great post and thanks to Writers in the Storm for hosting you.

  5. I used to try so hard to write how I thought I should write (talking about voice, here) which inevitably resulted in something like a chewed up, spat out dictionary. Eventually I realised that I naturally gravitated towards a certain voice, kind of sarky but straightforward, and since I let that voice out writing is SO much easier.

    As an aside, I've found that I write the way I talk and it may be that I didn't find my voice until the last year or so because I didn't find myself until then. The hardest thing as a writer is to accept that when you write, you aren't just pouring your characters' hearts and souls onto the page, but your own as well. Until you are willing to permit that vulnerability that comes of opening yourself up to anyone who reads your book, I think finding one's voice will be much harder. I guess it also helps that I'm a lot less scared of what other people think of me these days 🙂

  6. Thanks for the blog, Kristen. I feel like I'm constantly searching for my voice. It helps to know I'm not the only one struggling with this.

  7. This has many wonderful points and analogies. All the time I was reading it I thought...but am a co-author so I think our book is a blending of both of our voices. Our maybe better put...a filtered version of his voice (former Navy enough said) in addition to mine.

    May I link this blog to our blog? My blog is about the journey and I think this is a very important part of the self-publishing/writing journey.

  8. Voice is something that comes naturally to us. However, like singing, it's influenced by the music we sing. If we sing Gospel music, we would have a style similar to other Gospel music singers. If we sing classical, our style would be simpler but sounded like a lark. Broadway singers have strong emotions in them. So, you have a point about Elvis and Picasso. 🙂

  9. I used to pride myself on being a pantser and didn't think I could change. The mere sight of an outline was enough to send my creativity running for the hills. I've come around though. Reading Larry Brooks Story Engineering (thanks for the suggestion, Kristen) has really revved me up. I'm still in outline mode for my revision and will complete a thorough outline before going back to my 2/3 of the way done MIP. I know the finished product will be all the better for it.

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