Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 20, 2014

Let Your Voice Be Heard

medium_5475036666By Travis Erwin

Defining voice is a bit like nailing Jell-O to the wall. The harder you try, the messier things get, but let’s pick up that hammer and give it a whack anyway.

Voice is a writing style. It is both a particular book's, and its author’s personality—right there on the page. In acting terms, think stage presence. Voice is not just about word choice, but also sentence and story structure. Voice can be everything. It can overcome a weak plot, unlikable characters, even shaky grammar and sloppy writing. Voice is the proverbial, “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it”.

And whatever it is, it grows in a bed of confidence so as writers we must learn to trust ourselves—and  our voices.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. ~ Steve Jobs

 Steve Jobs is not an author, but still, there are things to take from this quote.  Confidence breeds boldness. Take a few chances. Not everything you write will resonate. But sometimes, just the act of writing and getting your work out there—whether it be in a critique group, a Facebook post, a tweet, or whatever—will give you the confidence to write something else. To take chances in your other writings.

The most successful politician is he who says what the people are thinking most often in the loudest voice. ~Theodore Roosevelt

 Voice is one of the most fragile elements and sadly is often edited, or “critiqued out” in the many drafts it takes to create a finished piece. Stand true to the emotion and heart of your words. Say what you want to say and say it loudly. That is not to say we should bristle at any and all criticism, but just a declaration that we as writers, we must trust certain aspects of our style and recognize not everyone will approach craft and structure the same way.

The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. ~ Neil Gaiman

Marvel at and admire the writers you love, but don’t try to be them. Don’t strive to be the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. Be the very first you.

It’s all you got.

In life, finding a voice is speaking and living the truth. Each of you is an original. Each of you has a distinctive voice. When you find it, your story will be told. You will be heard ~ John Grisham

Ask yourself questions. Why am I writing this story? What drew me to it and its characters? Then think how you would tell the story orally. Would it be serious, funny, or a fast paced thriller? A writer’s voice is a tool used to make a reader feel emotion. It sets the tone, the tempo, and anchors the reader to the point of view. But it is an abstract art prone to subjectivity and translation.

The best writers have a feel for it. They recognize when they have found the voice that is not only natural for them, but for the story they want to tell. And the only way to do that is have confidence in your storytelling talents, in the story, and in the characters you are sharing.

There is no magic formula for finding or developing voice. There is no on or off switch for it. No Fairy Godmuse to wave a wand over your keyboard and bestow you with it. We as writers must work and hone our voices for there are no experts with can’t fail tricks.

And if somebody tells  you there is—chances are they are full of something other than it.

Here is the opening excerpt from my memoir THE FEEDSTORE CHRONICLES. I think it highlights my voice well.

Most coming-of-age stories are fraught with symbolism, hidden metaphors, and a heaping mound of other literary devices.

Not this one. Not mine.

You see, I came of age while working at a dusty Texas feed store. A place where To Kill a Mockingbird involved a twelve-year-old and a BB gun. Of Mice and Men was a problem easily solved with rat poison. And David Copperfield was nothing more than a dude that made shit disappear.

In the spring of 1989, I was a rosy-cheeked boy of sixteen. Doyle Suggs was a twice-divorced, thirty-year-old high school dropout. On the surface Doyle and I had little in common, yet his involvement in my life changed me in drastic and dramatic ways.

Doyle ran a feed store in Amarillo, Texas. A joint called Pearls's feed and Seed. Working there provided me my first paying job, my first taste of how fun life could be, and  ... my first brush with real danger. 

Your turn! Either post a few lines that displays your voice in the comments, or a few lines of your favorite author's voice.

Travis ErwinA native Texan, Travis lives in the Texas Panhandle with his wife and two boys. Despite the ever-present gale force winds, he can’t imagine living anyplace else. He is the author of a comedic coming-of-age memoir, THE FEEDSTORE CHRONICLES, and a Women's Fiction novel titled TWISTED ROADS. Travis pontificates about both writing and life on his long running blog ... Bacon, Beer, and Books. He can also be found on twitter @traviserwin

photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/annamagal/5475036666/">Annamagal</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/">cc</a>

22 comments on “Let Your Voice Be Heard”

  1. I agree, Travis. Voice is the easiest thing to spot, and the hardest to define!

    Here's my example, from my 1/28 release, Nothing Sweeter:

    Max Jameson twisted the cowboy hat in his hands and lowered his eyes to the body in the gray satin-lined casket. His father’s broad shoulders brushed silk on both sides. His face looked unfamiliar, mostly because it was relaxed. But there was no mistaking the strong jaw and high cheekbones. Max saw them in the mirror every morning.

    Just like you to duck out when the going gets tough, Old Man. His mouth twisted as his father’s familiar chuckle echoed in Max’s mind. Leave me holding a sack of rattlesnakes. Lotta help you are.

    No response, which, on several levels, was probably a good thing.

  2. Travis, finding the unique voice of those I read is what I look for in a new book. It's what draws us in and holds us captive. This is a excerpt of my romantic suspense, Deadly Puzzles.

    She stood in the shower and turned the water on full, hard and hot. Mixed with tears, the last of her strength flowed into the drain. When she could no longer support her weight, her body slid down the tiles and bent into itself.
    She changed and towel dried her hair. In the back of her closet, she found one of Pat's old NYPD polo shirts she wore at night when they were in the mountains.
    She knew Ellen would wait in the kitchen, to feed her, to console or comfort her. She still faced the long night, more phone calls to Pat's sons and Fitzgerald. More need to speak what was unspeakable. She went to the first level and locked her door, and on the first and second levels reached behind the intercoms and pulled the plugs.
    She slipped into jersey sweat pants, heavy socks and Pat’s polo. Wrapping herself in his memory, Caitlin began to plan how she would hunt for his murderer.

  3. I spent years writing in a journal and developed my voice that way, so by the time I got serious about fiction, it was mostly in place. This is from a writing prompt:

    Most momentous days start like any other. It's cliche, but so did this one. I got up, ate breakfast, got dressed, and walked to school. I was nine years old. I don't remember the school day. I know Miss Winston was my teacher and I can guess we were making pilgrims out of toilet paper rolls and construction paper. I do remember standing outside at recess, watching in awed excitement as the fire trucks screamed down Oak Avenue toward Stinson Road. Kids lined the chain-link fence, watching the shiny red and yellow vehicles rush by, sirens so loud my eardrums vibrated with it.
    My father tells me I was called into the principal's office right before lunch, where he came to pick me up. This was unusual and I remember a thrilling excitement sitting in the front of dad's 72 Dodge pick-up as he wove through the neighborhood streets. But he pulled over on Austin Lane, letting the engine die with a flick of the keys.
    "Danny," he said, eyes unexpectedly bright with tears. My body pulled itself into a small, tense mass. Just by his voice, I knew something terrible had happened. My taciturn dad let tears slip off his chin without apparent concern. When he abruptly pulled me into a bear hug, I started crying, too. I didn't know why, just yet, but if Dad was crying, I was sure I had reason.

  4. Oh, those first two are so great! Here's a couple of passages of mine:

    1. From Siren's Secret, published November, 2013:

    With a flick of her mermaid's tail, Shelly surfaced from the deep coastal waters holding the dead body of victim number two.

    Black garbage bags, held together with yards of duct tape, wrapped around the dead human like a macabre gift package.

    From the tip of her fin to the top of her scalp, an electrical surge of fear blazed through her body like a burn.

    2. And here's from my yet-to-be-published YA:

    Another spell gone kaput.

    Skye blew out the pink and red candles in defeat. No matter how hard she tried, they never worked. Maybe asking for Tanner to race over and declare his hidden and undying love was a stretch even for the all-powerful divine.

    Bet her BFF Callie could do it.

    She whipped out her cell phone, but stopped mid-dial. Callie would say it was wrong to cast a spell for a specific person. Easy for her to say, Callie was with the love of her life. Skye didn't an open-ended request for some anonymous guy.

    As if there could be anyone for her but Tanner.

  5. Nice post. Enjoyed it. I believe that voice comes from confidence. When you relax enough to trust yourself and your writing, voice flows.

    Here's mine from Banshee's Cry: The Anointed:

    "Well, leave. We got here first."
    "I don't think so."
    Jake lowered his gun. "You don't think you're gonna leave or don't think we got here ahead of you?"
    "Neither." The girl's shotgun lowered.
    A frown pulled at Jake's mouth. She looked good. Long legs snug in black pants. Tight blue T-shirt beneath a short-cropped leather jacket. She could give catwoman a run for the money any day. "Who let you out of Karavel anyway?"
    Blue eyes narrowed. "How else am I supposed to gain any experience? I'm tracking demons. Same as you."
    "On your own?"
    "No, I brought my baby sitter along. Geez."
    Jake did not like her tracking alone. Not one little bit. Sure he knew she'd graduate from the Academy one day and join the ranks of demon trackers, but…hell, he just didn't like it. That's all.
    "You're not ready. You need to go home."
    "Says who? You?" One hip cocked out almost in defiance and Jake couldn't help staring at the curve of it.
    "Someone has to say it."

  6. Love this post! One of the hardest things to explain and the most necessary. Here's a bit of my work in progress:
    Leo leaned back in his chair, anticipating Eric’s next move. The young man was a genius and would soon outstrip the master. A few taps of the magic stylus and two pictures appeared. The women were identical except for the color of the hair. The bone structure was what caught Leo’s gaze, though, the smooth forehead and long aquiline nose with a hint of flair at the tip. She was the spitting image of his great grandmother.

  7. Great piece. Here's a few lines from "The Late Sooner," my historical novel set in Missouri and Oklahoma at the time of the first Land Run in 1889.

    Wednesday Frankie no longer cried at all. At one point he opened his eyes, stared at the ceiling, and softly said “Mama.”
    “We’re here, darling. Everything’s gonna be all right,” Lucy said. She stroked his forehead and gently kissed him. How much more could his little body take? She knew nothing short of a miracle would save him now.
    Thursday evening Frankie’s arms and legs grew cold. Lucy looked into the doctor’s eyes as she stood. “Oh Doc! Maybe his fever’s broke!”
    Doc gently gripped her arm. “No Lucy. It’s time to let him go,” he said with a kind firmness.
    “Lucy, Doc’s right. We’ve done all we can do.” He folded her into his arms.
    Lucy pounded his chest with her fists. “Sanford! Do something. Our child can’t die.”
    “Done all we can do, my doe.” His voice cracked and his tears wet Lucy’s hair. They clung to each other with a futile hope that maybe, if they just held one another tight enough...

  8. I love these examples. i read them all and have tried to comment but my phone has been cantankerous today. Also thanks for the kind words. i will try to comment more when I can get time to sit at a computer and do so properly.

  9. I believe a writer's voice emerges as soon as she stops holding back and lets go of all the things she thinks others want her to be as a writer. In other words, write YOU, not what you were told or read about writing.

  10. I think you've pretty much nailed "the Jell-O to the wall" Travis. I've only recently started writing and your's is the kind of advice I take notes on and keep. You're doing a real and helpful service to other writers with your strong voice.

  11. I'm a little late in replying because I've only just discovered this great blog. I love this post. And I love Eric's response above. Voice is hard to define, even when you're trying to explain why you love a particular author and "it's" right there in front of you.

    I am really just a novice writer, unpublished, but working toward that dream. Even now I am battling that self-fear that Eric pointed out, as I am struggling to find an excerpt I feel worthy of posting.

  12. Travis, that was a really great post. I loved it! Here's my tiny excerpt where hopefully, my voice comes through:

    They’ve come to arrest us. She pressed her lips together to keep them from trembling, the bed sheets clutched in a death grip at her throat. Her father had prepared her for this day, this hour, this moment. She was not ready. Not ready to lose her home. Not ready to lose her parents.

    Not ready to die.

    Maybe I should mention it's set during the French Revolution… 🙂 Lots of people were dying back then, and not from illness.

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