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!

Yeah…no.

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!

Happy writing!

Until next time…..

Give yourself the gift of success so you can ROCK 2011. My best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

Also, I highly recommend the Write It Forward Workshops. Learn all about plotting, how to write great characters, and even how to self-publish successfully…all from the best in the industry. I will be teaching on social media and building a brand in March. For $20 a workshop, you can change your destiny….all from the comfort of home. It is not too late to sign up for the workshop Selling Your Book taught by USA Today Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer. This workshop is for all authors, but any self-pubbed writers would stand to gain amazing benefit.

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  1. #1 by atwulf on January 10, 2011 - 4:17 pm

    Good stuff, as always. I’m not sure exactly how I found my writing voice. I think blogging helped develop it a lot, but mostly because I was writing every day and focused. Lots and lots of writing is the way to get there.

    It’s only recently that I’ve developed a consistent voice across all my writing. I look back at some of the things I wrote a couple years ago and the voice is noticeably different, at least to me. Blogging is really the only thing I can attribute to that. So there’s another argument for why writers should blog.

    • #2 by Author Kristen Lamb on January 10, 2011 - 4:19 pm

      Blogging helped me a lot as well. Good point! Thanks.

  2. #3 by Abigail on January 10, 2011 - 4:27 pm

    I’m definitely a “pantser,” which is making writing a funny memoir challenging. The storyline doesn’t have to be too precise, but my tone needs to be, so that’s where I’m struggling to make things gel. Thanks for the article. I’m a first-timer, as far as book writing, so I’m appreciating the wisdom :) If you have any specific tips on making a successful memoir (Think, “Such a Pretty Fat,” not “Angela’s Ashes”), I’d love to hear them!

  3. #4 by M. McGriff on January 10, 2011 - 4:28 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with erecting the boundaries. It’s easy for a creative person to get carried away (*pointing to myself*) and you find yourself running around in endless circles, never getting your work done. At least if you have a general direction, you can decide whether or not to shoot down those bright idea fairies! ( I love that phrase!)

  4. #5 by Charles Warren on January 10, 2011 - 4:39 pm

    It seems that perhaps voice isn’t something we consciously develop in one direction or another, but rather it comes from us based on our personality, experience, world view, and all of those other filters making us who we are.

  5. #6 by Amy Rose Davis on January 10, 2011 - 4:46 pm

    Necessity is the mother of invention… So true…

    I think “voice” is hard to define, but I think one key element is authenticity. I think that, even in the written word, people can spot a phony a mile away. While I think it’s useful to try on different styles as you work on developing voice, craft, plot, etc., I think people can tell if you are just copying someone else. I mean, we don’t remember Elvis for copying other gospel singers. We remember him for the hip swivel and “Love Me Tender.”

    My own voice came out over the last year or so just through writing, rewriting, and revising over and over. Now folks tell me it’s reminiscent of others, but unique to me. I don’t know if I can tell the difference, but it’s nice that others can. :)

    Amy

    • #7 by barb7802 on February 7, 2011 - 2:42 am

      Pardon me, as I have a question. I have not read a blog post I felt was phony. Sometimes silly,yes. So I guess I am not getting a fine point about writing? I am pretty new to blogging and would appreciate any tips.

  6. #8 by writerwellness on January 10, 2011 - 5:04 pm

    Your posts are always inspiring, informative, and spot-on. Good advice for developing voice, but I’m of the opinion as writers mature their voices reflect those changes just like their bodies and spirits.
    Joy Held

  7. #9 by Eric Satchwill on January 10, 2011 - 5:17 pm

    At about 2/3 to 1/2 of my way through writing my first novel, I think I’m getting my voice down. It helps that I’ve been writing one way or another most of my life (whether I thought that’s what I was doing or not.) I had a notebook that used to jot down bits of whatever, and I’ve even watched myself mimic Ray Bradbury when describing how I took money from a customer when working at a lotto booth.

    The hard part for me sometimes is keeping my own voice out of my character’s dialogue. There’s certain things I, a 24yr old writer with a penchant for the anachronistic would say/write that a 19yr old punk-rock girl just wouldn’t.

  8. #10 by Syleste Hoskins on January 10, 2011 - 5:24 pm

    I agree with you wholeheartedly, Kristen. If I knew about everything that you wrote in this article before I finished my manuscript, I might not have to go back through so many times just trying to get the sentences to flow and reflect the same voice throughout. I read my first chapters six times just to get it right, and I’m sure it’s still far from perfect. Boundaries might have helped me avoid some of the crap I look at in my writing and go, “Huh? Who the heck wrote THAT?” Plus, I seriously developed my plot about six or seven chapters in, which made me have to go back and remove and refine things that were completely unrelated to said plot.

    Still, I think it was a great learning experience to just write and write and write based on my favorite authors, personal experience, and personality. I see a lot of me at my awkward teenage years in my MC and I like it. It makes her more realistic. Also, now I know what works and what doesn’t through trial and error. I’m definitely still growing and I can’t say that I’ve got it down perfect yet, but I think a good combination of personal experience, reading, and boundaries helps a writer find their voice.

  9. #11 by K.B. Owen on January 10, 2011 - 5:28 pm

    Great post, Kristen! I picked my genre – historical mysteries – because I love it so much and have read a lot of it. But I’ve been thinking all along that it’s not an “arty” enough area of literature (e.g., not Amy Tan), but your post has cast a completely different light on it for me. Instead, now I see it as a path to my best writing voice.

    Thanks, Kathy

  10. #12 by Anne R. Allen on January 10, 2011 - 5:33 pm

    This is such important advice.. I wish I’d heard it when I was starting out. “Pantsing” may be OK for experienced writers, but I ended up with about 1000 pages of never-ending (& unpublishable) story with my first opus. Beginners need boundaries. I learned the hard way.

  11. #13 by jesswords10 on January 10, 2011 - 5:53 pm

    I love the rules you laid out. Very true. When I was in school, I wrote the best poems when I was reading other poets voraciously (oops, who let my inner voice out of the playpen and into the adverbs!) It’s because I mimicked so many styles to see what I liked, and grew from playing around in different forms. Thanks for reminding me of this as I get back into writing.

  12. #14 by Catana on January 10, 2011 - 6:39 pm

    I now have a brand new way of thinking about (and using) the expression, “She has a few screws loose.”

  13. #15 by Tamara LeBlanc on January 10, 2011 - 6:52 pm

    When ever I read your blog I get your snarkiness, your sense of humor, your confidence… your voice. You share your wisdom, make it easily understandable, and totally relatable while imparting a bit of your character into each and every word.
    Voice is not easily defined on paper, but I can sure hear yours in every post you submit.
    I’m pretty friggin jealous :)
    To me, the ability to be recognized by simply grouping some words together on the page would be a tremendous feat.
    I’ve been writing for a long time, years and years in fact, and I’m not sure my voice is recognizable to anyone.
    But now, after reading this post, I think I have the tools to fix that.
    Mentioning plot and boundaries while explaining the importance of voice would have never occurred to me before. Who would have thought they were linked? (can you tell I’m still in my playpen?)
    It’s clear to me now that everything is linked, and just because I’m a panster, doesn’t mean I should throw boundaries out the window.
    This post also made me realize I need to read. I’m always afraid to read other people’s work while I’m in the middle of writing my own. What if I end up sounding like them? (Obviously, that’s my inexperience talking)
    Like you said, “The best musicians study all kinds of music and then blend elements with their own unique style.”
    “Blend”, and “own unique style” are the key words I’m taking with me.
    And for those and the rest of this post I thank you.
    Have a great day!

    • #16 by Author Kristen Lamb on January 10, 2011 - 7:02 pm

      You shouldn’t be jealous. Go back in time and read some of my early blogs. Oy vay! It was through practice and reading a lot of other blogs that I found my funny, creative style…and even that is changing and maturing daily. Just keep plugging and, like muscles grow with work, so does our writing voice!

  14. #17 by Lisa Ullrich on January 10, 2011 - 6:59 pm

    I really don’t know what my voice is just yet. I do have a question for you. On your blog, how do you get your tags to show at the bottom of your post, as opposed to the top? Thanks.

    • #18 by Peter on January 11, 2011 - 1:54 am

      It has to do with the WordPress Theme she’s using. I think you can purchase the ability to edit your .css file to move things around a bit, though.

  15. #20 by Jo Huddleston on January 10, 2011 - 8:59 pm

    My voice? Authenticity in my writing lends itself to developing my voice. Whatever I’m writing, my experience, beliefs, and survival of elements that my characters go through attribute to my voice in that piece of work. Should an author’s voice be the same in everything she writes?

  16. #21 by Marilag Lubag on January 10, 2011 - 9:16 pm

    Great post! I normally write without an outline (still do). Over time, I learned that I’m missing certain elements. Maybe a little evil here, a little description there. Make sure I stay on the plot (starting out with my writing, I plan to go to East Coast but I ended up going around the world). As a pantser, my writing tend to get messy.

  17. #22 by kadja2 on January 10, 2011 - 11:52 pm

    It might seem strange, but as a new writer, I noticed that my writing flows more through two of the main characters I utilize. I had the plot first, as you said. Now I find myself constantly changing things around it so that the growth of my characters grows in the direction I want it to. I really needed this advice. Thank you Kristen! I have character sketches and plot sketches down using those to refer back to–attempting to ensure that I am still on track. I am not sure that this is the right way to do it, but it keeps me focused! I loved this blog!

  18. #23 by G.H. Edwards on January 11, 2011 - 11:57 am

    Very helpful information, Kristen. Thank you! I have always been jealous of “organic” writers, or pantsers as you call them, for the seeming freedom they have. But thanks to your added perspective, I will no longer view my penchant for meticulous outlining and character sketches as a restraint or a distraction from the job of writing. But rather as important elements that help me put together my roadmap!

    As for voice, do you think that a writer can have multiple voices (in separate novels)? I sometimes have difficulting discerning style from voice, but I wonder if an author can develop a particular voice while writing one novel, but with maturity and experience can move to another voice, then back again. Or is voice a unique, inherent quality that we fine-tune with experience, but style is adaptable and changeable?

  19. #24 by Sean May on January 11, 2011 - 12:38 pm

    Re: boundaries – reminds me a lot of Mark Rosewater’s wise words on the topic of creativity: http://www.wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtgcom/daily/mr66

  20. #25 by Piper Bayard on January 11, 2011 - 4:38 pm

    For myself, I never wrote fiction before I wrote a book, but finding a voice seemed to come naturally for me. I think this is for three reasons:

    1) I’m older than most people when they start. That means I already got my visit from the Eff-it Fairy. She’s the fairy who comes around on your 40th birthday and teaches you that you’re too old to waste time so you’d better be who you are before you die.

    2) I taught adults bellydancing for around 20 years. Adults taking recreational classes don’t just want skills, they want entertainment. That means I prepared speeches, jokes, and verbal performances 1-4 times per week. For all intents and purposes, it was a verbal blog, and blogging is great for developing a voice.

    3) I have an awesome mentor. :)

    Thank you for your post. All the best.

  21. #26 by M.E. Anders on January 11, 2011 - 6:02 pm

    Pertinent advice for the novice and veteran alike. In the past, I must confess to mimicking my favorite authors. Time and LOTS of writing is required to find one’s unique voice. I concur.

    http://meandersfit.com/2011/01/10/m-e-s-musings-…minute-mondays/

  22. #27 by educlaytion on January 11, 2011 - 8:11 pm

    Voice is a slippery devil that I can never quite get my hands around. I don’t think it ever stops changing which is why I like the analogy to musicians and artists who work to perfect their craft over a career. Cool thoughts.

    • #28 by Author Kristen Lamb on January 11, 2011 - 8:22 pm

      I agree. I think voice changes with us, matures as we mature and changes with the project. Like a mucisian might always have a common thread that is distinctively his “voice” it does change from album to album and grow over time. Thanks! I appreciate you taking the time to comment :D.

  23. #29 by sharonholly on January 11, 2011 - 11:59 pm

    I’m fairly new to blogging, and I’m working on my first book. The concept of voice is a little intimidating. Will people like my voice? Will I like my voice? I’m curious to see how it develops over time.

    As far as outlines go, I couldn’t imagine writing an entire book, without some sort of guideline! I didn’t do a meticulous outline of my story, and the way I started writing was a little odd in that I woke up from a dream that I couldn’t really remember, except for this image of a girl, and I just got up and started writing. I think the outline came shortly after, and chapter by chapter.

    Nice post, as always :)

  24. #30 by Training4now on January 12, 2011 - 12:26 am

    When you say it’s better to read the instructions or your shelves turn out crooked mine always do. But I have written a ton of out lines in fact I have two notebooks, one for chracthers and another with a summary of th story I want to write with the genere, character and any important information that would benefit the story.

  25. #31 by CrystalSpins on January 12, 2011 - 4:42 pm

    When I got into journalism (writing and page design) I had a hard time dealing with all the rules and I initially found them stifling. But I have gotten to the point that I adore the freedom within the form. (Now I just have to learn a new form!) I love this quote: “Think of the preplanning for a novel as a series of lenses.” That is a really helpful concept.

    I’m not 100% sure I understand everything that encompasses voice, but I think my blog has helped me develop my voice in a HUGE way. I have developed pacing and rhythms that I enjoy writing and reading.

    But I do have the new writer disease you mentioned too. I am a total mimic. In fact, I avoided reading books when I was working on large writing projects because I would try to write something about the plight of the modern woman and wind up with something uneven because I had been reading adventure/thrillers like Tami Hoag books.

    You’re so insightful.

    Crystal
    http://www.crystalspins.com

  26. #32 by barb7802 on February 7, 2011 - 1:47 pm

    Your posts are always filled with great ideas. As crystal stated, I too do not completely inderstand the voice either. Posts I read are so varied, I do not always see a true voice in those posts. Why am I not getting it?
    Some of the bloggers have written that we should just write down everything, every thought then edit and edit. Is that always a good idea? I will implement an outline process for future posts. Perhaps it will give me a better perspective on a voice.
    Thanks
    Barb

    • #33 by Author Kristen Lamb on February 7, 2011 - 2:50 pm

      Practice is what will develop your voice. You are unique. My blogs are, for the most part, funny. In the beginning I was very stiff and formal. Over time, trial and effor, I developed my own unique style and so will you :D. same with our novels. Are we Grisham who uses very little description, but gets right to the heart of the drama? Or are we a Dennis Lehane, and every line of prose is saturated with imagery? Practice. Read. You’ll get there ;)

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