Voice Tips from the Pros

I haven't been to a conference in years. Finances and babies conspired to keep me from attending. But this spring, I figured that enough was enough, and last weekend I went to the SCBWI Florida conference in Orlando. There, I was reminded that 1) conferences are awesome and 2) I am a doofus for not going in so long.  

I was in the YA track with about 50 other YA writers ranging from beginners to published veterans. Our speakers were Michele Burke, editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers, and Kathleen Duey, an author who has published over 70 books throughout her career. They talked about a lot of things, but two topics were really helpful to me, so I'd like to share the love and pass along their insights. Today...

VOICE

GROAN, I know. But as you've probably read here there and everywhere, editors and agents are constantly going on about how important voice is in a query or opening chapter, that it's one of the things that draws them in and garners a request for more. Both of our panel speakers agreed, putting it like this: voice is the lynchpin of YA. And I'm guessing that for you excellent followers who write something other than YA, it's probably the lynchpin for that, too. The speakers also said this:

  • Voice is what's wrong with most first pages.
  • The voice of the story should sound like someone the reader knows. IE, it should be relatable, realistic. Believable.
  • If you start with voice, everything that follows will usually be stronger.
So how do you succeed at the ethereal, elusive, nearly-impossible-to-define element that is voice? The pros said:
  1. Start each book with a character interview. Start each interview as you would start a conversation with a kid sitting next to you on the bus--a kid who looks troubled. "Are you okay?" "What are you going to do?"
  2. Make a fb page for the duration of the project. Enter posts that your character would enter, the way they would enter them. Reply to the posts to elicit further responses.
  3. Go to a teen hangout (mall, food court, restaurant, etc) and just listen.
  4. Listen to everyone--teens, people close in age to teens, and everyone else. Talk to them. 
  5. Do not tell the reader what the character is feeling. A character's emotion should be evident through their actions. (Hello, Emotion Thesaurus--see sidebar). 
  6. Write your characters into different vignettes so you can see how they'll react. 
  7. If a scene is lacking in voice, is overly wordy or clinical or descriptive, write it as the character would explain it to someone else. Then rewrite it as narrative.
  8. Write the scene from a logistical/practical standpoint, like storyboarding a play or script. Then go back and write it in the character's voice.
Great advice, all, but I'd like to comment on two points. First, the interview. Writers have been talking about character interviews for years, and I've tried them a number of times, but they haven't worked for me. Well, after hearing this, the idea still rang true, so I decided to give it another shot. I set aside 15 minutes each morning to interview the character of my WIP, who has mommy issues that I haven't been able to figure out. I talked to her on Sunday. No dice. We spoke again on Monday. On Tuesday, the hallowed interview technique still wasn't working. I snapped at my husband and didn't answer the phone. Then, on Wednesday, like a special delivery straight from Dr. Phil, I figured out the crux of Nina's problem with her mother (which is crucial to who Nina is). And once I started talking to her about it, her voice clicked in. It was the craziest thing. All of a sudden, I know how she sounds. Learning about her helped me hear what she would sound like, and hearing her voice reveals new things to me about her. 

So for me, and maybe for some of you, interviewing was ineffective because I always gave up too early. It takes time to get comfy with real life friends, and I guess the same is true for our characters. Give it time.

Secondly, point #4. I may be the most unobservant person on the planet. And, like the interview piece, I've heard numerous times about the importance of observation for writers and still hadn't given it much thought. But for some reason, the way Kathleen Duey explained it, I could see the value in observing others. So I started listening. To the girls eating lunch at Chick-fil-A. The couple sitting in front of me at church. I struck up a conversation with the cashier at Publix. And it was really fascinating, not only what people were saying and how they said it, but the things they did with their faces and hands while they were talking. There are a million different quirks, voice inflections, phrasings, gestures--tendencies that people have that you may be able to apply to your characters to make them more unique and realistic to the reader. What's more, I realized that I have grossly underestimated the value of observing others, not just from a writing standpoint, but as a human being. How can I encourage someone if I can't see that they're struggling? How can I help if I don't know what they're going through? Oh my gosh. So basic, but I am just now getting it. #Embarrassed

So... I hope some of you will find these tips as helpful as I have. I'm so grateful to Kathleen and Michele for taking the time to share their knowledge, and I'm glad to pay it forward in the hopes that their information might help some of you.

Next week...FIRST PAGES!

Pssst...don't tell Becca but I am totally jacking her post to announce the WINNERS for P.J.Hoover's book, Solstice...congrats go to  tarunima and  Traci Kenworth! Woot! Keep an eye on your inbox for more info!

34 comments:

Sarah Pearson said...

Thanks for this. I think voice is one of those tricky ones. I cn't always work out how to make it right, but I know the instant it's wrong :)

mooderino said...

excellent tips, nicely explained. thanks.

mood
Moody Writing
@mooderino

Andrea Mack said...

Thanks for this great post, Becca! I love the way you included an explanation of your experiences and how to use the tips. I'm adding a link to it in my review of posts on voice (ABCs of writing middle grade fiction).

Alyssia said...

Wow, Becca, what a post! Great, useful tips; it's amazing... when I read posts of this nature, I can't wait to write. Can't wait to sit down with my characters & talk a while. Thanks for sharing!

genelempp said...

Excellent tips, especially like the character interview. I haven't heard one speak in my head yet but I have found the process very useful for deepening my knowledge of the person the character is.

Thanks for sharing with us Becca!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great tips. I struggle with voice.

Miranda Hardy said...

These are good reminders, and those conferences are worth it.

Matthew MacNish said...

Great breakdown and reminders, thanks, Becca!

For me voice is all about authority and confidence. You have to believe in yourself, and in the fact that telling the story your way is the right way. Well, that and combining your way with your character's way, depending on what kind of point of view you're using.

tracikenworth said...

Valuable advice!! Thanks!!

Angela Ackerman said...

Thanks so much for sharing what you earned at the conference, Becca. You gave me some great new ideas on how to get in touch with voice! WOOT!

Angela

Talli Roland said...

Fantastic tips! Voice is one of things I think becomes more natural the more your write.

SP Sipal said...

Great post, Becca, and thank you! I've not been to a conference recently either, and I LOVE hearing what's going on in what I'm missing.

I also love the way you explained your interview because they just haven't worked out for me either. I've probably given up too soon a well and will try again. Thanks! :-)

Jaleh D said...

I may have to give the interview thing a try again sometime. I've had a hard time getting into them, but maybe I'm like you and just take a while to get close enough to the characters for a decent conversation.

Martha Ramirez said...

Great post, Becca! Thank you for the awesome tips!

Stephanie Faris said...

I LOVE it when people share what they learn at conferences. I'm going to the regional SCBWI in Nashville in Sept. and I'll be sure to share what I learn there!

Carrie said...

Great post, Becca! I really enjoyed your insight. Voice is so tricky!

The Pen and Ink Blog said...

FaceBook idea is great. Thank you for all of the advice

Julie Musil said...

Your post totally resonated with me because I haven't done the interview thing yet. I've done character worksheets, but felt like a doofus interviewing a fake person. So yes, I am a doofus, but for a different reason!

Lisa Gail Green said...

AWESOME post, Becca! Voice is so hard to define and capture, I think it does take patience and time, no matter which techniques you try. Sounds like a good conference!

Katie said...

Great advice! It's got me thinking about how I should approach figuring out the character for my next novel. She's been giving me a lot of trouble.

Vivi said...

Loved meeting you there! Great conference. Great recap, too! =) Vivi

LynNerd said...

Wow, sounds like you got your money's worth at the conference. Voice is a tough one to crack and can take years. We just have to keep at it.

Laura Pauling said...

I"m late to the party - but what a great post! :) I recognize voice right away in the stories I love. It's def. important.

Anjola said...

Thanks for this great post. I agree with you completely about observing people. It is fascinating not only to listen to what people are saying but how they are saying it. These details make the character (and the story) more human and real.

Becca Puglisi said...

Congrats Tarunima and Traci!

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

What a fantastic post with great tips, Becca! Thank you. Voice can be such a challenge, but when it's right, it makes such a huge difference, I think. I'm so glad you made it to this conference. : )

Jeff King said...

Voice comes after tons of writing and growing your craft... great post and advice.

Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living said...

I am so happy for you that you got to hear Nina speak to you. I love the fact that you emphasized the importance of voice for agents and editors right from the start, for any genre. I do love learning and getting motivated at conferences.

Nina Powers said...

This post was so helpful, thank you a million times over for sharing it with us.
Nina
P.S. I like the name of your main character ;)

DJ Warrior said...

Fun and informative

The Pen and Ink Blog said...

Observation is everything, and then there's finding the words to capture you observations....
And there's author's voice vs character's voice. Some people still write in third person.
I'm going back to my own post and read about chocolate. http://bit.ly/p4uUo5

A.G. Wright said...

Becca, Thanks for all the reminders of voice! Great conference. It was nice to meet you there!

Gail Shepherd said...

I just stumbled across this great post, Becca. I must have missed it over the summer. I love the idea of doing a FB page for a character. And l must be the second most unobservant person in the world (after you); I'm working on it...

Ashley Hope Pérez said...

This is great, specific advice for improving voice. I'm on novel #3, and I still need these reminders. You don't mention it, but voice is--perhaps--even more important to figure out when writing in 3rd person. Voice still has to be strong even though what makes the voice particular is more subtle.

www.ashleyperez.com

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