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Wicked Wednesday: Mythbusters IV–You Can’t Learn Voice

All writers have heard this–that voice in fiction is the one thing you can’t teach or coach or learn. Authors either have it or they don’t.

But is that true? If we define voice as “the embodiment in words of a distinct personality, style, or point of view,” we can readily see the difference in the hands of a master or a newbie taking their first tentative steps.

So Wickeds, is voice an inborn talent or can you learn it? How did you find, hone, and refine your voice? And for those who write multiple series, books, or stories, either simultaneously or serially, does each one have a distinct voice or are you always, at the end of the day, you?

Edith: What great questions, Barb. I wouldn’t dare to say voice is a talent. As one of “those” who writes multiple series, I’m finding that if I know my protagonist well enough, and if I’m truly immersed in her setting, the distinct voice comes through. The voice in my Quaker Midwife series is completely informed by Rose being a Quaker, in 1888, an independent businesswoman, and a curious determined person. And when I write the Country Store mysteries, the voice comes out funnier and more southern. I’m working on a new series proposal now, and am fascinated by how the more I discover about my main character the more true the voice seems.

Julie: Interesting question! I think that there is a certain amount of talent in storytelling that helps set you apart. BUT, like any craft, writers get better with practice. I also think writers get braver with practice, and try out different voices.

Jessie: This is a tough one! I like to believe everything can be improved in life so I hope voice can be learned or strengthened. We all have a lens on the world, it is just a matter of being willing to share it with a sort of unflinching verve. Perhaps it boils down to learning not to flinch, duck or pull punches.

Liz: This is a good one. I do believe everyone has their own voice – it’s a matter of finding it, understanding it and improving it over time. I agree too that a character’s voice is easier to hear and translate if you know that character well enough, as Edith mentioned. Talent is a part of that too, as is lots and lots of practice.

Sherry: Some of you know I have an unsold book series set in Seattle with a protagonist who is a gemologist. After it got a lot of rejections, I ended up sending it to a highly recommended editor (not one who reads or has been a guest on our blog). She gave me some homework before I sent the actual manuscript. When I finally sent the manuscript she sent it back and said it had no voice. She added that she knew I had a strong one from my emails and I needed to capture it to be successful. On the one hand I knew what she meant, on the other I was at a loss. Flash forward several years and I got the opportunity to write the proposal for the Sarah Winston books. The beginning poured out of me — I didn’t know Sarah at all, had never thought about her, never imagined a series with yard sales set in Massachusetts. So maybe you don’t have to know a character well to have a strong voice. But I do believe that practice and studying writing will develop stronger skills and make for a better story.

Barb: This is a hard one. I do believe there is a talent involved–some magical wiring in the brain that allows a writer to hear the rhythms of good prose and to, in turn, create it. Just as Good Will Hunting “sees” the answers to complex mathematical problems, or some people can pick up any instrument and pluck out tunes “by ear”, talented writers “hear” good prose. But that’s such a tiny part of being a good writer. My belief is that Voice = Confidence. The confident writer doesn’t flinch, as Jessie says. “Voice” is the sum and total of the storyteller whispering in the reader’s ear, “Come with me. I will take you on an amazing journey. You will see and hear things you’ll never forget. You’ll never regret it for a moment.” When the voice is strong, the reader absolutely believes it–from the first sentence. While for a tiny number of writers that exuberant belief in themselves is innate, most writers have to practice, practice, practice before they achieve that level of confidence.

Readers: Do you believe voice is learned or innate? Which author’s/book’s/narrator’s voices do you love?


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