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?

Delivering the TruthCoverEdith: 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.

ClockandDaggerJessie: 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.

WhispersBeyond_FixLiz: 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.

MurdermostfinickySALL MURDERS FINAL mech.inddherry: 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.

FoggedInnfrontcoveryellowBarb: 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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23 thoughts on “Wicked Wednesday: Mythbusters IV–You Can’t Learn Voice

  1. Great question! I guess I’d have to say a certain part of a writer’s voice is innate. You can take all the classes you like, read widely, learn the rules of grammar, etc., but you could still end up with a polished manuscript that’s kind of dull, because it lacks something. But you never know unless you try, and you learn something by setting down your story and then taking a critical look at it. Does it interest you? Would you keep reading? Or are you standing back too far from the characters?

    One other point: I find my characters have different voices depending on whether I’m writing from a first-person or a third-person point of view. First person seems much more intimate to me, because you can set down all of the character’s insecurities and questions. You might find yourself putting more of “you” in a first-person character.

    • I relate more to the first person character but sometimes find it uncomfortable, for example, especially those written in present tense. I’ve stopped reading some like that. One still gives me chills, and I only got a few sentences into the first paragraph. It was a murderer stalking a woman walking down the sidewalk.

  2. I’m not sure a writer’s voice (or in some cases, voices) can be defined. It’s one of those things that you recognize when you read it. It can’t be learned, but it can develop over time.It shouldn’t be confused with the writer’s style of writing. It isn’t always present in published books, especially in series. Just my opinion here, but I think you are more likely to find a distinctive voice in a stand alone.

  3. I think every story has a unique voice, but a writer can develop a consistent voice of his/her own, but that may be getting into style. I agree with Sheila that a collection of perfectly crafted sentences can produce a dull rendition of a story. In my mind, the voice is the inner life of the story. If you think about oral storytelling and how a group of storytellers might share the exact same tale, it’s different with each telling because the teller makes decisions on what to emphasis, where to be dramatic, etc.

    I learn a lot about voice by going to open mics and listening to stories told aloud.

  4. To me, voice is attitude. It’s the little things you think but perhaps don’t say. When you run into a neighbor who drones on and you think to yourself, Wow, will she ever shut up? When you are southern and meet a dope and think, Bless his heart. Put these thoughts on paper as dialogue or internal monologue, and you have voice. Can it be learned? I’d think so, but you likely need an ear for it, a certain amount of innate talent.

  5. Voice is a funny thing–it can appear differently to various people. When I sent out my manuscript, I heard from one agent that I was lacking “voice.” Someone else said that they loved my “voice.”

    Perhaps voice is one of those things that “I’ll don’t know what it is, but I’ll recognize it when I read it.”

  6. I don’t know if voice can be “learned” but it can be “developed.” How? Practice, practice, practice. I sent out a query to an agent who said, “This is good, but work on the voice, revise, and requery.” I picked up a bunch of books in my genre and read the first 20 pages to see what she meant. And I don’t know that I actually changed much, but she said the writing was “great” on the requery (unfortunately she said it’s hard to sell stories that feature my subject matter, but she did ask what else I had written).

  7. Great question! I think that voice is innate but it can be honed. I’ve started a second series and the protagonist is very different from the protagonist in my first series and in the second series I’m writing first person as opposed to third-person. Either way, when I write either character I’m immersed in her world and I can hear her and all the people around her. Hmm…I probably should be careful about saying that out loud. 🙂

  8. Writing, like a lot of life, is a mix of talent and work/craft. Some things come easier to some while others struggle to learn it.

    Maybe I am confusing style with voice, but I find some writers feel the same to me no matter how many different series they write. The characters can be very different, but the books feel similar. If I love the author, I’m not complaining, but it is why I like to spread an author out so I don’t tire of their voice. Or style. Or whatever.

    And yes, I do think you can learn voice. I think you can learn anything about writing. It might take more time for some than others, but it can be learned.

    • Interesting, Mark! I read one popular series but started a second by the same author and found it so similar that I didn’t enjoy the second series. And it only lasted two books. It wasn’t a cozy author.

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