Author Kat Cantrell talks about voice and how it adds authenticity to your characters and dialogue.
Welcome back, Kat!
Voice is one of those elusive elements of good fiction that everyone agrees is critical but few can actually define. Even fewer can teach it. I’m not going to claim membership in the latter group. Sorry.
But I do know a few truths about voice. Readers will forgive a multitude of writing sins if your voice is strong. Voice is the chocolate of your craft arsenal—readers will come back for more because it’s really, really good. And it’s your passport into the world of concepts like “auto-buy” and “bestseller.”
Since it’s so important, let’s examine voice and see what it’s all about.
To me, the true definition of voice is: how you say stuff. Not how you write it. How you say it. Because it’s voice, not the way you arrange the alphabet on the screen. Think about how you talk when you’re on the phone with your sister, or yelling up the stairs to your kids. How do you phrase things? If you’re from the south, like I am, all kind of crazy comes out of your mouth. One of my favorites is “it’s darker than the inside of a cow.” We also call people ya’ll and use a lot of sports metaphors such as “he knocked that one out of the park.”
Some of you may be wondering, what does this have to do with writing a book? Everything. Have you heard the advice to read your manuscript aloud? There’s a reason for that. Writing and speaking aren’t from different planets. The people in your story talk to each other but the characters also talk to the reader, and the reader “hears” them with your voice.
Voice happens with every word of your story, whether it’s narrative or dialogue. Whether you’re in the heroine’s point of view or the hero’s or writing in first person. Voice is in the description, the sentence structure, the cadence. You can only get it there if you have people in your head telling you what the story is supposed to sound like.
Once you start to think about how you talk, think about how other people talk. Your dad doesn’t sound like you. The grocery store clerk doesn’t sound like your-next door neighbor. What’s different about their speech patterns? Why? Is one more educated than the other? Is one younger, older, more friendly, or from Florida? Pay attention to this and write it down. Remember phrases and speech patterns that you like. Become a student of phraseology.
Don’t get out much? Study TV shows. Watch Duck Dynasty and then watch Through The Wormhole because there’s a difference in how people from Louisiana who manufacture duck whistles and scientists who study the universe express themselves. (If you were looking for an excuse to watch TV, you’re welcome.) The same is true for music. Listen to the lyrics of your favorite songs. How does the artist describe common themes or places or elements of life? Write those down and keep them in a file.
You’ve done your homework. Now what? Here are some tips that help get those elements on the page.
Clichés: If they come to me, I use them. Then, as I’m editing, clichés are a flag for me to reevaluate my point-of-view character’s voice. In THE BABY DEAL, the heroine was “waiting for the other shoe to drop” but I revised it to “waiting for her horse to fall off the carousel.” This works for the heroine because she’s been feeling like her life is going round and round, so it’s a good encapsulation of her conflict. I wish I could tell you where that came from (so I can go back and get some more), but it just popped into my head. See above about people talking to you all the time. Some would see that as a need for clinical help. I see it as an endless pipeline for voice. A reader mentioned that line in a review, which means I did my job.
The Phrase File: Earlier, I mentioned taking note of phrases and words that you like. Now go back and organize these by manuscript. Some of them will naturally group into themes or work for certain settings. If you don’t have a work-in-progress that the note can apply to, keep a general document and constantly add to it. For THE THINGS SHE SAYS, I pulled out my file and found a handful of phrases for the heroine to use. Example: “I’m afraid you’ve discovered my secret super-power. I’m a moron magnet.” This I know precisely where I got because my husband said it and I stole it. Once the heroine got started, she wouldn’t shut up and her personality exploded onto the page. She’s still one of my favorite characters.
Your Character’s Core: Every time I start a new book, I worry that my characters sound the same as previous ones. Because their voice is mine, right? And I’m still me. That’s when I think about why people sound different than others. Who is your character at their core and how does that inform their worldview? My engineer hero would think in engineering terms. I’m not an engineer, so I read a bunch of articles written by engineers and wrote down phrases that struck me. Then, once per page in the hero’s point of view, I changed the phrasing of the narrative to incorporate these terms. Example: the words bridge and construction became this line: “All his carefully constructed arguments regarding the status of their relationship had ended up forming a bridge to nowhere.”
If you’re still with me, you’re probably dizzy. But hopefully you’ve discovered some concrete applications for using the world around to create your writing voice.
Which of the three tips do you think you can apply to your manuscript today? Tell me about it in the comments and I’ll do a random drawing. Winner receives a print copy of THE BABY DEAL (US residents only please).
P.S. Anyone want to take a crack at guessing what movie the title of this blog is from? Okay, it’s not an exact quote. But it’s close. Get to IMDb-ing. (Yes, it’s a word.)
When billionaire entrepreneur Michael “Shay” Shaylen becomes guardian to a baby boy, he knows there’s only one woman who can teach him how to be a father—his ex-lover, child psychologist Juliana Cane. So he makes her a deal: if she gives him two months, he’ll give her a boost in her career.
She says yes. Suddenly, Juliana has everything she’s ever wanted: a home, a child—Shay. But she knows this seductive situation is only temporary. Because even as desire burns between them—so do the reasons Juliana has to say goodbye….
Author Adrienne Giordano joins us on Tuesday, August 20th.
Bio: Kat read her first Harlequin novel in third grade and has been scribbling in notebooks since she learned to spell. What else would she write but romance? She majored in Literature, officially with the intent to teach, but somehow ended up buried in middle management at Corporate America, Inc.
Kat became a stay-at-home mom and devoted nap time to writing. After many thousands of words, her dream of publication finally came true. When she’s not writing about characters on the journey to happily ever after, she can be found at a soccer game, watching Friends or dancing with her kids to Duran Duran and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Follow Kat on Facebook and Twitter.
- It’s All in the Voice by Heather Webb
- Who Said That? by Stefanie London
- The Importance of Unique Character Voice by Voiceover Artist Cris Dukehart
- Avoiding Beige Writing by Laura O’Connell
- Cracking the Category Code – How to Write Short and Write Often with Kat Cantrell