So what exactly is voice? I’ve been hearing this term a lot lately and I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. I thought I had a voice. If you gave me a pile of unnamed stories that were written by members of my critique group, then asked who wrote what, I would probably be able to tell you. People have distinctive ways of writing, and I always thought I was one of them.
If you read this blog, you will know I’ve had a lot of ups and downs on my writing journey so far. I recently made the decision to work with an editor as a way of trying to figure out why my stories are not quite hitting the mark, and the topic of voice came up again. And I think I get it now….
Voice isn’t just your unique way of writing as an author. Your characters need to have voice – and by this I don’t mean just in the words they speak. Voice can be so much more – is your protagonist a bit fussy? Are they bossy? Mean? How can you show these things without actually saying it in words? For example, instead of saying, ‘Amelia was very bossy’, you could show she is bossy by the things she is doing, or in the way she speaks. This also comes back to another phrase we picture book writers hear a lot – ‘show, don’t tell’. SHOW your reader that Dad is scared of the dark, not just by his reaction in the illustrations, but by giving him a quiver in his voice, or with an action such as biting his nails, or pulling at his shirt.
Picture books need to say an awful lot in very few words. There are lots of clever ways you can give background and life to your characters by adding subtle layers of ‘voice’ to your text. ‘Olivia’ by author-illustrator Ian Falconer, is a perfect example of a character who has a whole lot of personality and voice, all of which is shown very clearly – but at the same time almost subtlety – through actions and behaviour, and very few words. And wonderful illustrations of course…
Secondly, does your character’s voice fit your character? This was a big ‘aha!’ moment for me. I love writing in rhyme, and nothing makes me happier than coming up with a clever couplet or a witty joke, written in perfect metre. But if your narrator is a five-year old boy, are the words you’ve chosen the type of words that a five year old boy would typically use? If not, then your story is not going to work. I have a trio of stories which revolve around a very clever idea, but the narrative voice up until now has been very adult sounding, when the narrator is actually meant to be a child. So no wonder I’ve been getting nowhere with them.
So have a look at some successful picture books. How has the author relayed to the reader clues about characters, without actually saying what type of personalities they are meant to have? A story needs a strong voice for the reader to relate to, and also to make to stand out from the pile.