Ask Alice: What actually is author voice?
If you’re particularly cool like me and have ever browsed the ‘what we’re looking for’ sections of agents or competition guidelines, you might have noticed repeated references to a “distinct and original voice.”
If you’re crotchety and not in the know, also like me, you might have thought to yourself: “what the #^#% is ‘voice’?”
It’s a particularly exciting question for me to be asking given that I’ve written seven young adult novels, one non-fiction mini, and basically every other facet of my work involves writing (look no further than this column).
So to that end, I reached out to three LoveOzYA lovelies to help abate my ignorance: Gabrielle Tozer, author of various YA texts including the most recently released Cant Say It Went to Plan, with – she assures me – several more YA and Children’s books in the pipeline; Holden Sheppard, author of Invisible Boys and The Brink; and Nicola Santilli, a former LoveOzYA Committee member and editor currently working at Allen & Unwin, with over 10 years of experience in Children’s and Young Adult books.
So let’s dive straight in: What on earth is voice?
Well, there’s more than one type of voice.
Nicola provided a delineation that neatly cuts to the heart of these differences. They said:
Authorial voice is “the unique way that an author writes their story. It’s informed by their individual experience as a person, which includes influences like what they read, listen to, watch on TV and in cinemas […] This affects the author’s tone, their word choice, their preferred punctuation style and even what they choose to write about.”
By contrast, character voice is quite literally the way the distinctions between characters are drawn: “Every character, like every real person, is made up of their own unique parts. They have their own way of thinking, of speaking, of moving through the world, and this comes across in their voice on the page. For example, a five year old’s voice will naturally be different to a fifteen year old’s – in what they say and how they say it (e.g. word choice, vocabulary, cadence), when they speak and when they don’t, how they walk, their confidence levels.”
Nicola’s definitions provide a clarity I’d previously not enjoyed when reading requests for ‘distinct and original voices,’ but the question then becomes:
How do you cultivate and craft character and author voice?
We’ll start with character voice, because I think it’s the easiest to implement in practical terms. Gabrielle’s approach is the one I’d adhere to most closely in my own writing. She revealed, “nailing the voices of distinct characters often requires me to do multiple rewrites and reading the work aloud to truly hear how they sound. I question myself during the writing and editing process to make sure I’m drilling down to who the characters are and capturing how they’d speak and engage in the world. e.g. What makes their perspective and outlook different? Do they lean on certain phrases? Are they succinct or do they ramble?”
If I don’t understand a character’s backstory and worldview, their voice – and the way they appear on the page – is going to be bland. I experienced this exact problem in my current manuscript with a secondary character whose entire personality was ‘stern and vaguely antagonistic.’ That worked for the first few chapters but offered no scope to have him be anything other than stern and not super pleasant. Taking a beat, I thought about what his life was like beyond the confines of the story, wrote a little about his origins, teased the thread of a throwaway line about his older brother who got into fights, and I suddenly had a character whose relatively rigid speech patterns and manner of behaviour had underlying reasons. This gave the character a richness and depth that not only made him seem far more realistic, but also gave him a dynamism. He wasn’t just there as a plot device, he was there as a distinct character.
But that distinct sense of who a character is needs to be conveyed. Nicola’s advice echoes much of Gabrielle’s approach: “Keep an eye on how each character speaks. Are there any words that one character might use, which another might not? Perhaps one speaks colloquially, and the other more formally (e.g. no contractions). Or perhaps one character talks fast, effusively, as if their brain is racing a mile a minute – and the other takes their time, pausing before speaking, or in between sentences. Dialogue is the easiest way to distinguish voices, and once this has been looked at carefully, you can expand outwards from there. How do the characters act in certain situations?”
In Queendom of the Seven Lakes, I wrote Prince Gidyon’s dialogue without contractions. He’s prim and proper; that’s reflected in his formal and well-structured manner of speaking (which contrasts against the bluntness in Elen-ai, the assassin with whom he’s unexpectedly paired). Whenever I wrote dialogue for him, I was reminded how he’d respond to various situations, how I could describe his physical movement through an environment, and ultimately, who he was as a distinct person.
But having characters who sound distinct from one another is only part of the puzzle.
Having a clear sense of your authorial voice then helps inform the story you write, and the characters who populate that story.
Gabrielle shared, “On reflection, I seem to have a natural writing voice that has been evolving since I was in high school and penning pieces in my English classes. I almost see it as my default, all these years on, and I can turn the dial up and down on it, depending how serious or funny I want a piece to be. […] I’ve been playing with, and evolving, my writing voice for decades, so it’s a lifelong creative adventure.”
I think that sentiment was distilled in Holden’s perspective: “I reckon a writer’s voice comes from finding a space where you can sound like yourself, freely and without inhibition.”
Another way to phrase it is Nicola’s description of author voice as “the quirks that make up your own writing style.” Certainly, this one resonated with me, as I’m keenly aware of my proclivity for certain words (to the point of overuse; I’m looking at you, ‘slightly’ and ‘slight’), as well as my tendency to avoid adverbs where possible. Those technical quirks come from the fact that as a writer I value description that, while not lasting for several paragraphs, immerses the reader into a scene’s physical and emotional environment. That preference is drawn from the books I’ve loved the most, as well as the teaching I received from a fabulous English teacher in my final two years of high school. That, in combination with a tongue-in-cheek demeanour I just can’t seem to repress, has influenced what I tell, which often requires that kind of description if I want to write that content well (that relationship between experience and voice and what we write is really like an ouroboros).
While I’ve always thought author voice is a ‘nice to have’ thing to be able to point to in relation to your craft, Holden and Nicola’s reflections on voice being a direct reflection of what you as an individual and, in Holden’s words, “learn[ing] how to speak as ourselves,” really struck me. If author voice is a reflection of an individual’s experience and identity, then it’s particularly important to have a dialogue around it, and appreciation of it, because, as Nicola pointed out, “First Nations writers, Writers of Colour, disabled writers and queer writers all write from a place of lived experience, and #OwnVoices stories will always have an element of truth to them that authors can’t quite replicate with research alone. And young readers deserve to see themselves reflected wholly and authentically – in all their complexities – on the page.”
So is there a particular way to develop an authorial voice?
There was absolute consensus from my three wonderful contributors on how to develop your own authorial voice: practice.
Holden noted the process of finding his voice, in which there are “no sacred cows and [I give] myself permission to speak in an unfettered way, exactly as I wanted, without worrying about what people would think about me,” was one which couldn’t be achieved “by thinking or planning or reading – ultimately, you have to do the writing and it comes out in the process.”
Nicola was even more blunt when they noted, “there are no easy tips or tricks on how to make it your own. It will develop naturally over time, the more you write.” However, one piece of advice; this process can be facilitated by “working in collaboration with someone else – or redrafting your own work, or even reading another author’s work” (I can attest that redrafting your own work, while at times profoundly painful, is a great way to see what quirks and traits comprise your writing).
For Gabrielle, “the evolution of a personal voice grows out of playfulness, experimentation, reading and learning from other writers, and, of course, regular writing practice and endless edits and rewrites.”
What constitutes an ‘original’ or ‘exciting’ voice is still frustratingly subjective. But refining your craft – and your own voice – is something that means you are true to yourself. That means what you write is going to be a rewarding and delightful. Then, if you’re lucky enough, someone might read it and deem it the exact shade of original and exciting for which they’ve been searching.