A Conversation of Many:
“What is Voice Anyway?”
We writers hear the term all the time: Voice. Editors want stories with a ‘powerful voice.’ Reviewers enjoy a writer’s ‘fresh, unique voice.’ Teachers lecture about creating ‘your own voice.’ Fiction writers are often described as having a ‘storyteller’s’ voice, an ‘authentic’ voice, or a ‘passionate’ voice. Nonfiction writers, in making their work accessible to young readers, try to create a ‘lively, personable voice.’ Non-published writers and even established writers tussle with the term.
VOICE = PERSON + TENSE + PROSODY + (Diction + Syntax + Tone + Imagination + Details).~Cheryl Klein, senior editor at
Arthur Levine Books/ Scholastic,
from her must-have book, Second Sight.
Of course, style and voice are related but they are not necessarily the same. A writer’s style includes those familiar devices as word choices, sentence structure, description, rhythm and so on. Rising out of these stylistic devices comes a writer's voice. You can say style without voice is hollow, but a voice without style is pretty darn bland! Ironically, any discussion about a writer’s voice is, in essence, metaphorical because the written word is voiceless! So, what is Voice anyways?
This conversation is the companion piece to the article, What is Voice Anyway?, published by Children’s Literature Network.
Cheryl Klein, senior editor at Arthur Levine Books/ Scholastic, explores the mechanics of Voice in her must-have book, Second Sight.
She defines Voice by using the formula VOICE = PERSON + TENSE + PROSODY + (Diction + Syntax + Tone + Imagination + Details):
I am calling this natural directional inclination of a writer’s brain as it plays out in the voice its Imagination, though I intend it less to apply to the book as a whole (what plot events or characters you can imagine, say) than to the interplay between the voice and its content.
The imagination of a voice sets the range of subjects, images, diction, kinds of and examples of figurative language, and references that the voice can include.
If you’re writing a first person voice with a six-year old narrator, it is the limits of what that six-year-old could know – that he likely couldn’t refer to “Titian hair,” say, in describing a red-headed friend, or liken his first-grade teacher to Norman Bates in ‘Psycho’ (unless, of course, you had a very particular six-year-old with very lax and/or overly cultured parents, which you’d have to show in the story to explain how he could make such references)…
To pretentiously quote Shakespeare for a moment, imagination is what is dreamt of in a voice’s philosophy, and the limits on that dreaming.
Used with permission. Be sure to read Klein’s fabulous book, Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing Revising & Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults. Visit her at CherylKlein.com.
Kathi Appelt, writer and teacher extraordinaire, National Book Award Finalist for The Underneath, discusses the musicality of Voice:
Voice has a lot to do with the sensibility of the characters in their place. For myself, I grew up in Houston, and so urban East Texas is in my bones. The idioms, the slant and slur of certain phrases, feel almost systemic. The sounds of the tall pines brushing against the sky — there’s no other sound on the planet. I try to keep my ears cocked so that when my characters speak, they have those nuances in their voices and in their thoughts too. Likewise, I spent a lot of time in Galveston as a girl. As a result, the rolling back and forth of tides offers up its own kind of sound — a lot of alliteration and assonance there. Keeper and her family ebbed back and forth in their story, like the tides, so I worked hard to make it sound that way.
We have some “stock characters” in children’s literature, and we make assumptions about those characters via their voices. For example, there is the “southern youngun”; this is a character from the deep South (or some other rural locale) who uses idiomatic speech that is both childlike, rather backwoods, but is also somehow “wise.” It assumes that she has a superficial veneer of hokiness, but underneath it is a worldliness that belies her age. There is also the “sarcastic teenager.” This character permeates young adult literature. We’ve all met him. He has a rapid response to everything that represents authority, and he seals it all with a sneer.
Once we identify the community of a character, it’s time to take them out of the community and really examine them as individuals. For this, we can borrow from our musician friends:
The stage: Places have their own sounds. A mountaintop sounds different from a beach. A city sounds different than a campground. An author has to tune his or her ear into the sound of the place itself because that provides the background noise. Check to see if the stage is a small, intimate venue where a microphone is not needed, or whether it’s a huge auditorium, which calls for big volume.
The instrument/speech: Just as an acoustic guitar is going to sound different from a Les Paul electric guitar, a character from an urban high school in Brooklyn is going to sound different from one who lives in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Likewise, a tiger is going to sound different from a blue jay. However, setting counts. A tiger in a zoo in Waco, TX is going to sound different from a tiger in the caves of Himalaya.
Tone: This has to do with the nature of the story. The tone will feel lighter in a comedy than a drama. Study the sounds of language. Poetry has a lot to offer in this regard. A lot of assonance, for example, can provide a subtext for caution. Long vowels can provide something soothing. Some internal rhyming can invoke humor. The very basic sounds of the writing can provide a kind of fine-tuning that will illuminate the story. Tone matters.
Pitch: Just as in music, pitch can also amplify voice. Pitch has to do with urgency. A creepy tale offers up a higher pitch, like the urgent whining of a mosquito in one’s ear. An adventure might have a thunder-like pitch, a low rumbling that keeps the tension taut. A writer relies upon other things to achieve pitch too, like sentence length. A series of short sentences feels like an elevation of pitch. Longer, more languid sentences can lower the pitch, stretch the story out, elongate the sounds.
Rhythm: Each character has his or her own rhythm. Each marches to her own drummer. Thus, their drumbeats should vary. A strong, motivated character picks up the pace. A stuck character might be marching in place, so s/he might need for the author to beat the drum a little louder to get her unstuck.
Come see more about Kathi and her books at KathiAppelt.com.
Adam Gidwitz draws upon his experience as a second grade teacher to connect to the orality of voice. Not only did he discover those rhythms that highlight the narrative, he recreated the patterns to include the child reader in his book A Tale Dark & Grimm:
My authorial career began when I was teaching second grade, and decided to try my hand at writing a novel set in ancient Egypt. I wanted to read the book aloud to my second graders, in order to bring ancient Egypt to life for them. So I wrote the book with those twenty second graders in mind. As I wrote, I read my prose aloud, and imagined my twenty students sitting on the rug before me. I imagined them smiling, gasping, laughing, getting bored... And I tailored not only the content of the book to what I thought they would enjoy, but also the text to the way I wanted to read it aloud. At times I wrote directly to my students, even addressing them by name.
One of these students was the daughter of a literary agent for children’s fiction. She heard about the book, and asked to see it. I was thrilled, of course. But I wouldn’t show it to her at first; I wanted to revise. The language didn’t sound formal enough, I thought. It didn’t sound like those serious historical fiction books that win so many children’s literature awards. If I scrubbed out every idiosyncrasy, every turn of phrase that I had written because I liked how it would sound coming out of my mouth, then, I concluded, it would sound like an award winner. I told the agent my plan. She objected; she had a book coming out that year, called The Name of This Book is Secret, that used direct address to great effect. But I was thinking about Johnny Tremain and The Egypt Game. I ignored her, and proceeded to obliterate my personal voice.
The ancient Egypt book became something of a boondoggle. I wrote and rewrote and rewrote, but I couldn’t get it to sparkle the way that I felt it had when I was reading it to my students. But then kids—real, live kids—intervened again. I had taken a year away from teaching to work on my Egyptian boondoggle, when my school called me up and asked me to be a substitute librarian for a day, and to read a story to some second graders. They invited me to read anything I wanted. I took a book off the shelf called Grimm’s Tales For Young and Old, and opened it to a story called Faithful Johannes, in which two kids get their heads cut off—by their parents. I thought, “Can I read this to second graders? Will I get fired?” And then I thought, “Let’s find out!” So I read it to them, making jokes as I went and explaining complicated passages and trying to relieve the tension when things got too scary and ratcheting the tension back up when things got too boring. And I did most of this by just by talking to the kids about what we were reading. When the story was finished, a few of the second graders collapsed in traumatic comas, but the rest gathered around me and told me that they loved the story.
See more about Adam and his process at AdamGidwitz.com.
Eric Kimmel, guru and master-storyteller of over 70 books, also draws upon the storytelling event to establish Voice:
Everything begins with storytelling. I began as a storyteller. I performed as a storyteller for years. Voice is literally the voice of the storyteller. I’m telling a story to an audience. If it’s a good story, my audience will stay to the end to find out what happens. If it’s not, they’ll get up and walk away to go play on the swings. Kids are a tough audience. If you’re good, they’ll stick with you through fire and brimstone. If not, they’re gone in the blink of an eye.
If you’ve ever gone to a storytelling festival and listened to lots of tellers, you quickly realize that storytelling is a highly individualized art. You can listen to ten storytellers tell the same story, but they each tell it differently. In fact, I can tell the same story two times in a row and it will never be the same. I’ve always liked the Buddhist proverb, “you can’t step in the same river twice.” I take it even further. You can’t step in the same river once. Everything changes: you, the audience, the circumstances, the time of day. And suddenly, every now and then, you’ll get a flash of insight in the middle of your telling that will take the story off in a whole new direction, one that you never realized existed.
For a beginning writer, start by telling the story. Let it come through you without trying to do anything beyond holding the interest of your reader. Then tell it again. And again.
The concept of Voice can be as complicated as you want to make it. My favorite writers have wildly different approaches. Fitzgerald is elegant, dressed up in tie and tails for a party at Gatsby’s. Hemingway is as simple as a controlled vocabulary reader until he punches you in the face with an insight or a phrasing that you can’t forget. Kurt Vonnegut can be alternatively profound and goofy in the same sentence. Gary Paulsen is a master of the run-on, which your high school English teacher marked you down for using. And Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield talk like ordinary kids—until you realize there’s nothing ordinary about them.
Another aspect of Voice and storytelling, I see myself as a lens. The story comes through me. My personality, my beliefs, my insights, experiences, and understandings color it, but they do not create it. The story exists apart from me. I’m privileged to borrow it, share it, and pass it on. Whoever tells it next will do so in another voice. It will shine through another lens. Remember Herman Melville’s Moby Dick? I’ve often regarded Moby Dick as the Gospel according to Herman Melville, but that’s besides the point. Who’s telling the story? Who’s Ishmael? How does he know things that an ordinary sailor could never know? Ahab fights Moby Dick for three days. Then on the third day Ishmael rises from the water, clinging to Queequeg’s coffin. As a writer, you don’t have to explain everything. The teller doesn’t always have to be you. The teller can just as easily be one of the characters. Let the reader figure out whether or not that narrator is to be trusted. Similarly, what is left unsaid can often be as important as what is spoken. You don’t have to answer every question or explain everything. Leave your audience with a sense of mystery. Not every story has to end with “and they lived happily ever after.”
Come hear Eric tell a story on his blog.
Dianne de Las Casas, author and storyteller whose “revved-up storytelling” is full of energetic audience participation:
When I started my career, I volunteered to do storytime at my local library. I performed in schools and learned a lot through trial and error. The students gave me immediate, live feedback. Stories had to be adjusted on the spot. If something didn’t work, I had to fix it. If something inadvertently worked, I used it again.
After I perfected my stories and wrote them down, I made some self-discoveries. I had finally found my writing “voice” through my storytelling “voice” but the two weren’t always congruent. Then I had an epiphany. In order to find my “voice,’ I had to listen, literally! As I penned my picture books, I read them out loud, again and again. Repeating refrains that had a sing-songy quality or rhythmic chant were kept. Long descriptive phrases were eschewed for simple narrative.
But it wasn’t enough for me to read them aloud. I needed other people to read them aloud too. Other readers would hear different rhythmic patterns. Just as the oral story is owned by the listener, the printed story is owned by the reader. This transfer of ownership is essential in penning a children’s book. Through this process, my picture books retain the quality of a story told orally yet they fit into the confines of the printed page. I view my oral stories as flames that dance wild inside a fireplace, licking the sides of the brick, daring to jump outside the hearth. My books are also flames but more like the fire atop a candle, burning steady with occasional flickering. Both kinds of flames are needed. They become the light that leads a child to a lifetime love of literature.
Come visit Dianne at storyconnection.net.
Pam Glauber, associate editor extraordinaire at Holiday House:
A successful narrative voice can be any of those and more: lively, strong, fresh, authentic, snappy, wise, humble, inquisitive, innocent, reliable, or unreliable. Most of all, I look for a voice that catches my attention in the first line and holds me captive until the very last page of the manuscript. Regardless of the genre I’m reviewing, I look for a voice that is compelling and age-appropriate.
A fictional character’s voice should be believable given his or her situation and life experiences—this applies to a narrative protagonist as well as to secondary characters. Whether an author is submitting a brief picture book or a lengthy YA novel, each voice in a manuscript should be unique and memorable.
When reviewing nonfiction, I look for a compelling narrative voice as well. Passionate writing, regardless of the genre, always catches my attention and offers a rewarding read. However, using a creative narrative voice without compromising substance or straying from the nonfiction genre may be tricky. The voice should not be pedantic or moralistic; yet adding narrative flair does not give authors permission to stray from the truth or give the reader false information.
A good way to balance a creative narrative voice in nonfiction writing is to support the manuscript with solid research, cited quotes, source notes, and extensive back matter. Above all, the manuscript should be compelling, accurate, informative, and ultimately satisfying.
Kristiana Gregory, an award-winning author of historical fiction and an original author in the Dear America series for Scholastic:
It’s like acting or pretending. Playing house or cowboys as a kid was easy if I could imagine the person and action. I didn’t want to be the bad guy, so that role didn’t work and I couldn’t imagine being a jet pilot so those are “voices” I let others handle.
Writing historic fiction is finding the part that fits and using familiar emotions such as a young girl searching for lost friends or family, a common theme in my novels. In Jenny of the Tetons, for example, I had wanted to tell it from Jenny’s POV. But I soon realized that because I wasn’t a Shoshone Indian, I couldn’t authentically get inside her head, or find her voice. Instead, I created a 15-year old white girl to narrate the novel, who was in a new environment, uneasy around Indians and grieving for family, three things I could relate to at the time. We had just moved to Idaho, and I was housebound with two young children with no friends during hellacious winters. I yearned to be in California with my family.
It was painful but writing the story was cathartic. I was so desperately lonely, yet falling in love with the Idaho and Wyoming wilderness, the historic places of Jenny and her family. I made friends with members of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe because the Ft. Hall Reservation was just seven miles away. My gradual thaw and understanding of the Indians parallel that of Carrie’s experiences. The small pox epidemic ripped me up so much, I couldn’t write the chapter about everyone dying, so that’s why that chapter is a direct quote from Beaver Dick’s journal. It was tough. I just had to have a happy ending, though, so Carrie’s beloved brother is finally found!
There are many gifted writers who can get inside of characters from different races and cultures, from having lived among them or studying them closely, so I don’t want to say we can only write about our own groups. I am too shy to attempt it. Jenny was Shoshone, but she also died in the end and I didn’t know how to handle that in first person!
The way I write adventures with boy protagonists is to tell them in 3rd person. My two little boys provided a great laboratory for how they think and act!
Come see more about Kristiana’s historical fiction at her website.
Monica Kulling, award-winning writer of biography, fiction and poetry, specializes in capturing the historical voice in her historical biographies:
Voice is personality or, simply, the writer “speaking” on paper using words, phrases, and tone that suit the subject or intent. If you are writing in the voice of a historical person — for example, a first-person narrative of Billy the Kid — you would choose to speak as closely as you can to the actual manner in which Billy the Kid might have spoken. You would choose words, phrases, idioms, and inflections to reflect Billy the Kid or to come as close as possible to the times in which he lived; the ways in which people, especially those whom Billy the Kid interacted with, spoke to each other. You would have to reflect Billy’s youth, his upbringing, and his energy. If you were writing about Billy the Kid in a third-person informational piece, the tone, style, and voice would be entirely different. You might adopt a more formal tone and the voice would reflect the times and the character, but from the outside looking in as opposed to a more intimate personal narrative.
I go back to Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on the “wave in the mind.’ She wrote, “Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.” Rhythm is the key for me. I must grab onto a flow or movement in the mind on which to hitch my words. When writing biography, I read and think and imagine the person until a rhythm comes to me. That rhythm is a door into the person’s life; once on the inside, I can “see” the character of the individual and hear his or her words, and from there I can construct a picture. As Virginia Woolf wrote, “A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing one has to recapture this, and set this working and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit.”
Come see more about Monica’s work.
Nathan Bransford, middle grade author and former literary agent, calls this aspect authenticity:
This is the key to finding the voice: your voice is in you. It’s not you per se, but it’s made up of bits and pieces of you. It may be the expression of your sense of humor or your whimsy or your cynicism or frustration or hopes or honesty, distilled down or dialed up into a voice.
We should never make the mistake as readers of equating an author with their voice, but they’re wrapped up together in a complicated and real way. We leave fingerprints all over our work. That part of you in your work is what makes it something that no one else can duplicate.
Used with permission. See the rest of Nathan’s discussion on How to Craft a Great Voice at his blog.
Darcy Pattison, award winning writer and teacher, stresses the importance of revision in finding one’s voice:
Voice is is often thought of as a give and take between mysticism and conscious choice that emerges during the revision process, a function of both the conscious and subconscious–the right brain and the left brain–that combine to create something distinctive as you revise. But even if this is right, it doesn’t lead me to a revision strategy that works.
For me, the best way into voice is through style. I find that as I focus on matters of style that my subconscious does the other work of straightening out plot, character, dialogue and other story elements; as I focus on matters of style voice does emerge. Maybe in the end, I don’t care about a definition of voice either. What I care about is a revision strategy that helps me find the right voice for this story.
Used with Permission. See Darcy’s blog, Fiction Notes, for her full discussion.
Emma Dryden, legendary children’s book editor, SCBWI board member and owner of drydenbks, llc, a multi-faceted company pertaining to all aspects of the children’s book publishing business:
Creating wholly believable characters is often the most difficult and exciting challenge for an author, in part due to the fact that in finding ways to explore and express the depths and dimensions of their characters, authors can be faced with some depths and dimensions of themselves that aren’t always easy or comfortable. Exploring an author’s own motivations, values, and emotions seems to me a necessary step on the path towards infusing that author’s storytelling and characters with a deeply compelling voice that rings true to the reader.
Editors talk frequently about the necessity of an author staying true to their own voice in expressing the voice of their main character; a definition of “voice” in this instance encompasses the word choice, sentence structure, cadence, vernacular, slang, idioms, and quirks or poetry of speech that help to identify a character within a setting. But, “voice” also encompasses that which lies beneath the actual words a character expresses—namely, the emotions, motivations, doubts, desires, fears, hopes, and internal trajectory of the character. These are the elements of a “character” that will turn an “anyone” into a “someone”—an individual with whom readers might identify and in whom readers will believe. “Voice” then is not only a character’s expression through speech and thought, but a character’ s expression through actions, choices, and decisions. If an author is completely clear as to who her character is, how that character will behave in any situation, what that characters believes in, what side that character will take in an emotional or physical challenge, and how that character will or will not evolve through each experience, the “voice” of that character will resonate. The character reflects her humanity, for all the bad and the good, the weaknesses and strengths, the doubts and the triumphs that infuse every one of us.
We encourage others and ourselves to have a voice, which means not only to actually say something when saying something seems called for, but it means participating in a larger dialogue, be it emotional, political, or societal in such a way that we are heard, we take a stand. We don’t necessarily achieve this with words; we do this with actions and decisions informed by what we feel to be right. And we can only have, and be true to, our voice if we are willing to meet ourselves truly. An author’s candid exploration of the “why?”s and “why not?”s behind their own decisions, choices and paths taken most assuredly will inform and nourish the “why?”s and “why not?”s of the characters they create. What will follow is a true character, someone about whom a reader will think, “Of course she’d say that!” or “Of course he’d feel that way” and whether it is through speech, emotion, or action, it’s all voice. It’s the author’s means of breathing life into a “someone.”
Be sure to visit Emma’s blog, where she shares her wisdom on Giving Voice and other insights into the business.
Hazel Mitchell, children’s book illustrator who has worked with Charlesbridge, Kane and Miller, and Beacon Publishers, among others, explores Voice in illustration:
Just like a writer, the illustrator has a “voice”. And just as in writing, finding this voice is a function of learning craft and of experimentation. In the illustrator’s world, this is known as “style”.
If you hang around illustrators long enough, (especially at a portfolio showcase or exhibition), you will hear illustrators lament on “style” , asking why they haven’t got it, why someone else has it and how they can get it. Just like writers.
Style is like handwriting. It’s an illustrator’s personal mark. It’s similar when you get a letter from an old friend (a real, snail mail one) and even before you open it, you know who is writing to you because of the handwritten address. So it is with artistic style. No matter what medium the artist is working in, traditional, digital, paint, pencil, when you see that illustration you recognize who the artist. When you hear about an illustrator having different styles, something still connects one with the other, whether it’s the line work or the colour palette. It’s what an art director or editor wants to see on viewing a portfolio—it’s connectivity and flow in the work.
After all, a book cannot have illustrations that change style constantly within it! The art director wants to know that the story told by the illustrations will be as coherent as that told by the words. Ultimately the reader will connect with the illustrations and recognize the artist’s “handwriting”, whether they know the name of the illustrator or not.
See more of Hazel’s work at her site.
Louise Hawes, award-winning writer and teacher, receiving two NJ writing fellowships as well as recognition for excellence from the Children’s Book Council, IRA, YALSA, Bank Street College among others, connects Voice to point of view:
After all the explanations, workshops, craft lectures, and logical approaches are said and done, I have never consciously chosen a point of view on the basis of any of these. Each story, each book has generated its own, born from its own particular urgency, setting, characters. So my work is all over the place, from a short story in the future tense, to a novel told in several tenses and p.o.v’s, to an historical fiction set four hundred years ago but told in the present tense. (That last outraged more than one reviewer!)
However, I firmly believe (and have experienced in my own writing and that of my students) that you can’t feel your way to a p.o.v. unless you know all your options. As Mary Oliver says in her Poetry Handbook, “Emotional freedom, the integrity and special quality of one’s own work—these are not first things, but final things. Only the patient and diligent, as well as the inspired, get there.”
Why is this? Partly because p.o.v. is often a question of how much showing and how much telling your story needs/wants. And unless you’re familiar with lots of ways to tell (there were more used in the 19th century, for instance, than there are now) and lots of ways to show (from Homericek phrasis to wordless novels) and even ways to do both at once (hypertext stories, I’m looking at you!), you’re limiting yourself and your work. “Read to write” isn’t just a pedagogical sound byte. It’s a downright, bone-deep necessity for anyone who wants to grow. Or explode on the scene with something entirely new.
I free-write with all my characters, and in these free writes, they speak to me in their own voices. So for every novel, I have notebooks full of characters speaking in the first person. But that is not what ends up in the book, unless first person works for both the internal emotional arc and the plot line.
My work-in-progress, for example, involves the deep, platonic relationship that develops between an octogenarian poet and a sixteen year old girl. While it’s told from the girl’s viewpoint, I want both characters to weigh in equally, and I want their interaction, not their individual lives, front and center. So? While I check each scene I write against their first-person free writes, the book itself is written in third-person, and, except for occasional lines of dialogue, reflects none of these free writes directly. Worth the extra layer of writing? You’ll have to judge, but as for me, I have no choice: my characters insist on it.
Lou is a founding faculty member of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults; read some of her lectures and learn more about her books at louisehawes.com
Bruce Black, writer, editor, and teacher who searches for words and stories on Florida’s west coast, applies the metaphor of swimming to help him find clarity in Voice:
Swimming helps me find my voice. The more I swim, the more the water silences other voices so that I can hear my own voice. With each stroke, I begin to recognize the sound of my voice as different from other voices (a parent’s critical voice, a teacher’s sharp reprimand, a lover’s sweet tone, a child’s beseeching cry) echoing inside my head. In the water, these voices are stilled. And in the stillness I can hear my voice.
You can find your voice, too. You must have faith that your voice will emerge out of the process of swimming. (Hint: it isn’t a process that you can control.) Day after day, month after month, as you swim across the pages of your manuscript, you’ll begin to hear your voice rise from the depth of your heart. Listen closely. Keep swimming. Your voice will reveal itself.
Every writer has a voice. It’s there, waiting for you. But it will reveal itself only when you learn to summon the courage and faith to dive deeply enough to hear it.
Bruce Black’s stories for children have appeared in Cricket and Cobblestone magazines, and his new book for adults, Writing Yoga, was released in April, 2011. Visit his award-winning blog wordswimmer and dive into a sea of words and swim toward a new understanding of the writing process.