Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Digging Deeply for Voice

On this blog a few weeks ago, Laura Golden posted a piece titled, “Find your Voice… Then Protect It.” It was a great post, and I ended up exchanging emails with Laura about it. When she wrote about voice, she meant her human voice, or the purpose for her writing, or the way she explores deep questions through her writing. But that’s only one meaning for voice, and her post got me thinking about all sorts of ways that we talk about voice.

We often hear writers say that they’re trying to find their voice, meaning their consistent signature, their Faulkner, their distinct sound. For me, when I think of voice that way, the very act of searching for it makes it such a conscious thing that it kills my writing, making it sound stilted. Stiff. Stale. Forced. Someday, when I have published a lot of novels, readers might be able to identify the unique voice of A. B. Westrick. And that would be cool. 

But at this point in my writing career (the debut author point), rather than trying to find my voice, I’m trying to find the right narrative voice for each project. I’m trying to dig deeply into my characters—so deeply that I’m inside them, feeling their fears and resonating with their desires, trying to get to an honest place from which to tell their stories. It’s all about them, about finding the right tone, word choice, syntax, pitch, etc. that arises from particular characters in particular times and places.

Sometimes we'll hear a reader exclaim, “This book has a really strong voice!” Then you ask what the person means, and he or she has trouble putting a finger on it. It might be the honesty in the writing that draws the reader in. Or perhaps it’s the confidence the writer has brought to the tale. When a writer claims the page, knows where the story is going, believes in that story and enters so closely into the protagonist’s world that she stops thinking so much about it and just writes it and it flows, readers sense the confidence and resonate with it. Honesty and confidence are essential qualities of voicequalities that engage readers and keep them turning pages.

Right now I’m ten chapters into a new novel and haven’t been trying to find my voice, but am listening closely for my protagonist’s voice. The chapters I’ve written so far probably won't make it into the final version. But that’s okay. It’s all part of the process. I’m still getting to know this guy, and one thing I know for sure is that he could care less about what readers might think his voice is. Right now he’s trying to make sense of some uncomfortable circumstances. I think he’s about to do something stupid.

Later, when I hit the revision stage, I’ll ask if the narrative voice sounds consistent throughout the story, if the tone and word choice and syntax and pitch work. Would his story flow better if told from a first person point of view, or third? (Consider second?) Have I captured this protagonist so well that he comes across as authentic even though he’s fictional? Right now, I’d say he’s earnest, if misguided. Scared but determined. Southern but unaware of his accent. Increasingly angry and in search of a scapegoat, but unsure whom to blame… Right now there’s a lot going on and he’s pulling my heart-strings. As his story emerges and I allow myself to dig more deeply into his worldview, I believe I’ll find his voice. Then my confidence will grow and I’ll claim the page, and whooeee—there will be no stopping me then...

A. B. Westrick is the author of Brotherhood, a novel about a fourteen year-old boy who joins the Ku Klux Klan without quite grasping what he's getting into. It's coming out from Viking on September 12, 2013. You can read more at her website, on Facebook, and at Goodreads.


  1. It is all about what helps the story I don't think we can help have a voice that is our own unless we are trying to make it happen. Like all things with writing it gets better the more you do it. Nice post.

  2. Thanks, Brandon. I totally agree with you that we get better the more we do something. Sometimes my writing feels like finger painting, as if I'm a little kid, smearing words around on a canvas... playing, experimenting, making a mess. In the mess, sometimes I find something worth keeping. The process energizes me. It's all good.