Finding a Voice

I’m well into writing my twentieth novel at this point, and it (naturally) feels a fair bit different than it did back when I was writing my first. It feels particularly strange at times because almost all of those 20 novels are in first person point of view. (Only 2 are in third person, and those are my second and fourth. Since then it’s been non-stop first person all the time.)

Back when I was on my third or fourth first person novel, I remember being particularly worried that all of my narrators were going to sound the same. I have a default writing style I fall back on when I’m writing first person, and so almost all of them generally begin the same way. And even now, I still usually get to some point early on in the writing of a new book when I take a look at what I’ve written and just start to worry if it’s just going to sound the same as one of my previous books.

For me, some of the trouble comes from there being so many different things to keep in mind with a first draft. Yes, I have a lot more practice writing them now than I did before, but that also means I’m that much more aware of how many levels of attention a good final draft needs. You need to make sure there are enough sensory details for the book to feel real. You need to make sure the main plot line is advancing at a steady pace. You need to keep the different subplots moving as well. You need all of your characters to sound and feel different. No good cheating and just making your main character unique and all of your side characters cookie cutter.

So when I’m writing that first draft, it’s really easy to focus on a few of those and only realize later on that you’ve been completely ignoring some of the others. That’s when I have to remind myself that this is a process, and it’s going to take time to get a handle on all of the different aspects of the book.

When it comes to finding the voice of my main character, that comes in stages as well. It’s not that I start writing without any idea who my characters are at all, but rather that I *think* I know, only to discover how little I actually know them after all. (Again, everything I’m writing about here is what I’ve found about how the process works for me. I fully expect other writers to read this and think I’m way off.)

It’s not enough for me to know the back story of my viewpoint character. Who their parents are and the name of their best friend. What they like to eat for dinner and where they had their first kiss. I’m not one of those authors who fills out a big long questionnaire about my characters before I write them. (Though I’ve tried it. I’ve tried just about everything.) What really works for me instead is to get to the point that I see how they would view the world differently because of who they are. Sure, that might have something to do with their favorite food, but probably only if food plays a really big role in their life. If they’re a chef, say, or if they have specific allergies they always have to be on the lookout for.

For Etta, much of her life came from her sheltered upbringing on a small farm, so her view of Chicago in THE PERFECT PLACE TO DIE was skewed by how overwhelming everything felt. For Gianna (the main character coming up in DON’T GO TO SLEEP), she grew up in New Orleans, so instead of being overwhelmed by the city, she loves how alive and vibrant it is. She loves jazz, and so a lot of the way she thinks about the world comes through music.

To really make a voice shine through in a book, it’s important to take the time to ask how that character would view a place or a person or a conflict differently because of who they are and how they act. Then you look for ways to incorporate that into the actual prose.

It’s easy to assume we all look at things the same, but once you start thinking about things in this light, you see how quickly those viewpoints really diverge. Of course, that doesn’t just help you write a better point of view. It helps you understand how and why so many people can have such different views of the world, and why so many people can have such different views and opinions than you do.

And now, back to the first draft . . .


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