Everyone hears about “voice,” but how do you know when you have found yours? This post walks you through how to workshop finding your writing voice with your writer’s group, critique group, or just a group of writing friends.
The Finding Your Writing Voice Workshop is a fun activity you can do with your writers’ group. You can repeat it–say, every six months or a year. It works for seasoned bestsellers and it works for beginners, for critique partners of many years’ standing and for people who’ve never met before. It takes about two hours to run unless you’ve got Hitler running the stopwatch. When you’re done, you have identified four or five aspects of your voice that make it unique, a selling tool for every single thing you have written or will ever write, now and forever.
Why Any Writer Can Benefit From a Finding Your Writing Voice Workshop
We all know what voice is. We’re told readers are loyal to an author’s voice. Editors buy for a strong voice. Open any of your favorite books and read page 114: you might be lost about the plot, but you will be able to identify the author by their voice. Jane Ann Krentz, 40 or 50 books on the bestseller lists, says: “What brings readers back to you every time is the voice. They will put up with lousy research, weak plotting, and cardboard characters, but what they come back for every single time is the voice. They want to hear that voice.” What you deliver to the reader is your voice, your brand. This isn’t necessarily the same as delivering the same genre all the time. Or even (think of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum) the same character.
You may have a strong sense of your own voice, through self-study or editorial comments or fan mail. It may seem odd to be messing with that when you have something that works.
But does it work as well as it could for you? Are you writing in a genre that pairs best with a voice like yours? Are there other genres that might sell better for your voice type? Have you taken your voice over the top, as far as it can go in the direction of…you?
Because that’s what your fiction-writing voice is. It distills who you are and sucks readers in and makes them give you money, actual cash, to listen to you being you.
Finding Your Writer Voice Workshop, Part One
Hint to make the Finding Your Writing Voice Workshop work optimally, especially if the participants don’t know each other: segregate the groups by gender. No, really.
Now to start…
Begin with a pile of photos cut out of magazines.
You will need one person to read aloud and to run the stopwatch. (If people need a review of voice or the reason this Finding Your Writing Voice Workshop is for them, have this leader read the information from above on Why Any Writer Can Benefit From a Finding Your Writing Voice Workshop.
That done? Everyone on board? Time to start.
Have leader instruct everyone to choose two pictures from the pile.
Then have the leader ask everyone to say their name and two of their favorite authors. Then two things that describe those author’s voices.
[I’m Jennifer Stevenson. Two of my favorite authors are PG Wodehouse and Carl Hiaasen. Wodehouse’s voice is silly and mannered. Hiaasen’s voice is outraged and funny.]
Go around the room. Everyone shares.
Finding Your Writer Voice Workshop, Base Exercise
- Next divide into groups of three people. If you have a group of two, give that group an extra two pictures.
This exercise is interactive. You will be writing really, really fast, and then reading the work to your team.
- Have the groups write for two minutes about their first picture.
- Give a one-minute warning before time’s up and then call time.
- Cheating is allowed. Writers don’t have to wait to go to a new picture if the one they started with isn’t giving them any ideas. There are no rules, except, Blurt out as many words as you can.
- For the last picture: turn off alarm early
- BUT give them two extra minutes.
Finding Your Writer Voice Workshop, Part Two
I’ve got half a dozen ways we can analyze this raw material. So I’ll give you a first assignment when talking this over with each other, and then when you run out of things to say about that, I’ll give you another.
First, each of you will read your bits aloud, all in a row.
Then your teammates will give their first round of responses. When you comment on your teammates’ work, remember you are emulating a book blurb.
Give only positive comments. Nobody ever read on the back of a paperback, “Will be a great writer someday if she ever masters point-of-view!”–Kansas City Star. Be positive.
For these first responses, try for a wide range of comments and types of responses to your teammates’ work. Like:
sad and contemplative
conflict inherent in the situations described
great open conflict in dialogue
slow, emotion-building start
there are people in it even when the picture has none
there’s always a hierarchy between speakers in your snippets
I sense a story arc even in these little two-minute snips
angry and witty
I want to be there, or maybe, I want to hump your hero!
punchy sentences, fast pace
lush literary descriptions
grabs you by the balls right away
and so forth
As you listen, for this first round, I especially want the writers to pay attention to heir emotional reactions to the material being read. Have them write down how it makes them feel. And respond as fully as they can. More is better here, too.
This gives each writer a list of the emotions that color his work. It tells the writer what the reader’s experience is like when they finish the book and put it back on the shelf.
It tells the writer why, when a reader is choosing a book to take on the plane, they choose his book off their keeper shelf. Why? Because they like the emotions they feel when they are in his universe.
Finding Your Writing Voice Workshop, Bonus Session
Following are some more ways to work with the raw material. They’re all time-consuming. You can probably fit one of these into a two or three hour period, along with the above exercise.
Finding Your Writing Voice Workshop Bonus Session 1
Tell each other whether you felt you could see the end of the story coming, and what that ending might be like, what genre it might be. Get really specific, if you can. “This sounds like a regional cozy mystery set in West Texas, funny but with an angry, angsty subtext. Or it could be a sassy, dark, contemporary paranormal.”
Finding Your Writing Voice Workshop Bonus Session 2
Look at each picture as a group–put it on the table between you and write down what emotions that picture gave you, and what emotions you wrote about, or wanted to write about. Now tell each other what emotions you got from their snippets about that specific picture.
Discuss if you can the distinctions between:
the emotion you feel when you look at the picture,
the emotions you want to convey or create in the reader when you write about that picture, and
the emotions your teammates experienced when hearing what you wrote.
This may seem fiddly. But it may yield some interesting facts. For example, Carl Hiaasen, one of my favorites, writes very angry, funny, violent stories. The emotion I’m left with, however, is satisfaction. When I’m done reading his stories, I feel that the world will right itself. This is a function of his voice, which like all our voices is a combination of the characters he creates, the plots he chooses, the setting he uses, the pace and tone and viewpoint and all the fiddly bits, and especially it’s made up of his passion. Which leads me to:
Finding Your Writing Voice Workshop Bonus Session 3
Take a minute to think about two of your favorite authors. Identify two things about your favorites’ voices that are like your own voice, and two that are not like your voice.
Now, tell your teammates these two names. Get a reality check from your teammates: are you on target?
Talk about passion: how do you feel your passion expresses itself in your voice? Can your teammates reality-check you there?
Finding Your Writing Voice Workshop Bonus Session 4
There is still a pile of pictures left over in front of you. Very quickly, everyone paw through that pile of pictures. When you see an image that looks like it belongs with the work of one of your partners, hand it to them. Do this really fast, without thinking too much about it.
Now take turns telling each person, if you can, why you gave them that photo–why it reminded you of their work
Finding Your Writing Voice Workshop Bonus Session 5
Now exchange all your snippets with those of the teammate whose work seems most unlike yours. Hand-copy their pieces–write them out. You already know what photographs helped create these snippets. As you copy, see if you can recall, without looking through the pile, which photo inspired the piece you are copying.
This is a trick borrowed from musical composition and from the schools of the great master painters. If you make yourself copy what someone else has done, you realize very powerfully that your hand wants to do something else, something unique to your skills and your personal aesthetic.
During this process, jot down what you learn about the difference between your voice and the voices of your partners.
When you’ve written down everything you can think of, spread out all the pictures you all worked on between you and your teammates and look them over again. Tell each teammate what else you learned about their work while you were copying it over.
Finding Your Writing Voice Workshop Bonus Session 6
Using either the precut pictures from the pile (not as good) or simply your imagination, write down a description of four characters who are wearing elaborate masks and costumes. Make up a reason why they are wearing masks, describe the setting, time of day, occasion. Dialogue is okay. Anything’s okay. Just give us four different masked characters, in detail.
Now read all four of your masquers, one teammate at a time.
Teammates, jot response notes.
Zinger question #1: What do all four of this teammate’s masked characters have in common? In what five “duh” most obvious ways are they alike, and have failed to disguise about themselves?
Zinger question #2: How does your set of masked characters differ from your teammates’? What makes that group completely different, i.e., what’s the “page 114” factor?
All done? Have a snack or a drink or both and congratulate each other on finding your writing voice.
This post was written by romance author, Jennifer Stevenson the creator of the Finding Your Writing Voice Workshop.
Jennifer Stevenson writes for people who like it silly. Check out Jennifer’s latest: It’s Raining Men: Slacker Demons #1 from Musa Publications. Learn more about her at her website, or say hi on Facebook and Twitter.