The Fine Line Between Craft and Voice

By Sarah (Sally) Hamer

One of the hardest things most new writers face is finding their voice.  We all have favorite and beloved authors who have taught us the passion we use to create our stories.  But, all too often, our voice will mimic others - at least until we write enough words to uncover the treasure of our own inner voice. 

          Voice is defined as “the way your words sound on the page”.  Not too revealing – or helpful!   I think voice is more in the nature of what makes each author unique.  We wouldn’t confuse a line from Gone with the Wind,  “No, I don't think I will kiss you, although you need kissing, badly. That's what's wrong with you. You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how.”  with the words of Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”, even though they have a lot of similarities.  Contemporary writers are less similar, but still will have a cadence that is uniquely their own.  Listen to Janet Evanovich - “Sometimes you get up in the morning and you know it's going to be one of those days. No toothpaste left in the tube, no toilet paper on the cardboard roll, hot water cuts out halfway through your shower, and someone's left a monkey on your doorstep.”  Completely different, right?   None of them are ‘better’ than the other – they are all unique, fresh, compelling – they are just distinct to the individual author.
            Another aspect of this problem is in determining which advice we receive is useful and what is not as we search for our voice.   Critique partners, contest judges, agents, editors, even our mothers!, think they can and should re-word our phrases to match their concept of our story.  But if they want to write a book, they need to write their own, instead of re-writing ours!   (Or so I grumble under my breath when someone gives me a low score on a contest!)

            Do you need to listen to all of the naysayers when they want you to change something?  Or is your voice ringing so loudly in your head that it blocks everything else out?   The mantra in my critique group is, “It’s YOUR story; you need to think about everything we say and only change it if you think you should.”  I think that’s very valuable advice, but I also think it stops short.  If you aren’t selling, if you’re getting low scores on contests, if your critique group is leaving polite little notes in the margins – it could be that your skills, not your voice, are lacking. 

What can you do to figure out if you need to polish your craft? 

          1.      Let it sit awhile.  Your dazzling prose may not be so bright after a couple of weeks. 

          2.     Read it out loud.  Try to listen without loving it - we all grab onto certain phrases      and think they’re brilliant.  They might not be.

3.     Find someone who hasn’t birthed that baby with you to read it.  Contests are great places to get a relatively unbiased opinion of your work, whereas your critique group can probably quote it in their sleep.

4.     Realize that even the writers you love spend time working on their craft – almost no one writes a final draft the first time.

5.     Be as objective as you can be.  It’s about making it better, not stroking ego.  We want to sell, right?

6.     Volunteer to judge contests.  Honestly, that’s where I learned to look at my own writing with a more critical eye. 

It’s hard to be completely honest with ourselves, because we are genuinely passionate about writing or we wouldn’t be doing it.  And the bottom line is that, it IS your story and you should only change something if you KNOW it needs to be changed.  But honing the craft of writing by trying to make our words better is the only way I know of for sure to find that voice inside.


10 Steps to Writing Great Fiction 

Great fiction doesn’t come by accident.  And, it takes more than proper comma placement and big words to make a reader care about your story.  Below are 10 ’rules’ I recommend a writer follow .  They interlock, simply because it’s almost impossible to employ one without the rest.   But each also stands on its own.  Try them and see if they can help you create great fiction! 

Step #1:  Somebody has to want something badly, and that someone should be your leading character. 

Step #2:  Start with the character, not the plot. The plot comes from the needs of the character.  This doesn't mean you can't have ideas about how the story is going to unfold, with the car chases and sword fights which make a story so exciting, but what the protagonist desperately needs and what he/she does to achieve it is the story. 

Step #3:  Every hero needs a villain, whether it is actually a living person or an obstacle.  A villain doesn't need to be "bad", he/she/it just has to get in the way of what the main character wants desperately. 

Step # 4:  Use "concrete" details to avoid creating "cardboard" characters.  Who are these people?  When you create the characters, remember that flaws and virtues need to be tied back into the original desperate want of the main character.  Each good thing and bad thing have to be a part of what is driving the book.  

Step #5:  Surprises create suspense, and the best surprise is an unexpected obstacle.  Be creative, but don't stray too far from the main premise you've already created.  Make sure that whatever you choose will tie directly back into the original problem. 

Step #6: Readers are more interested in active characters than passive ones.  Make sure your characters don't sit around and think a lot.  All of them need to do exciting things.  All characters also need a reason to be in the book, or they shouldn't be there. 

Step #7:  Dialogue is not the same as speech.  People speak in fragmented sentences, with lots of body language and facial expressions.  Dialogue is kind of half way in the middle of correct grammar and true speech.  The best way to write dialogue is to read it out loud and see how it sounds. 

Step #8: Something visual, something interesting, something with action, needs to be on every page.  There is nothing more boring than pages and pages of narrative .  Dialogue, action, something the writer has been building toward and the reader is anticipating - these are things to write.  Without them, the book will not be a page turner.

Step #9:  Create suspense by not allowing your main character to get what he/she wants.  Each time he/she seems close to getting it, let something snatch it away, until the black moment when it seems it will never be obtainable and the character will sacrifice anything.  Once the main character has attained the desired goal, the story is over, so make sure you're done telling it.

Step #10: Write from your heart, write what you love and what you know.  Your story can be exotic to someone who has never lived or loved as you have.  Tell stories from the past, tell of strong women and weak men, or the other way around, but tell your stories.  

Goal, Motivation and Conflict

Creating characters is easy, right?  We simply come up with this person in our head and then just write down what he/she/it does.  But is it really that simple?  Another part of story structure, what happens in our stories, is defined as “Plot”, but how do we get there?  How do we make our characters do what we want?  How do  our stories work? 

All stories have basically the same structure—a beginning, a middle and an end.  Our main character, or protagonist, begins with a goal, something he/she/it wants VERY badly for a VERY good reason, but is prevented from achieving this goal by somebody (or thing) else.  In other words, our protagonist has a goal, a motivation and a conflict throughout the story that is only resolved by him/her/it after lessons have been learned in the middle.  For example, if Dorothy had clicked the ruby slippers together as soon as she reached Oz, would we have cared?  If Scarlett had been allowed to marry Ashley as she wanted, would we have watched a three hour movie?  I doubt it.

These terms have a variety of names:

¨   Goal  ambition, need, purpose, desire, want

¨ Motivation   reason, incentive

¨ Conflicttrouble, roadblock, villain

All three of these things have two elements: an internal and external factor.  Internal (or emotional) GMC drives the external (or physical).  So, there is always action of some sort, but it is driven by the psychological undercurrent of the character—what  makes her/him/it tick?

I make a chart for each of my main characters, so that I can keep track of them as I write: 


I fill in each block as I know the answer, giving my characters, well—character! 

Let’s get back to Dorothy.  What does she want?  To go home, right?  But, before she can, she has a couple of tasks to accomplish, like following that yellow brick road to find the Wizard.  She also has to ‘pay the price’ of her return with the Witch’s broom.  So those things would be inserted in the Goal section of my chart.   Why does she want to do this?  Her external Motivation is that her aunt needs her to come home—remember how  distressed Auntie Em is?  We can break it down even more and know why Dorothy needs to find the Wizard and get the broom.  Her Conflict is not JUST the Witch, but also the journey itself, the  Wizard who makes her pay and then, the fact that the balloon takes off without her.  

Poor Dorothy!  Or is she?  Look at how much she’s learned!  And how she’s earned our, and the good Witch’s respect.  It’s enough to give her the key to send her home.

Sometimes the Internal GMC is harder, but for Dorothy it seems to be pretty clear-cut: she’s a typical young teenager, unhappy with her world.  Once she learns that she is able to DO things instead of having them DONE to her, she matures into a young woman who will be able to handle whatever comes, with enough confidence to click those heels and achieve her goals.

So, we make our characters work for their happy ending.  Do you see how the character GMC and the plot all come together perfectly?  It just takes a little prior planning and a deeper understanding of what WE as the author want to make it all work.