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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Finding Your Voice

L-R - Deborah Vetter, Cicada and Cricket; Rachel Abrams,
HarperCollins Children’s Books; Quinlan Lee, Agent, Adams Literary

Last weekend I attended Western Pennsylvania’s SCBWI conference held in Pittsburgh. I sat in on informative sessions with Deborah Vetter, Rachel Abrams and Quinlan Lee. In Quinlan Lee's session, she pointed out that at almost every conference, an attendee asks, “What are you looking for in a manuscript?” Her reply: “Award Winning Books and Bestsellers.” But joking aside, Lee gave the audience the best ingredients for a great book. One of the main ingredients was a strong, unique voice.

As a newbie writer, I repeatedly heard editors or agents say, "I'll know a good voice when I hear it, or send me a book with a good voice." I never appreciated or clearly understood that reply. Now, as an avid YA reader and writer, a strong, clear distinctive voice smacks me over the head with every new novel I read. And to the contrary, an indistinctive, stereotyped personality will force me to stop reading after a few chapters. I finally “get” why editors and agents say they can tell within the first few pages of a manuscript if they want to read more.

As I peruse my bookshelf, certain books jump out as ones that have pulled me in because of the main character’s voice. I could list loads of examples, but I’ll pick two to illustrate voice.

I’m sure most of you have read Suzanne Collins trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay). In these books, the main character, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen’s strong voice draws the reader in from the first page to the last. The contrast between her strong exterior to her vulnerable interior makes her both a likeable and believable character, who the reader wants to root for until the end. Her determination and wit shows through in both her dialogue and her thoughts.

In Jeannine Garsee’s Before, After, and Somebody in between, 14-year-old Martha Kowalski has had a rough life facing the day to day struggles with her addict mom. Her tough girl act cannot mask her huge heart and passion for music.

A character’s voice becomes distinguishable through inner thoughts and dialogue. When I first started writing novels, all of my characters sounded the same. If the taglines were hidden, the reader wouldn’t have been able to tell which character spoke any particular line. Many of my characters were boring and stereotypical. Referencing Dave Amaditz's November 15th post on Katherine Paterson, it wasn’t until I consistently read and analyzed young adult literature that I understood the importance of voice. I finally began writing from my character’s point of view rather than mine as the narrator. My characters became more real and believable.

In a novel with a clear, strong voice, the reader should be able to identify who is speaking without seeing the tagline. As a test, I opened each of the above books at around the halfway point and scanned down the page for the main character’s thoughts or dialogue.

In Mockingjay, Katniss faces a man from another district who wants to kill her. She has to give him a valid reason not to end her life, but she can’t. “We blew up your mine. You burned my district to the ground. We’ve got every reason to kill each other. So do it. Make the Capitol happy. I’m done killing their slaves for them.” The fire and passion comes through Katniss’ dialogue. The reader is clear Katniss is speaking without seeing her tagline.

In Jeannine Garsee’s Before, After, and Somebody in between, Martha is taken to jail for defending herself against the school bully. During Martha’s processing, she examines the contents of her belongings. One blue flannel shirt with a missing button, one red T-shirt, bleach stains duly noted, one pair of blue jeans with a ripped knee, one pair of stinky socks, one pair of beat-up nylon Reeboks, a pair of pink flowered underpants minus half the elastic, one plain white bra with a safety pin in the strap. No money, jewelry, keys, trinkets, or anything else that speaks of a real life. Even if you haven’t read this novel, you get a clear sense of the character and how poorly she rates her life. Her hardship and struggles speak to the reader through her hardened voice.

The more you read, the more you’ll be able to identify a strong voice. As you get to know your characters and understand their strengths and faults, you’ll write more distinguishable characters with unique voices. And the next time you’re at a conference and the editor or agent asks for submissions with a strong voice, you’ll smile and nod because you will also understand a good voice when you read it or write it.

To learn more about the authors mentioned above, please visit:


  1. Very helpful advice, Marcy. I think voice is one of the things I've struggled with in my attempts at novels - and you're so right that finding that voice makes both the writing and the reading flow.

  2. Good points, Marcy. I agree with what you've said. And I too, loved Martha's voice in Jeannine Garsee’s novel. A strong voice should make you want to keep reading. I didn't want to put down her novel.

  3. A very good post and good advice not just for YA novels, but any novel.

    A "flat" voice takes away from the tone of the book as well as the personality of the characters and author.

    I, too, have read books that have no specific voice. Hmm. Write from the characters POV.

    Great post, thanks for sharing.