Voice Tips from the Pros

I haven’t been to a conference in years. Finances and babies conspired to keep me from attending. But this spring, I figured that enough was enough, and last weekend I went to the SCBWI Florida conference in Orlando. There, I was reminded that 1) conferences are awesome and 2) I am a doofus for not going in so long.

I was in the YA track with about 50 other YA writers ranging from beginners to published veterans. Our speakers were Michele Burke, editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers, and Kathleen Duey, an author who has published over 70 books throughout her career. They talked about a lot of things, but two topics were really helpful to me, so I’d like to share the love and pass along their insights. Today…


GROAN, I know. But as you’ve probably read here there and everywhere, editors and agents are constantly going on about how important voice is in a query or opening chapter, that it’s one of the things that draws them in and garners a request for more. Both of our panel speakers agreed, putting it like this: voice is the lynchpin of YA. And I’m guessing that for you excellent followers who write something other than YA, it’s probably the lynchpin for that, too. The speakers also said this:

  •   Voice is what’s wrong with most first pages.
  • The voice of the story should sound like someone the reader knows. IE, it should be relatable, realistic. Believable.
  • If you start with voice, everything that follows will usually be stronger.

So how do you succeed at the ethereal, elusive, nearly-impossible-to-define element that is voice? The pros said:

  1. Start each book with a character interview. Start each interview as you would start a conversation with a kid sitting next to you on the bus–a kid who looks troubled. “Are you okay?” “What are you going to do?”
  2. Make a fb page for the duration of the project. Enter posts that your character would enter, the way they would enter them. Reply to the posts to elicit further responses.
  3. Go to a teen hangout (mall, food court, restaurant, etc) and just listen.
  4. Listen to everyone–teens, people close in age to teens, and everyone else. Talk to them.
  5. Do not tell the reader what the character is feeling. A character’s emotion should be evident through their actions. (Hello, Emotion Thesaurus–see sidebar).
  6. Write your characters into different vignettes so you can see how they’ll react.
  7. If a scene is lacking in voice, is overly wordy or clinical or descriptive, write it as the character would explain it to someone else. Then rewrite it as narrative.
  8. Write the scene from a logistical/practical standpoint, like storyboarding a play or script. Then go back and write it in the character’s voice.
 Great advice, all, but I’d like to comment on two points. First, the interview. Writers have been talking about character interviews for years, and I’ve tried them a number of times, but they haven’t worked for me. Well, after hearing this, the idea still rang true, so I decided to give it another shot. I set aside 15 minutes each morning to interview the character of my WIP, who has mommy issues that I haven’t been able to figure out. I talked to her on Sunday. No dice. We spoke again on Monday. On Tuesday, the hallowed interview technique still wasn’t working. I snapped at my husband and didn’t answer the phone. Then, on Wednesday, like a special delivery straight from Dr. Phil, I figured out the crux of Nina’s problem with her mother (which is crucial to who Nina is). And once I started talking to her about it, her voice clicked in. It was the craziest thing. All of a sudden, I know how she sounds. Learning about her helped me hear what she would sound like, and hearing her voice reveals new things to me about her.
So for me, and maybe for some of you, interviewing was ineffective because I always gave up too early. It takes time to get comfy with real life friends, and I guess the same is true for our characters. Give it time.

Secondly, point #4. I may be the most unobservant person on the planet. And, like the interview piece, I’ve heard numerous times about the importance of observation for writers and still hadn’t given it much thought. But for some reason, the way Kathleen Duey explained it, I could see the value in observing others. So I started listening. To the girls eating lunch at Chick-fil-A. The couple sitting in front of me at church. I struck up a conversation with the cashier at Publix. And it was really fascinating, not only what people were saying and how they said it, but the things they did with their faces and hands while they were talking. There are a million different quirks, voice inflections, phrasings, gestures–tendencies that people have that you may be able to apply to your characters to make them more unique and realistic to the reader. What’s more, I realized that I have grossly underestimated the value of observing others, not just from a writing standpoint, but as a human being. How can I encourage someone if I can’t see that they’re struggling? How can I help if I don’t know what they’re going through? Oh my gosh. So basic, but I am just now getting it. #Embarrassed

So… I hope some of you will find these tips as helpful as I have. I’m so grateful to Kathleen and Michele for taking the time to share their knowledge, and I’m glad to pay it forward in the hopes that their information might help some of you.



Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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34 Responses to Voice Tips from the Pros

  1. This is great, specific advice for improving voice. I’m on novel #3, and I still need these reminders. You don’t mention it, but voice is–perhaps–even more important to figure out when writing in 3rd person. Voice still has to be strong even though what makes the voice particular is more subtle.


  2. I just stumbled across this great post, Becca. I must have missed it over the summer. I love the idea of doing a FB page for a character. And l must be the second most unobservant person in the world (after you); I’m working on it…

  3. A.G. Wright says:

    Becca, Thanks for all the reminders of voice! Great conference. It was nice to meet you there!

  4. Observation is everything, and then there’s finding the words to capture you observations….
    And there’s author’s voice vs character’s voice. Some people still write in third person.
    I’m going back to my own post and read about chocolate. http://bit.ly/p4uUo5

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