Leaning into voice – Ricki Schultz

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By Ricki Schultz

Voice is a difficult thing to discuss. It’s difficult to explain; it’s difficult to hone; and, while it can be taught, in some ways, there are aspects of it that really cannot be taught.♥

When I’m not writing, I’m teaching, and one thing I try to relay to my students when discussing voice is that it has to do with how your writing sounds. I boil that down to two things to make this somewhat abstract concept more tangible: it’s how an author’s writing sounds or how a specific character sounds.

In terms of the latter, I’m sure there are authors you’d be able to recognize if you picked up a random passage of theirs and read it. Chuck Palahnuik comes to mind. David Sedaris. Sophie Kinsella. There are certain words they use. They have a distinct cadence to their prose. The way they see and describe the world is unmistakably them, and so you’d recognize their work anywhere.

In terms of the former, this means creatures in an epic fantasy should sound different than the astronauts or other humans who discover them. A teenage protagonist should not sound like, say, her mother in the story. Or her seven-year-old brother. Historical fiction? Contemporary? Literary? Commercial? The list goes on and on, but there are big things separating how characters sound — as well as nuances that can make or break dialogue and narration in terms of authenticity.

Age, situation, and experience of a character as well as projected age, situation, and experience of your intended audience — and, probably a million other quantifiable and non-quantifiable things contribute to making characters’ voices.

In addition to writing and teaching, I freelance edit as well, and one of the things I tend to say in my critiques of the majority of manuscripts that come across my desk is that the voice is off or falls flat in some way. It doesn’t sound “organic.” How does one fix this? There are a number of ways, but for starters, if you’re writing for teens, you’d better have talked to one in the last twenty years! You’d better have read other young adult books, watched shows they watch, etc. You need to get a sense for how kids talk — what they talk about —before you try your hand at a YA novel.

Make sense?

Likewise, think about this when getting a sense for your own voice, because the same things go into making you sound uniquely like you, too. Pay attention to them.

Sure, we write characters that are NOT inherently like us and that’s something we have to work on — that’s very important as a writer — but we also need to consider playing to our strengths.

One of my strengths in writing fiction is humor. While I’ve known that on some level for a long time, I never really leaned into it until writing this particular manuscript — which turned into my upcoming debut novel, Mr. Right-Swipe.

I started out writing contemporary YA which wasn’t un-funny, but the humor wasn’t really one of the things that stuck out. I have a decent sense of the age group and a command of the dialogue, but I didn’t focus too much on the humor. In general, even when drafting MR-S, I sort of downplayed talking about the humor or acknowledging that because I hate when people tell me to watch some funny movie or check out some stand-up comedian. There’s something inherently icky about that to me because humor is so subjective. And when someone hypes something as “funny” I tend to think I’m not going to agree.

That being said, when I starting writing this romantic comedy and people talked about it as being funny, I would get a little squirmy. In discussing it with others, however, I realized humor is something that comes somewhat naturally to me and it’s something not everyone can get across in their writing. Once I got out of my own way and played to that strength, I sold my first book!

At the end of the day, while we don’t always have to write what we know or stay in our own experiences, if we embrace our strengths (instead of trying to do something we aren’t ready to do yet or we haven’t researched enough), the writing will be more natural and, probably, better. As well, if we need to write characters who aren’t like us or whose experiences we don’t readily know, we need to do our homework so we can understand them as closely as we can — and sound as authentic as possible.

Sound good?

Although she is originally from Cleveland, Ohio, and has spent the most time there, Ricki has also lived in Georgia and Virginia. (She promises she’s not a drifter, though.) In addition to writing and freelance editing, she has molded the minds of tweens & teens as a middle school and high school teacher in both the CLE and the ATL — and she also spent a year teaching writing and communications at the college level. She’s back in Atlanta now, and she owns the cutest beagle ever (Molly). Her new novel, Mr. Right-Swipe, is available now.



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