Most often, when asked what they're looking for, editors say they want "fresh, new, original, passionate voices." Which tells you pretty much nothing. But that's not the editors' fault. Aside from being able to define the kind of books they publish by category, most editors (if they're honest) really don't know what they're looking for until they see it. What editors crave is for you to show them something they've never seen before.
So what is "voice"? Voice is not concrete, like dialogue, description or plot, but is intricately connected to all three. Voice is the way each author approaches the act of writing. It's how plot, characters, dialogue, setting, pacing -- all the elements of a book -- come together to form a story. Voice is like a fingerprint; it makes the story uniquely yours. Even if you have all the building blocks of a story in place, if it lacks your voice, there's little an editor can do.
Voice is the simplest thing in the world to learn, because it's already in you. But it's the hardest to achieve, because it involves trusting yourself. It means learning what goes into a children's book and then forgetting it, or rather, placing all those important things into your subconscious and then allowing yourself to write.
All stories start with an idea. In that moment, that first exciting spark when anything is possible, we think, "This would make a great book." But then we start plotting the story in our heads. We begin to worry about the characters and the dialogue, when the climax of the plot will take place, how it will end. I'd like to suggest that in that first moment of inspiration you stop and ask yourself, "Why do I need to write this story?" Forget about your audience. Be selfish. Why do you need to write this book? What's in it for you? You might try brainstorming on paper, freewriting by jotting down anything and everything that comes to mind. You need to find a reason for creating this story that speaks to you, to your writer's heart, in order to speak to your reader's heart.
If you feel you must write this story because children need to hear it, then you're going to end up preaching to your audience. Children do need books that deal with a range of issues, but the issue must be important to the writer for it to come alive for the reader. Another way of looking at this is to ask yourself, "When I was five, did I need this book?" Try to answer this question from your 5-year-old consciousness, which still lives inside you, rather than from your current adult perspective. If the answer is no (you wouldn't have sat still for this story) then you're writing it for the wrong reasons.
Discovering why you need to create this work -- and this applies equally to fiction and nonfiction, magazine pieces and books -- leads you to that passion editors talk about. If you're writing the story or article because something inside you needs to hear it told, then you're writing from your heart.
Another related question to ask while the idea and inspiration are still fresh is, "What do I bring to this story?" What part of yourself will be in this book? What element of your human experience, your journey that encompassed being a child, a sister or brother, a friend, will find its way into your work? These are all universal, timeless experiences, and yet you felt them, and you remember them differently from everyone else. If you're writing nonfiction, your own way of looking at the world, and your excitement for whatever topic you're researching, will affect how you write the book or article. And it will give your work a soul.
Asking why you need to write this story, and what you will bring to this story, help build the passion, heart and soul of the book. These things will motivate and sustain you through the writing process, and give your work direction. But you still need to develop a technique that translates this passion from your imagination to words on paper. Over time -- with a lot of practice -- your voice will emerge, if you let it. This involves spending many hours just writing, without the pressure of creating a manuscript that you intend to submit to a publisher. Don't assume that every time you put pen to paper, it has to result in something that you're actually going to show to someone else. Don't always have a goal in mind of creating a short story or two more chapters of your book -- sometimes you need to write simply for the pleasure of writing. This process of stretching your writing muscles with no pressure to actually "produce" allows you to relax, and eventually your voice will emerge.
If you vary these creative sessions by sometimes writing dialogue, sometimes describing a setting, and sometimes fleshing out a character, you'll also see where your strengths lie as an author. Every writer is very good at something, and if you're lucky, you're good at several things. But in the beginning, discover what you're particularly good at and work with that. I think something all writers should do is experiment with poetry. Poetry is very liberating in one sense, because you don't have to develop a plot, and you don't even need characters. You're capturing a moment in time, as vividly and succinctly as possible, or you're creating a snapshot of a person or a feeling. Poetry teaches you how to express these things in a few words (very important for children's books). It also helps you discover your writing rhythm, or the way your words best flow on paper. Don't worry about rhyme or meter or form or any of those poetic terms. Remember, this is just for you, so have fun and experiment with how words and rhythms fit together.
One thing that separates great authors from mediocre ones is that their writing appears effortless, even if it took tremendous work to achieve. A forced voice happens when authors try too hard to sound like a writer. I think the best voices appear when authors write as they speak. Has a story ever sounded profound and lyrical in your head, but lost something when you put it on paper? That's because in your head you're telling the story to yourself in your speaking voice, and when you write it down suddenly you're trying to be a writer. You go searching through the thesaurus for the perfect word, something you'd never use in normal conversation. You use three words of description, just because you can, rather than one word that really says everything you need to say. And suddenly in that process of writing down what's in your head, you've lost your voice. You've adapted the voice of someone else, or the voice you think your writing should have. So next time you write, try writing exactly what's in your head. If you type, try typing your writing exercise with your eyes closed, so you can't see the computer screen. Closing your eyes also helps you focus inward where the story is being conceived. Then you'll be guided by how the words sound and feel, and that's the closest thing to your true voice.
Writing as you talk also helps you tune in to your unique storytelling rhythm. Dr. Seuss was a master at rhythm -- once you entered his stories they seemed to snowball and you couldn't help but go along for the ride, especially when reading them out loud. But rhythm is just as important even if you're not writing in rhyme. Once you've established your own rhythm as a writer, it will lead you to the words that best fit your style. Very often those words are simple and clear, but strung together in a way that's all your own. Next time you read the classic children's books "Goodnight Moon" by Margaret Wise Brown or "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak, note how their simple language conveys vivid pictures, and their pacing and sentence structure evoke two very different moods.
Once you've found your writer's voice, the fun really begins. You'll learn that voice is not a stagnant quality; it can be changed to match the tone each story requires. And if you're open to trying new age groups and genres, you may find talents you never knew you had. Maybe you really possess a strong middle grade writing voice, but you've been determined to produce picture book texts. If you're flexible and can analyze your work honestly, your niche will emerge.
Allowing your voice to develop is a gentle, natural process, which will only be hampered if you try too hard. Give it time, and remember that each of you already possesses your distinct writing fingerprint. If you're patient, you can place that fingerprint on your work.
Copyright © 2000 Children's Book Insider, LLC
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.