In Pitch Wars, Writing Craft

Pitch Wars Revision Advice: Developing Voice

Pitch Wars 2020 season is almost here, so I know lots of people are busy revising right now before the submission window. As a 2017 mentee and a 2019 mentor, I have read & critiqued a lot of PW manuscripts, and I thought I’d share some weekly revision & craft advice for those preparing to enter this year. First up: voice.

Voice is both one of the trickiest & most important elements of a story (at least for my tastes as a reader), and it’s common to hear people say that it’s a piece of craft that can’t really be taught. And it’s true that, unlike plotting or character arcs, there aren’t handy patterns and formulas you can apply. When I’m critiquing someone else’s work and the voice isn’t quite right, I don’t usually have a strong recommendation like “Oh, if you just did THIS, the voice would work!”

So yes, totally agree there’s no nifty, universal trick for finding a great, compelling voice for your novel that will instantly draw people in. BUT, as a “voicey” writer myself, I do have a couple suggestions for how to find & hone in on that voice for your own work.

It starts with a pretty simple exercise, and the great part about this is it will help you with a BUNCH of other things as you draft & revise–not just voice. Here’s how it goes:

  • Grab a notebook and a writing implement (you could do this on a computer or your notes app, but I like handwriting when I’m trying to be free & loose)
  • Set a timer for 10 minutes
  • In your notebook, start making a list of scenes you could see your main character in. This can include scenes from the actual plot of your story, but it can & should also have LOTS of totally random-ass things that have no relevance to your plot.
  • Keep going! You cannot stop adding new scene ideas to this list until the timer stops. We are aiming for QUANTITY, not quality, so the weirder, random-er, bonkers-er the better.
  • Timer goes–stop!

Ok, so now you should have a list of random scene ideas that have at best dubious relevance to your plot. Here’s a few examples from when I did this exercise for YOU’RE NEXT five whole years ago (yes I went and hunted down my first notebook just for this!):

  • Flora repairing a camera/spygear
  • Flora getting dressed in some kind of disguise
  • Flora braiding her sister’s hair
  • Flora eating pizza with her best friend
  • Flora running for her life
  • Flora at a school club fair
  • Flora popping a zit
  • Flora eating meatball subs with romantic interest

So as you can see, they do not need to be particularly fleshed out ideas! And I really mean it when I say the less obviously useful to your plot, the better.

Now, on any day you feel like working on your story, look at this list. Pick whatever scene sounds the most interesting to you on that day, and write it. Do not try to shoe horn it into your plot, just write the actual scene. Write your character shopping for a bra. Or swimming in a pool at night. Or making dinner with their dad. Or whatever! And repeat, each day choosing a new scene from the list & giving it a try.

So what does this have to do with voice? In my experience–and I’ll point out there are no hard & fast rules in writing, so if this doesn’t work for you then forget it–the best way to deepen your understanding of your character and their voice is through action. Seeing how they move through space and interact with their environment. “Walking in their shoes,” so to speak.

And by specifically doing this with scenes that are NOT directly related to your plot, you’ll get so much deeper into that character because you end up discovering so many things that you would never otherwise encounter. I see those “Character Questionnaires” all the time that ask you a million random things about your character’s favorite breakfast food, pet peeves, the color of their eyes. Those things never work for me, because it all feels random! I can say whatever! Who knows if it’s true or right! But when I’m trying to write a scene about my main character Flora getting a drink from the school vending machine, it just intuitively feels wrong to have her say “I think I’ll grab an Orangina today” or whatever, when of course her actual favorite soft drink is Diet Dr. Pepper like the garbage monster that she is!

Does Flora’s favorite soda matter at all to the reader? No. Of course not. That’s why those questionnaires don’t work for me–it’s not the facts themselves that matter, but the lived experience of the character that informs all of those likes, dislikes, perspective. That’s what creates a great voice, and as far as I know there are no shortcuts. The stories I’ve written that have been most successful worked because I spent ages at the beginning of the process just sort of dicking around writing these random scenes. Those scenes were what helped me figure out who Flora was and how she moved through the world.

And some of those seemingly random scenes actually made it into the book! “Flora eating meatball subs with romantic interest” became an important scene where we learn about her painful backstory, because the casual nature of the scene allowed her to be vulnerable enough to open up about her past. I had no intention of that happening, but once I actually put her in the space I discovered all these possibilities for how that type of situation would affect her emotionally. So, many apologies that I don’t have a convenient formula for this one, but at least this exercise is fun to do! And if anyone does know of a sweet shortcut to character voice, please for the love of god DM me.

James Patterson Presents - You're Next by Kylie Schachte

Kylie Schachte is a graduate from Sarah Lawrence College and an active member of the Pitch Wars online community as both an alum & mentor. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, cat, and giant dog. YOU’RE NEXT is her first book.

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Showing 3 comments
  • Catherine Berg

    Thanks so much, Kylie! I too have always found those “character surveys” so static that for me they don’t work. I like your suggestion of getting to know a character through writing scenes, much as we get to know people in real life.

  • Elizabeth Chestney

    This is such an amazing idea. I can see how useful it would be for establishing voice and character development. I’ve never heard of it before, so thank you so much! Can’t wait to try it.

  • Nancy Ferguson

    I’m excited to try this. Thank you!

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