Your voice already exists, right now, every time you sit down to write. It is inescapable—your voice is you. Voices can be obscured, even buried, under avalanches of helpful advice and nudges to be more literary or more commercial or less gritty or less sexual, but it cannot be entirely lost.

I was once hiking with a multi-national group, and one of the guys was an Australian who treasured his American accent imitation. When he finally let us hear it, the two Americans burst out laughing. We didn’t mean to be cruel, but he sounded like Tony Soprano—he’d absorbed his “authentic” accent from Mafia movies. The poor Aussie was crushed.

All too often, this is what happens to the emerging voice of a writer. The perfectly natural, perfectly beautiful accent of an Australian ends up sounding like New Jersey circa 1976.

How does it happen? How do you prevent it and allow your natural voice to emerge?

Of all the craft subjects in writerdom, voice is my favorite. I’ve been teaching it online and in workshops around the world for a long time, and it never, ever gets old. I teach it as a hands-on, down and dirty, gritty and joyful exploration of…YOU. Voice is the sum of all your parts—your passions and interests, the geography that most clearly resonates with you, the cadence of your ancestors and neighbors and your education, and the major events that have shaped your life-view. Your voice already exists, right now.

It becomes thinned and anemic when you listen too much to outside influences. Like critique partners. Editors. Contest judges. Your mother. Not that there is anything wrong with that input. We all need feedback. The trouble comes in getting lost in what everybody else says.

Your voice becomes more fully your own when you listen to your inner guidance, studying yourself as much as you study craft. (Notice I did not say: abandon all studies of craft and other writers and never listen to anybody else ever again. I said, study yourself, too.) The most authentic and beautiful gift each of us has to offer the world is our own peculiar, unique view of the universe.

When you get in line with that, that’s when you start to own what editors and agents call “a strong voice.” When you develop that particularity within your work, that’s when you don’t have to be afraid of going down the wrong track with your work—because you’re listening within as well as without. Listening to your voice will tell you what genre is right for you, what settings, what kinds of characters you should be writing.

For example, I’ll use a man who isn’t a writer, but could be—my father. He was a cop and then an insurance salesman. As a very young lad, he knew a lot of death and loss. He grew up entirely in Colorado Springs, the youngest of the family because the younger brother died. He has a dark view of the world, and a practical one. He knows terrible things happen and he does his best to protect himself and his loved ones from destruction. He’s a no-nonsense kind of guy.

I’m sure you are shocked to learn he only reads mystery novels, and nothing flowery about them, either. If he were a writer, that’s what he would write.

You are as clearly defined as my father, as any writer out there who has tapped into his own voice by accident or intent. Most often, those writers who have tapped in powerfully, enough to start bidding wars and land gigantic advances, have done it because they are passionate about what they’re writing. Look at the writers you’d like to emulate and see if that isn’t true.

So how do you find your own authentic voice? It’s a big subject, but here are a few exercises to help:

1. Pay attention to the geography of your life. This is the single most formative element of your voice. Were you raised in a single place? Did you travel with the military?

What were the influential accents in those places? Write about the place(s) in timed writings (see below) and see what comes up. How might your work be better if you connect to those powerful spots?

2. What is the “music” of the voice in your head? You can find out what your natural rhythm is by using timed writings, which are 5-20 minute periods of writing as fast as you can on a given subject. It’s best done by hand, but I realize a lot of writers don’t like that. Don’t correct. Don’t stop. Just keep writing. Don’t think too much! (For a lot of great prompts, check out Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.)

Do a number of them, say 20 or more, then take a look at the results. Do you naturally write short sentences? Long? Do you like formal language or more colloquial? Do you swear? How about the sound of the words—soft consonants, sliding like water over stones, or clattery consonants banging around? Read the pieces aloud. What do you notice?

3. The seven-year-old writer self is very authentic. Spend a 20 minute period writing as fast as you can on the prompt: “I am seven years old….” See what that seven-year-old has to say. At seven, we’ve not yet lost ourselves to what the world thinks we should be. We’re often still mighty. A healthy seven-year-old often wants to save the world. A broken or lost seven-year-old has a lot to say, too, that can help you.

4. My favorite exercise of all time: write a list of 25 things you love. Not “I love my husband and my children and my dog,” but “I love my dog’s big fuzzy black and red nose, which is as soft as velvet” and “I love my son’s extreme vanity over his abs and how much he loves being himself” and “I love dipping fresh Italian bread into roasted garlic soaked in pools of olive oil.”

On this one, go for it. Then take a look later and see if you can see any themes. What are your primary senses? What are your primary focuses?

Finally, the last thing to remember is that the more you play with your writing, the stronger your voice will become. It doesn’t show up when you’re being serious and trying to please The World. It shows up when you are being yourself, in a safe world you have created to protect your work.

I have created a voice worksheet for my workshops and you can download it at A Writer Afoot. Check it out. Maybe it will spark some illuminations for you.

Questions?

About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.