Friday, September 18, 2015

Write What THEY Know: Using Your Character's Passions to Develop Voice (Part 3) by Katie Van Ark

In the first two parts of this series, I wrote about my personal struggles with developing voice and how using my character's passions and backgrounds helped me develop a new voice for one of my own works in progress. Today I'll focus on advice and exercises for your own writing.

First, unless you already have a great deal of personal experience or background in the sport, hobby, or culture, please do your research before attempting to use it as a lens. Like all passionate people, your characters must know their passion inside and out for their voices to be believable. I easily wrote about figure skaters because I was one. When I tried to write from a hockey player's perspective? Toe pick trip. I could write games scenes well enough from the random games I'd glimpsed at the rink. But the only time I'd “breathed” hockey was while pinching my nose on my way to the figure skater's locker room. I didn't know hockey well enough to write that character, so I ditched my toe picks for a few weeks to play in a local women's spring league. I followed the Blackhawks in  the Chicago Tribune sports pages, watched game tape, and studied hockey play books like my own personal championships depended on it. Immersing myself in hockey gave me a greater appreciation for the sport and an understanding about what my character loved about it that not only improved his voice but helped shape the entire novel.

Beware of outside influences that may be spoiling your voice attempts. When I was writing Jonah's voice, my script-obsessed character from part two of this series, Dawson's Creek reruns were great. When I was trying to write my hockey character, I now had a jock who sounded like Dawson. I switched to Friday Night Lights and had a much easier time in my writing sessions. Your reading material can have the same effect.

A great exercise to try is one that author M.T. Anderson calls “emblandishment.” This means taking a section of writing that you love and breaking it down into its barest bones. Consider this paragraph from my novel, The Boy Next Door:

It's not a move he needs more practice with but I let my body arch into his touch all the same. I know how to handle myself on ice, but this isn't ice. This is fire. And soon it's going to be out of control. Gabe doesn't push for anything more than my bra but it's enough for me to realize that I'm not thinking about if this is special and that right now I don't give even a single Axel about forever. When his hands are on me, I feel the same sense of exhilaration I feel just before the top of a split triple twist. I'm soaring and weightless.

What this basically says is this: “I enjoy Gabe touching me enough to stop thinking about if it's a good idea. His touch exhilarates me.” Flavoring it with Maddy's passion for skating, though, brings it to life. Try this out on your own favorite passages that I asked you to find in part one, then look for bare bone places in your own work (as I did in part two) and see what you can do.
Finally, don't get discouraged if your search takes awhile. The journey for voice is a new journey with each novel and it has to be. Authors need to get to know their characters, too, and nobody lays everything out on the first date, right? Think about how you bond with another person. We are all unique individuals with vastly different life experiences and interests yet we are drawn together by our shared passions.

I now like to think about my work as cups of tea. I am the canister of loose leaves and I seep a little of my own passions, either existing or new, into each of my novels. And in doing so, I not only give my characters stronger voices but I become more passionate about my writing as well, having infused it with something I love. Brew your own characters' voices by playing up their passions.

Katie Van Ark lives in Michigan with two little girls who love mud, a cat that thinks it's a dog, and a very patient husband. The Boy Next Door, a YA figure skating love story, is her first novel. Visit her online at or on Twitter @kvanark.

Thanks to Katie for kicking off the school year with this three-part series on developing voice. We've had a studious month, and now it's time for some fun. We'll wrap up the month with another round of Hugs and Hurrahs (send your good news to Patti Richards at by Sept. 22nd). In October, Nina Goebel will reveal our new blog banner created by our new Featured Illustrator! I'll miss our delightful summer banner created by Jennifer Scott, but I'm looking forward to a new season.

Would you like to contribute a guest post for the Mitten blog? Read the submission guidelines here.
Have a great weekend!

Kristin Lenz

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Write What THEY Know: Using Your Character's Passions to Develop Voice (Part 2) by Katie Van Ark

In the first part of this series, I wrote about my own struggles trying to develop unique voices for characters in first person POV novels and how a friend's comment about how artists see the world a different way made me think about if I could use my character's passions as lenses to help bring out their voices. When I began writing this article, I found an old YA novel I'd started and set aside during my period of writing “laryngitis.” It began like this:

Jonah’s eyes scanned the room for any and all possible exits. How was he going to get out of here? Running away might make him look like an idiot, but maybe that’s what he was. Skip the maybe part.  He was so stupid for letting people set him up on dates. After this many disasters, he should have learned his lesson.

There may be nothing horribly wrong here at first glance, but there isn't anything great either. Jonah could be anybody; all we know about him at this point is that he's having a bad date.

In a later version, I'd tried to find voice by switching to first person and immersing myself in the action:

So school will be no problem, with the uniforms, but outside? I have a lot of blue in my wardrobe, how about you?” Kimmi's voice squeals like markers on a white board. She can't be Kim or Kimmy, either, those names aren't original enough. Go figure that someone obsessed with being different would want us to wear matching outfits all the time so everyone will know we're a couple.
“Excuse me, I'll be right back.” I stand so quickly I almost trip myself on the legs of the restaurant table.

I now had less internal thought and more dialogue and action, but I still lacked a fully developed character. Even in first person, I was still using my “authorial” voice. Frustrated, I'd put the work aside.

Now I wondered: would considering Jonah's passions help me find his voice? Jonah had appeared in my first novel, The Boy Next Door, as a bit part so I knew his family was French and he was in the running for valedictorian. I added French phrases and upped his vocabulary choices. But what else was there to this character? Working through my overall story arc, I realized that a mutual enthusiasm for film would bring Jonah and his love interest closer and also let me use a tendency to think through his life scenes as film scenes to help with his voice. The result:

"Esp├Ęce de merde. Species of shit. All species of shit. I examine the bathroom window. My six foot frame means I could reach it but it also means that I'll fit through it the day that chickens grow teeth. I slump back against the cool tile of the men's room wall. At least it's quiet in here. The urinals reek of piss but stink way less than what I've just escaped on the other side of that six-paneled door. I pull out my phone and start dictating my latest first date fiasco:


Upbeat music, tables of couples and groups laughing and chatting. Jonah and Kimmi sit at a table in the center.

So we should like totally wear matching outfits so everyone knows we're a couple?


With the uniforms at school that'll be, like, way easy? But after? Do you like blue?


Of course, other aspects of this scene have been altered as well. I'm now starting the scene in the bathroom (where Jonah eventually fled in the previous drafts) and this may not be the final draft, either, but as far as voice goes? That's a wrap.

Check back for some practical tips and exercises in Part 3!

Katie Van Ark lives in Michigan with two little girls who love mud, a cat that thinks it's a dog, and a very patient husband. The Boy Next Door, a YA figure skating love story, is her first novel. Visit her online at or on Twitter @kvanark.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Write What THEY Know: Using Your Character's Passions to Develop Voice (Part 1) by Katie Van Ark

My first time at critique group, I soaked up my fellow writers' compliments on my “voice” in my figure skating romance. Though I was new to writing, I'd already heard the art-versus-science debates over this elusive aspect of craft. Well, I thought, I didn't need to worry about if voice could be taught or if it required natural talent. I already had it. Then came novel number two, and my critique partners said: “These characters sound... just like your first characters.”

As I looked back over my draft, I had to agree they were right. I didn't have voice. I'd only given my voice to that first set of characters. Unable to skate competitively myself while pregnant with my first daughter, I'd followed the old advice to “write what you know” and poured out my longing for the ice into The Boy Next Door. Expressions like “see you later, figure skater” and “smooth as ice, that move” had glided onto the page. Now they were back to haunt me like instant replays of a bad fall.

As a reader, I've always been drawn to stories with strong voice and the realization that maybe I didn't have voice after all hit hard. But as a skater, I was used to getting back up. I brushed myself off, deciding that if I didn't have voice, then I was going to learn it. However, I seemed stuck in an ice rut. My MFA program advisor was telling me my newest hero's voice sounded like a girl and the voice muse was ditching practice. (Case in point in these last two sentences, right?)

Then an illustrator friend and fellow SCBWI member, Kathryn Dilley, surprised me at dinner one night with a confession. As a child, she had never thought she could draw until a classmate explained that the skill was all about looking at the world a different way. Kathryn went on, trying to explain how artists see negative space, but her words had sidetracked me: looking at the world a different way. Developing voice was about seeing the world my character's way. My skating lens had given my first characters their voices. Could different lenses help me develop different voices?

Think about meeting people at a party, the way they come to life when you bring up one of their favorite subjects. Miranda Kenneally scored a touchdown using her heroine's passion for football to develop her voice in her young adult romance, CATCHING JORDAN. Jordan confesses her feelings for football in the very first paragraph: “I once read that football was invented so people wouldn't notice summer ending. But I couldn't wait for summer to end. I couldn't wait for football. Football, dominator of fall – football, love of my life.” However, Kenneally also weaves football completely into Jordan's words. How would someone who loves football think about time? Not as after dinner but as “before Monday night football.” Jordan's grass isn't green, it's like “lying on Astroturf, only without the rug burns” and her feeling of emptiness is “a playbook without plays.”

In I'LL MEET YOU THERE, Heather Demetrios used Josh's military experience as a lens for the brief sections told through his perspective while flavoring Skylar's world with her passion for art and specifically collage. And of course passions aren't limited to sports or other hobbies. People are often passionate about their families and cultural backgrounds, and both of these can influence their word choices and tone as well.

In the next part of this series, I'll give you an example of how I applied a new lens to improve the voice in my own work in progress, but in the meantime I'd love to hear about some of the books that have voices you love. Please share!

Katie Van Ark lives in Michigan with two little girls who love mud, a cat that thinks it's a dog, and a very patient husband. The Boy Next Door, a YA figure skating love story, is her first novel. Visit her online at or on Twitter @kvanark.

Thank you, Katie! This article was first published in the Romance Writers Report (RWR) by Romance Writers of America (RWA), and Katie revised it for this blog series.

Wishing everyone a fun holiday weekend and a smooth start to school. We'll see you back here next Friday for Part 2 of Katie's series on developing voice. 

Another round of Hugs and Hurrahs are right around the corner. Remember to send your good news to Patti Richards at

Kristin Lenz