Friday, June 9, 2017

VOICE by Sondra Soderborg

VOICE! VOICE! Publishers, editors, and agents all want it. Ask them what they mean and they will all say something a little different. So what is it? And how do we get it?

Voice is hard to define. Most definitions treat it as equivalent to style or to mean the voice of a first person narrator. These are fine, and both style and first person POV are tools we might use in creating voice, but neither captures what we’re being asked for.  Publishing professionals are asking for something bigger. They want VOICE.

My own way of thinking about VOICE is that it is the current buzzword for what publishers always want--an authentic story told fresh and true and up close. Our style may be recognizable from one book to the next. But the VOICE of each book, the song and sound and feeling of it, will be unique every time. Think how distinct the VOICE in THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX is from FLORA AND ULYSSES, and yet both are strong and fresh and for me, hard to get out of my head. Kate DiCamillo has a great toolbox for creating VOICE. So does Gary D. Schmidt, who will be speaking at our SCBWI-MI fall conference. I can’t recommend him enough.

Every decision we make as a writer shapes the VOICE of our novel. I’ve been fortunate to study VOICE at Highlights Foundation Workshops taught by Patricia Lee Gauch, who has written many books for young people and who had an illustrious career as an editor at Philomel. She has helped me build my own toolbox for VOICE, and with her permission, I am sharing some of her insights.

Intimacy: As writers we have to know and convey who are characters are intimately and specifically. Whether we are writing in first person or third person personal, we must be right up close, revealing our character’s innermost thoughts and feelings in words only they would use. I love the frank intimacy of the opening pages of Sherman Alexie’s THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN. In an instant, we know many things about him, including that he has a brain condition, thinks of himself as a weirdo, and moves between cultures and classes.

Surprise: If we are writing fresh stories or old stories in fresh ways, our readers should hear and see things they don’t expect and yet accept and believe them because they belong in the world of the story. Neil Gaiman’s THE GRAVEYARD BOOK is based on a surprising and unlikely idea, and he integrates the unexpected everywhere, including plot, characters, setting. Surprise helps define the world of this novel, in whimsical and scary ways.

Concrete Nouns: Ordinary objects ground a story. When we choose the details that make up a scene, nouns make the world of our novel more real, immediate and visible. We can wind ordinary objects through our story, so that they occur again and again. Kate DiCamillo does this well in DESPEREAUX, where ordinary things—soup, spoons, bowls, kettles—recur. This is unremarkable stuff, except that in the world of the book, soup is outlawed, so that these ordinary objects, things the reader sees and touches every day, become filled with meaning.

Repetition: Words, ideas, details, phrases that repeat throughout our story reinforce whatever they are connected to. In OK FOR NOW Gary Schmidt’s main character loves the Yankees. Details about the Yankees show up over and over. Better yet, in his eleven word, three sentence third paragraph, the words “to me,” show up three times. After that repetition, I know that Doug Swietek, the boy who repeats those words three times, struggles to know who he is. Kelly Barnhill in THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, uses repetition to drive plot and theme and to simply create her magical world.

Break the Rules: In order to create VOICE, we need, to quote Patti Gauch, “to write in the distinct way our characters or narrators speak and think and react. If they speak in aberrant ways, ways that break grammatical rules, so be it. Communication doesn’t always follow the rules.”

Sondra Soderborg writes middle grade novels and will be taking two to market later this year.  She lives in an Ann Arbor and loves the support and encouragement of her SCBWI chapter.  

Thanks for sharing what you learned at the Highlights Foundation workshops, Sondra! Author Gary D. Schmidt's novel, OKAY FOR NOW, was one of Sondra's VOICE examples, and she mentioned that he will be speaking at the SCBWI-MI Fall Conference. Here's your opportunity to learn directly from him. Go here to see the entire faculty line-up, and save the date: Sept. 15-16, 2017.

* The SCBWI-MI Illustrator Mentorship submission window is now open! Learn more here.

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Behind the scenes with our co-RA's, our Grammar Guru tackles common mistakes, and more MI KidLit Advocates. Plus, another round of Hugs and Hurrahs! We want to trumpet your success. Do you have an upcoming book release? Did you sign with an agent? Did you publish a children's story or poem in a magazine? Did you win a contest? We want to know! Please send your good news to Patti Richards by June 27th to be included.

* The Mitten blog is always looking for contributors. See our Submissions page for content ideas and guidelines.

Happy creating!
Kristin Lenz


  1. When I was working on the committee that wrote new Language Arts Standards for Michigan schools, and we presented the standards to the State Board of Education in Lansing, I was responsible for Standard Four, VOICE. I used student work examples to show how teachers could help students develop voice in their writing by using writers' craft and originality to get their lives, their essence across to an audience of real readers. I continue to work in schools with this emphasis, crossing genres from poetry to memoir to essay. A close study of many authors to examine just how they succeed can put kids in varied shoes to walk around and see what style fits best for them. What will their voice be? Teachers should have a craft focus for each novel kids read. Kids should be able to tell you what Paulson does. What's a favorite passage and why that Rowling writes? "I like it" is not enough. Does the author use specific detail? Repetition of threes? Complex grammatical structures? Sentence variation? Armed with these tools, kids begin to be valuable conference partners with peers. Voice is critical to successful writing.

    1. I bet that was an interesting time of your professional career, Barbara. Thank you for your service on behalf of our young leaners.

  2. Thanks, Sondra and all the Mitten folk for another good post with concrete examples. S.

  3. Brava Sondra! Great to "hear" your voice in this article. It was even greater to hear your voice in person at Patti's retreat. May Breanna & Barnabas knock the socks off the world!

  4. This is great information Sondra. I missed you at the Ann Arbor shop talk so I'm glad you posted this month. Thank you for the sharing and giving the examples you did.

  5. Excellent post, Sondra. I don't think we can ever get enough viewpoints on VOICE.