Voice Lessons for Writers

Edgar-Degas-Singer-with-a-Glove-Oil-PaintingMy daughter first sang in public when she was three years old. I can still see her in a dark-flowered dress, fearlessly belting out “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in a husky voice that someone once referred to as a whiskey tenor. By age four she was singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and later went on to such standbys as “Tomorrow” and “My Heart Will Go On.” The latter, despite its unabashed sentiment, was a personal favorite of mine. I probably drove her crazy by asking her to sing it again and again.

I enjoyed taking her to voice lessons year after year, and vicariously experiencing what it was to be a singer — emphasis on the word vicariously. And while I still can’t sing a lick (not even in the shower), her lessons were about much more than how to carry a tune. I’ve been able to apply some of what I heard her learn to the music of my writing.

1. Find your voice:

Many things help singers to find their voice including learning their range, choosing the songs they want to sing, and doing vocal exercises.

It’s also important to find your voice when writing a novel, though it can be hard to pin down what “voice” in a novel actually means. Is it point of view or style? Is it related to the type of book you’re writing (noir, romance, literary)? Or is it the music of your prose? An author’s voice includes all of the above. It can seem elusive, but once you ‘hear’ your voice as you’re writing, it will carry you like a song. And when you lose it, you know it.

Michelle Hoover, my writing instructor once told us, if you can’t get the voice right in your novel, if you keep trying and failing, it might mean it’s time to start a new novel. Voice is that important.


2. Don’t strain for the high notes:

Singers have a range. Some notes are easy to hit, some notes can be aimed for, and some notes are simply impossible.

As with singing, when you’re writing something that is out of your range it can feel like you’re straining. My personal strain-point is when writing about the things a character does while talking. My characters shrug, frown, raise eyebrows, and shake their heads far too much. Reading how other writers handle this can help, and Google is your friend. There are lots of images out there of people (and even cats) raising eyebrows, but if you find yourself writing something like “an invisible pulley lifted one of his eyebrows higher than the other” you’re probably trying too hard.


3. Expand your range:

When she was around 12, my daughter decided to become a soprano. Her low voice was great for blues and rock and roll, but sopranos got all the best musical theater roles. I was skeptical, but after many hours of practice with lessons based on classical sopranos, my daughter expanded her range.

Writers are often inspired by other writers. On the flip side, sometimes when working on a novel writers avoid reading certain authors because they don’t want to be too influenced and lose their own voice.

But if you’re having trouble with voice, finding the right influence can help. If your sentences feel flat, sample some Fitzgerald or Virginia Woolf. If your noir voice is slipping, cue up some Raymond Chandler. By absorbing the music of their prose and ‘singing’ along with writers whose work resonates with you, you can expand the range of your narrative voice.


4. Don’t Belt Out the Whole Song:

Singers not only focus on getting the notes right, but on the dynamics of a song, like when to sing softly and when to be loud. In the clip below from “My Heart Will Go On” (alas, I still love it), Celine Dion starts soft, gets louder till she really belts it out at the climax, and then fades into silence at the end. Her delivery of the song mirrors the classic arc of a story.

Like good singers, writers need to vary the volume of the voice in their novels, and may want to ‘belt it out’ as they approach the climax.  Even if you don’t adhere to a classic arc, you do need to vary the intensity of your voice between chapters and scenes to best create an emotional impact. Otherwise everything will sound the same, and that’s boring.

5. If You Want to Sing Out, Sing out:

There’s a lot to be learned about singing, but sometimes all the lessons — all the tips, the self-criticism, the wish to be perfect, the nerves of performing — can conspire to make singing not fun anymore. You might even stop singing.

For writers as well there’s no shortage of information out there on craft, no shortage of workshops and chances for feedback. But sometimes you can get so focused on navigating all the advice that you forget the joy of writing. When that happens, I reacquaint myself with it by stepping into a virtual shower and singing (well, actually writing) my heart out.



Showing 6 comments
  • EB Moore

    Great advice on all counts

  • Michelle Hoover

    I did say that, didn’t I? And yes, sadly, I still believe it. Lovely post, Emily.

  • Kelly Ford

    I adore “My Heart Will Go On” for the same reasons. I don’t care how uncool or overplayed it is. It’s a great song, and I’m going to put it on repeat, starting now.

    Great lessons for both singers and writers!

  • Emily Ross

    Thanks Kelly! I have also been know to put that song on repeat.

  • Rob Wilstein

    great post, Emily. I can’t sing either, try as I might. But it doesn’t stop me from trying, in the car, the shower. Same for writing. Thanks.

  • Carol Gray

    Thanks Emily. I love the eyebrow raising cat and the way you link gesture with voice.

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