Finding your voice, or, yet another post featuring a small, nagging bug

I begin today with some terrific news about one of our own, FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) and fabulous writer Caleb Powell has just signed with agent Diane Nine of DC-based agency Nine Speakers, Inc.. Congratulations, Caleb!

Keep that good news rolling in, everybody — we all love hearing about it.

Despite being happy for Caleb, I’m feeling a bit stuffy-headed today, perhaps due to the fact that the great big crabapple tree in my backyard has suddenly burst into magnificent masses of pink blooms. Very beautiful, very pollen-laden.

It reminds me of the small town — a village, really, ensconced within an agricultural preserve — where I grew up, in the Napa Valley. (Note to those not from those parts: PLEASE don’t refer to the entire area as Napa; it makes the locals apoplectic. Napa is a well-developed city on the south end of the quite rural Napa Valley. If you’re thinking of vineyards, you actually mean the latter. Thank you.)

Tourists overrun the Napa Valley in the autumn, when the grapevines sport leaves ranging from bright green to mellow gold to sunburned red, but my favorite time there has always been the early spring, this time of year, when the vines are dormant and the vineyards are full of knee-high fluorescent yellow mustard flowers: acres and acres of neon brilliance.

The local truism runs that if you don’t suffer from pollen allergies during a Napa Valley spring, you never will. Because I am inherently contrary, I never suffered from pollen allergies while I was living there. Then, years later, I moved to Seattle, where the pollen apparently especially virulent.


I bring this up, not merely because my head is stuffy, but as an apt metaphor for today’s topic. Some weeks back, intrepid and curious reader Gordon wrote in to ask:

Anne – How do we tell if our voice is actually …our voice—? Is there an easy answer, or do we rely on our early reader to tell us? Or our editor?

Terrific question, Gordon, and one that is surprisingly rarely discussed at literary conferences or in writing classes. There’s a pretty good reason for this: while craft is general, voice is individual.

Which is, I must admit, why my first response to this question was, “God, no — by definition, the best arbiter for a truly original voice is its author.” Authorial voice can’t really be taught (although there are some writing teachers who would disagree with me on that point): typically, it arises organically, often after years of cultivation.

I already hear some disgruntled muttering out there. “Very pretty, Anne,” these mutterers say, “but we’re looking for practicality here, not philosophy. What precisely IS voice, and why should I worry about whether my work exhibits a unique one?”

For those of you who have heard it bruited about in literary circles but were afraid to ask for a definition, voice is that combination of tone, worldview, vocabulary, rhythm, and style that makes one author’s work differ from another’s, even if they are telling the same story.

It is, to put it as simply as possible, what makes YOUR work sound like YOU, and not like someone else.

In a book with a strong, well-developed voice, every paragraph — indeed, every sentence — will be in that voice, a phenomenon the pros call consistency. And that’s darned hard for a writer to pull off, particularly (as is often the case for those new to the craft) if the writer in question isn’t quite sure what his voice IS.

But think about it: as a reader, don’t you expect consistency of voice — and haven’t you ever read a book where the tone, vocabulary, and/or style abruptly altered so much that it jarred you out of the storyline?

Most readers dislike that feeling of being pulled out of the story, so industry pros tend to edit with an eye to removing it. The result: the authors we tend to love are those whose voices are so consistent that if we took a two-line excerpt from Chapter 2 and another from Chapter 8, we could tell that the same person wrote them.

“Golly,” say the former scoffers, “that sounds awfully important. Why doesn’t every writers’ conference devote huge amounts of time to helping aspiring writers seek out and develop theirs?”

Beats me — unless it’s because by definition, teaching a group means catering to commonalities; to help a writer develop his voice, an instructor would have to read enough of his work to figure out what he does better than any other writer on the planet, the literary acumen to weed out those elements that are borrowed from other authors’ styles (more common than you might think), and the time to encourage the writer, draft after draft, to cater to his own strengths.

Kind of a tough brief for a one-time two-hour seminar with twenty students, no?

To be fair to conference organizers, most submissions do fall under the weight of formatting, grammar, and clarity problems, not an inconsistency of voice, so it does make some sense to offer instruction on those issues first. And when a writer is still struggling to express herself clearly and in a way that will appeal to an established market, those are definitely the skills she should master first.

Or, to put it another way, if her manuscript is not in standard format, contains many grammatical errors, and is confusing to read, an agent or editor’s rending his garments and crying, “But the voice is not consistent!” is probably the least of her worries.

So, to reiterate Gordon’s question, how does a writer know when he’s found his voice? For starters, it’s extraordinarily rare that an author’s distinctive personal voice shows up in her first writing projects, except perhaps in flashes.

Why? Well, as much as we might like to think of ourselves as expressing ourselves as no one else does, doing so in writing is a rather difficult skill to master. Most writers begin by imitating the voices of authors they admire, so it’s not at all uncommon to see a manuscript scene that contains a patch that reads a bit of Annie Proulx, a terse dialogue reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway, and a blistering line or two of Jay Mcinerney cynicism, all tied together by a few straightforward declarative sentences.

Tell me, out of all of those disparate elements, which part is the writer’s own voice?

Usually — and brace yourselves, because some of you may find this rather discouraging — a writer comes to recognize her own voice because over time, it becomes the most natural for her to use. Its consistency sits up and announces itself to be how she should be writing all the time.

Which means, Gordon, that I have quite an annoying answer to your excellent question: you may not know what your voice IS, but you will probably recognize it when you see it.

I know, I know; that sounds very woo-woo, but I swear that it’s true. For most good writers, one day, after seemingly endless writing, a personal voice abruptly emerges and takes over the narration, like all of those crabapple and mustard flowers bursting into bloom.

And the writer says, “Hey, I like that. I think I’m going to write like that all the time.”

To complicate matters, just as those early spring flowers make some people smile and others sneeze violently, a strong, original voice will not appeal to all readers, so not all published writing DOES exhibit an individual narrative voice. The more distinctive the voice, the greater the risk, in a way — it can irritate in a way that a merely clear, pleasant, generic voice may not.

And that, in case you were wondering, is one of the many reasons that journalists are trained to sound so much alike: they are urged to keep their individual voices out of the story, so as not to distract the reader.

The ambient mutters have been steadily growing to a near-roar. “Okay, now I’m REALLY confused,” I can hear some of you saying. “If I understand you correctly, it’s safer NOT to write in an individual voice, but if I want to be known for the beauty of my writing, I need not only to do just that, but to do it consistently throughout my manuscript.”

Nicely summarized, ghostly mutterers: it is a genuine paradox. It’s also a choice that every writer has to make for himself.

Feet continue to shuffle out there, and hips to shift uncomfortably on computer chairs. “What I’m really asking, I guess, is what separates a good voice from a bad voice. Or, to put it another way, how on earth can an agent, editor, or contest judge rate voice on anything but personal preference?”

Remember back in my Book Marketing 101 series, when I pointed out that, contrary to popular opinion amongst the aspiring, a writer shouldn’t want to sign with just ANY agent; she should aspire to signing with one who truly loves her work? This is precisely why — response to voice IS quite individual.

Is the common rejection line I just didn’t fall in love with it making a bit more sense now?

In order to represent you successfully, an agent needs not only to like your voice, but to be able to identify what is individual about it lucidly enough to be able to go to an editor and say truthfully, “Look, based on the books you have been buying lately, I think you are going to like this author’s voice, for these twelve reasons…”

Because a runny nose is apparently conducive to decoding cosmic mysteries, allow me to add: that’s why nonfiction is reputed to be easier to sell than fiction; fiction is inherently much more heavily reliant upon voice, right? Particularly literary fiction, where the freshness and strength of the voice is the book’s primary selling point.

And, let’s face it, no matter how strong a story is, few readers will finish a novel if they dislike the author’s voice. “I just couldn’t get into it,” they will say, setting it aside.

Nonfiction, on the other hand, is much more concerned with the interest of the subject matter, the slant of the approach, and — yes, I must say it — the credentials of the author. (Oh, stop your groaning — you didn’t honestly expect me to talk about selling NF {without} bringing up platform, did you?) While a strong voice may be an additional selling point, clarity is generally the main desiratum.

Unless, of course, it’s a memoir, where voice is nearly as important as in a novel.

Is your head spinning from all this? Not to worry; tomorrow, I shall discuss voice choices in greater detail.

For today’s purposes, it’s less important that you come away from this with a clear idea of the strategic uses of voice than to realize that you may well have more than one voice lurking inside you — and that before you can make it consistent throughout the narrative, you are going to want to give some thought to tailoring the one you choose to emphasize to the book project at hand.

“I’ve got just one more question,” the disgruntled mutterers who have been dogging me throughout this post are piping up to say. “Why did you decide to start talking about voice in what I sincerely hope is the middle, not the end, of a series on keeping our narratives moving?”

Because, my friends, there is more to revising a manuscript than deciding whether this sentence is necessary, that paragraph is clear, or a scene tells rather than shows. All of these are necessary, of course — but ideally, a revising writer should also be asking himself, “But does this part of the manuscript fit with the overall voice? Does it sound like ME?”

Just a small, noisy bug to stick in your ear while you’re reviewing your manuscript. Keep up the good work!

7 Replies to “Finding your voice, or, yet another post featuring a small, nagging bug”

  1. I must say your stuffy nose created a wonderful Ah-Ha! moment for my own spring-filled nose. Those darling “I just didn’t fall in love with it” rejections actually tell us that our particular voice didn’t resonate with that particular agent. Got it! Thank you — I’ll feel a little better now with those form rejections.

    I do have a small question, however. I wonder if — when we find OUR very own voice — if we must maintain that voice in every other fictional work so that when, if by some odd chance our name should become a household name, any one of our works would be happy, happy to our particular groupie readers. Of course I’m looking into a future that one could only dream of, but nevertheless, must each work reflect our newly-found voice forever? Or can we mix it up somewhat?

    1. Yes, Auburn! Realizing that at every level of book marketing is INCREDIBLY helpful to a writer’s sanity.

      And yet I seem not to have talked about it much, for some reason. As soon as that particular explanation fell off my fingertips onto the keyboard, I thought, “Wait — is it possible that I’ve never mentioned that here before?”

      Established authors do occasionally modify their well-known voices for a particular project — John Irving’s THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, for instance, has a much more 19th-century voice than most of his other works, to give it a more Dickensian feel.

      Typically, though, established authors will stick to the voice of their breakthrough book (i.e., the one that first brings them to serious public attention), for the simple reason that it’s generally expected. So much so, in fact, that a substantial deviation in a next book is generally accompanied by a flutter of interviews where the author explains to her readers WHY she changed her tune.

      Then, too, a very distinctive voice becomes its own brand, in a way, after an author’s works begin to sell well. A bestselling author who strolled into her agent’s office and announced, “You know, I’ve decided that my next book is going to be in a completely different voice,” would probably make not only her agent very nervous, but her editor and everybody else at her publishing house as well.

      All that being said, unless one’s voice consists of a set of pretty rigid sentence structures and literary tics, it probably will contain room for a certain amount of expansion.

  2. Anne – thank you. Since posing the question I wondered how the answer would be approached. I didn’t realize how much thought could go into an asnwer for such a simple question.
    I don’t think my mind would allow my fingers to paint a picture using an unfamiliar voice, I do think I’m stuck with what I have and by working with it, I can make it work within my stories. Can a voice truly be ‘acquired’ or does it find its own way as we hopefully mature into writers.
    Cormac McCarthy has a very distinctive voice, Auburn, and I think his public would be disappointed if his next sounded like John Irving. Just my thoughts.

    1. I probably should have warned you, Gordon — or at least let you know that I hadn’t forgotten your question.

      I should dearly love to see an edited volume where John Irving and Cormac McCarthy took on the same basic story — with perhaps entries by Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Walker, Rachel Ingalls, and Alan Hollinghurst. Perhaps Margaret Atwood as well. Can you imagine what a great textbook on voice that would be?

  3. Elvis Costello said that he spent a lot of time trying to sound like other people he admired. And it was when he failed to sound like them that he started to sound like himself.

    I’m totally with him on this. I still do things like this. I look at practically any page of something I’ve written and I can point out where it’s Austen with a twist, where it’s like Flannery O’Connor but not quite, where I seem to be channeling Shirley Jackson.

    Though the idea of channeling Shirley Jackson is a little frightening. I think I have to go lie down.

    1. Do you get any particular sensation when you channel Shirley Jackson, Dr. F? A slight tingling between the liver and the gall bladder, perhaps.

      I go through the same weeding-out process, though. Took me years to stop myself from falling into Noël Coward mode. But at least I had the advantage of growing up around other writers wise enough to read my early efforts and say, ‘Now, I’m flattered that you’re trying to sound like me, Pumpkin, but that shouldn’t be your goal here.”

  4. Thanks, Anne and Gordon. You both give me comfort that my voice is MY voice and can be used universally throughout various projects in fiction. I’d rather not deviate from how I approach fiction, although my nonfiction, or for that matter, my fiddling around here is a completely different voice.

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