Finding your voice, part II, or, why am I introducing you to a small, annoying bug?

My apologies to those of you looking forward to Sunday’s promised foray into book promotion. I shan’t bore you with the details of why it didn’t happen; suffice it to say that I will be really, really grateful when the universe stops finding such amusement in causing the lady with the cane to tumble over sideways. I’m hoping to do a couple of posts on subject this coming weekend, lenient gravity permitting.

I’m walking upright again today — Darwin would be so pleased — but I must confess, I’m feeling a bit stuffy-headed. It’s all in a good cause, however: my backyard lilac tree has been waving bushels of lavender flowers in my general direction. 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, whatever you do, 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, and if you’re thinking of a quaint little tourist trap, you’re probably thinking of my home town, 20 miles north of Napa. Believe me, when you’re living there, the difference between a city of 130,000 and a town of 5,000 could not be greater.)

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. The vines are dormant then, blasted-looking and leaf-free, but 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 growing up. Then, years later, I moved to Seattle, where the pollen is evidently virulent in a completely different fashion.

Particularly, I notice, lilac pollen. A-choo.

I bring this up, not merely so you will excuse me if I pause occasionally for a ladylike wipe of the nose, but as an apt metaphor for today’s topic, a continuation of Sunday’s discussion of voice. Let’s cut right to the central issue, as expressed by intrepid and curious reader Gordon’s comment:

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. While craft must be learned — and should be learned, as a means of clarifying and amplifying one’s voice — authorial voice is, like talent, inherent. And, like talent, individual voice is not always apparent in even a very gifted writer’s early efforts.

Which is, I must admit, why my first response to Gordon’s question was, “Please, don’t expect your future editor to define it for you — 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). It arises organically, often after years of cultivation.

And I already hear some disgruntled muttering out there. “A very pretty notion, 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 the term bruited about in literary circles but were afraid to ask for a definition, voice is that combination of tone, worldview, vocabulary, rhythm, vocabulary, 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 her voice is. “Is my voice how word patterns appear in my brain?” she might catch herself wondering. “Or on the page of a first draft? Or is my voice what ends up in a final revision? And how is what I like to read in other writers’ work different — and the same — as my personal voice?”

Yes, in response to what half of you just thought exceedingly loudly, those are some mighty weighty questions, ones that a thoughtful writer could spend a productive lifetime answering. But think about it on a practical level: as a reader, don’t you expect consistency of voice in a published book? 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?

Millicent the agency screener has, alas. So have her cousin Maury, the editorial assistant, and their aunt, Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. Lovers of literature that they are, it genuinely saddens them to see a voice that they have come to like and respect suddenly transmogrify into something else 150 pages into a manuscript. Or 50. Or 10.

And how do you think they are likely to react if the voice is uneven on page 1? Avert your eyes, children — it’s not a pretty image.

Nor are they alone in preferring consistency. Most readers dislike that feeling of being pulled out of the story, so 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 scoffers we met above, “voice sounds awfully important. Why doesn’t every writers’ conference devote immense 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. That’s assuming, of course, that the instructor has the literary acumen to weed out those elements that are borrowed from other authors’ styles (more common than you might think), as well as 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 long before your garden-variety Millicent would take issue with inconsistency of voice, so it does make some sense to offer instruction on those issues first. 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 up front. And it’s not all that uncommon for an aspiring writer only to begin addressing herself to acquiring craft skills until after she is relatively happy with the overall story she wants to tell.

Or, to put it another way, at the submission stage, 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. Nor is it likely to be Millicent’s first concern if the story has been insufficiently thought-out.

But let’s assume that you’ve been working tirelessly on these foundational issues, and now are pondering Gordon’s question: how does a writer know when he’s found his voice?

Does his writing abruptly jell in a way it had not before — and, if so, will that appealing congealing be immediately apparent to him? Or will he stumble upon a passage when he is reading his completed manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, AND OUT LOUD (I couldn’t resist) before responding to a request for pages, causing him to cry out, “Wow, I would like my entire book to read like this! I shall instantly drop everything to go back through this entire manuscript, page by page, line by line, to apply this engaging voice consistently throughout the book!”

Um, no, on all three counts. Not usually. Especially that bit where the writer realizes that if his newfound voice is going to work qua voice, he’s going to have to use it consistently throughout the manuscript.

So how does a writer discover her own voice? Well, 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. Even for those most beloved of the Muses, it takes time, and it takes practice.

It takes, in other words, more than just sitting down and writing a complete draft of a book. That’s the first step, typically, not the last: most writers will experiment with quite a few voices, vocabulary levels, approaches to scenes, etc. in drafting their first book or two. And that’s perfectly fine: after all, how are you going to know what you can and can’t pull off, or even what you like in your own writing, if you don’t try a variety of styles?

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering for the last few paragraphs, professional readers like Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel tend to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to manuscripts featuring a smorgasbord of voice experiments. To them, inconsistency of voice is a sign that the writer in question has not yet decided what she wants the book to sound like overall. So why not throw that fish back into the sea, to wait for it to grow bigger, stronger, and more consistent?

Okay, so that analogy crumbled a bit at the end; try as I might, I can’t figure out what an inconsistent fish would act like. (Attempt to breathe air every second Thursday of the month, maybe?) But that’s precisely why I used it: see how jarring even a single consistent sentence can be to a narrative?

Besides, 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? Is it really Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel’s job to guess?

Most of the time — and you might want to sit down for this one, campers; some of you may find what I have to say next 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 you may not yet 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 lilac and mustard flowers bursting into bloom on a rainy spring morning, its essence will waft over the page, marking it.

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. That’s why, in case you had been wondering, no not all published writing exhibits an distinct 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.

Oh, you didn’t know that was one of the many reasons that journalists are trained to sound so much alike on the printed page? 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. 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. Or herself, as the case may be. (I’ve alternated so often in this post that I’m not sure whose turn it is.)

Feet continue to shuffle out there, and hips to shift uncomfortably on computer chairs. “What I’m really asking, I guess,” my muttering friends continue, “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 last autumn’s Querypalooza series, when I pointed out early and often that contrary to popular opinion amongst the aspiring, a savvy 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. No matter how beautifully-written a manuscript may be, it’s not going to be every agent’s proverbial cup of tea.

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 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 manuscript, 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?) Just think of the many, many nonfiction books sold each year by journalists: 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. (And I’m going to try like heck to do it on the literal morrow, not merely the next time the pratfall-happy medical gods happen to allow me enough energy to post.)

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 your creative mind at this very moment — and that before you can make it consistent throughout the narrative, you are going to have to (a) identify the contenders, (b) decide which one you want to dominate the narrative, and (c) set aside some serious revision time for implementing that decision. If, as sometimes amuses the Muses to facilitate, you happen to like more than one of your voice options, you might want to (d) give some thought to which would be most appropriate to the book project at hand (which would fit most comfortably into your chosen book category, which is most likely to appeal to your target readership, etc.), reserving other options for your second, third, or fourth book.

Hey, no one ever said that developing a unique voice was easy. Or uncomplicated.

“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 at the end of the Pet Peeves on Parade series? If my authorial voice is what is most distinctively me in my manuscript, shouldn’t we have been talking about it all along?”

Ah, but remember what I said above about the usually progression of the authorial learning curve: first comes story, then craft, with voice discovery generally lollygagging to a distant third-place finish. That’s necessary and appropriate — and, frankly, it’s a heck of a lot easier for a writer who has already invested energy in polishing up storytelling and craft issues to tinker with voice than one who has not.

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 in the wake of the Pet Peeves on Parade series. Allow it to jump around freely until next time; perhaps it will awaken an exciting aspect of your voice that’s been napping, waiting until you were ready to hear it. Keep up the good work!

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