Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, May 10, 2010

How to Craft a Great Voice

Voice is one of the most difficult writing terms to define and pinpoint. We might know it when we see it, but what's voice made of, really? You hear so often that agents and editors want "new voices" and "compelling voices" and voice voice voice. So what is voice? How do you cultivate it? And how many rhetorical questions do you think can I fit into one post?

Voice, at its most basic level, is the sensibility with which an author writes. It's a perspective, an outlook on the world, a personality and style that is recognizable even out of context. You could drop randomly into a David Sedaris story or an Ernest Hemingway novel and probably guess the author within a few paragraphs because they have strong, unique voices. An author's voice is often imitated (think: Tolkien), but a truly original voice can never be duplicated.

So what makes a good voice? How do you cultivate one?

Among the essential elements:

Style: At its heart, voice is about style. And not just style in the sense of punctuation and how the prose looks on the page (though that can play a role), but style in the sense of a flow, a rhythm, a cadence to the writing, a vocabulary, lexicon, and slang the author is drawing upon. A voice can be wordy (William Faulkner) or it can be spare (Cormac McCarthy). It can be stylish and magical (Jeanette Winterson) or it can be wry and gritty (Elmore Leonard). It can be tied to unique locations (Toni Morrison) or it can be almost wholly invented (Anthony Burgess). But whatever the flavor of the writing, a good voice has a recognizable style.

Personality: A good voice has a personality of its own, even when the novel is written in third person. There's an outlook that is expressed in a voice. It's a unique way of seeing the world and choosing which details to focus on and highlight and a first draft of how the reader will process the reality of the book. Think of how Catch-22 captured the absurdity of WW-II by boiling down irrational rules and presenting them at face value, or Stephen Colbert's TV character, always seeing things and arguing from an invented perspective. There's a tone to a good voice, whether it's magical (J.K. Rowling) or slightly sinister (Roald Dahl) or hyper-aware (John Green).

Consistency: A good voice is consistent throughout a novel. It may get darker or lighter or funnier or sadder, but it doesn't suddenly shift wildly from whimsical to GRUESOME MURDER. (Unless, of course, the voice is capable of it). A good voice is never lost when the plot shifts.

Moderation: Even the strongest voices don't over-do it. Voices are not made up of repeated verbal tics ("You know," "like," "so I mean," "I was all," etc.) but are much more nuanced than that. They are not transcribed real-life dialogue, they give the impression of a real-life voice while remaining a unique construct.

Transportation: A good voice envelops the reader within the world of a book. It puts us in a certain frame of mind and lets us see the world through someone else's perspective, and provides not just the details of that world but also gives a sense of the character of the world. Basically: see J.K. Rowling.

Authority: From Bryan Russell (aka Ink) (full comment below): "For me, one of the absolutely key elements of voice is authority. With a great voice you know the writer is in control, so in control that the writer vanishes and you see only the story... A great voice carries you through the story, compels you through the story. I think all great voices have that... There's a sureness to a great voice. The words are simply right and the rhythms of the prose are buoyant. You won't sink, not with these voices."

Originality: Above all, a good voice is unique and can't be duplicated. It is also extremely contagious. And this is the hardest thing about starting off a novel: we have thousands of authors' voices swimming around our heads, many of them quite powerful, and they are only too happy to take up residence in our current Work in Progress. But that's okay! Don't sweat it if it doesn't come right away: We all have to find our voice, and one of the best ways to do that is to just write, even if what you're starting with is derivative. You may need to keep writing until you find the voice. Just remember to revise revise revise the opening in said voice once you have it.

Authenticity: And this is the key to finding the voice: your voice is in you. It's not you per se, but it's made up of bits and pieces of you. It may be the expression of your sense of humor or your whimsy or your cynicism or frustration or hopes or honesty, distilled down or dialed up into a voice. We should never make the mistake as readers of equating an author with their voice, but they're wrapped up together in a complicated and real way. We leave fingerprints all over our work. That part of you in your work is what makes it something that no one else can duplicate.

What do you think? What do you think makes for a good voice, and what are some of your favorites?

Photo by Jan Mehlich via Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.5






124 comments:

dirtywhitecandy said...

I think you know you've found your voice when you are no longer tempted to try someone else's - and that means a good voice is a confident one.
Some of my favourites... ooh so many! Ian Fleming, Alisdair Gray, Graham Greene, Laurie Lee, Jack Vance... All of them have a quality that makes you want to sit at their feet and just spend time with them.

Thomas Taylor said...

An excellent break down of voice. My voice broke years ago.

Joseph said...

A great example is Robert E. Howard. Read his Conan stories and then read de Camp, Jordan, and others later. You can see the similarities, but none managed to capture Howard's voice. Their stories were never as good as the originals.

Jane Harmony said...

Great summary of 'voice'. I've never been able to put it into words before.

My favorites? Suzanne Collins is one, James Patterson is another.

I think the authors with the best voices are those that keep running through your head even after you've put the book down. When you start thinking the way an author writes...they had a good voice.

Jen P said...

A good voice? : Margaret Atwood. Her writing voice seems timeless.

How do you cultivate one? : I think this is hard without it becoming forced. It seems to have to be natural and sit behind the storyline, rather than be obvious and block it. If as I write I become too conscious of it, then the writing reads as if I'm trying too hard.

David said...

Is it born or made? Mostly born, I think, but then refined with experience.

Tim Susman said...

Absolutely my favorite master of voice is David Mitchell ("Cloud Atlas," "Black Swan Green"). "Cloud Atlas" in particular is six amazing, distinct voices in one book.

As for cultivating a voice...the way I try to do it is to imagine the character whose voice is telling the story, even if it's just a disembodied narrator. Craft it just as you would a character in a story. If you aren't worried about varying your voice (and you shouldn't) then let your own personality come through. Don't be afraid of getting close to the story; imagine you're telling it to your spouse/children/friends.

abc said...

Bloggers Heather Armstrong (Dooce) and Mimi Smartypants (real name?) have wonderful, comedic, entertaining voices. Nathan, too, of coursies.

For dark and inviting, I am taken with Gillian Flynn, a relatively new voice in sinister mystery (did I just invent a category?).

David Foster Wallace=wowza!

Writer's Block NZ said...

Ahh the infamous 'voice'. Can a 'voice' be created through editing? Or is it really one of those natural talents, like singing. Or using a lightsaber... I can't do either of those things but I'd like to think I have a 'voice' in my writing. But how do I know if I do?

Favourite voice: Dan Koontz because his writing sounds the same and also sound completely different with every book. I don't know how he does both at the same time.

Mary McDonald said...

Great breakdown, Nathan. It's very helpful.

I love when I read something and it draws me in effortlessly. I know that's when the author has a great voice.

I hope I have a decent one. People often say that like my style of writing. Since I don't aim for any particular style, I hope what they really mean is that my writing has voice. I hope my voice isn't off-key.

lisanneharris said...

The problem I have is, I'm so close to my writing, I can't tell if I have a unique voice or not. It's plain old me using the words I always use when speaking or thinking in the real world. I suppose I need someone on the outside to tell me if what they see in my work is a unique and compelling voice...or not.

I love your explanation, Nathan. You've articulated it well. Thank you!

Kelly Wittmann said...

Great post, Nathan. In the past, I've worred about one protagonist's voice "carrying over" to the next novel. I try to shake myself up by thinking of as many differences between Protag A and Protag B as I possibly can.

Meghan Ward said...

This post is so timely for me because I've been thinking about voice all weekend. I recently reviewed a book (review isn't out yet) in which the voice changes from chapter to chapter depending on which character is the focus, and the voice is much stronger in some chapters than others. It made me wish the whole book was about the character focused on in those chapters.

I also think voice is just as important in memoirs as it is in fiction, but trickier because not everyone can distinguish between you the author, you the narrator, and you the character. I plan to blog about that tonight!

J. R. McLemore said...

I'm still not 100% sure of what composes a voice (even with your fine breakdown, Nathan). I understand how some authors' voices are unique and identifiable, but I wonder, when reading about voice, whether I've found mine yet. How would I know if I've found it or not?

Instead of worrying about it, I just write without disregard and hope it's there.

Nathan Bransford said...

j.r.-

I think voice is there when it's adjustable. Can you dial up or down certain elements? Can you hear it in your head? In other words, is it enough of an entity that you can think of it apart from the elements it's describing?

Santa said...

Spot on, Nathan. Some of my favorite voices are Dean Koonz, John Irving and Edith Wharton. In the romance genre I think Eloisa James and Mary Balogh have that signiture voice you talk about.

I am developing my own voice in my writing. I think that once a writer recognizes that they have one, they should keep it in the forefront of their writing and not let it dominate their creative process.

E. Elle said...

I think you've presented a beautiful way to think of voice. My writing voice is actually pretty distinguishable but it didn't happen right away. It developed over time and continues to develop as I learn and change.

John said...

A memorable voice tends to establish the tone of the story right away and stays consistent and engaging to the end.

Two favorite authors with trademark voices are John Irving and Michael Chabon. Their word choices, sentence structure, character types, and worldview leave distinct fingerprints on the page.

Johnaskins said...

Another component of voice, IMO, is what the writer notices and chooses to bring to the reader's attention. Salinger makes us notice nail clippings, among other things.

J. T. Shea said...

A rare opportunity to break my recent pattern of being the last to comment, days after everyone else! Sensibility and style, yes. How prose looks on the page, definitely (I like white space). Personality, outlook, consistency (but not like porridge!).
Moderation, yes. Though rereading TREASURE ISLAND at the moment reminds me of the old proverb 'Moderation in all things, including moderation'. In other words there's a time and place to be immoderate.
I wonder what other modern readers think of Stevenson's continual use of never-explained nautical terms and phrases that were mostly archaic even when he wrote the novel over a century ago. Then there's Long John Silver's dialogue! Tailor-made for Robert Newton to speak, or slur, in the 1950 Disney movie.
Transportation, sometimes very literally, to a very far place and time. Originality and authenticity. I've never noticed a strong influence from any particular writer, though I like the short named and numbered chapters of Arthur C. Clarke and Michael Crichton's clipped and often unattributed dialogue, which does avoid looking like transcribed real life talk or a screenplay.
And yet, after all the above, some say the best voice is invisible and undetectable, at least consciously!

Ben Carroll said...

great post.

i always have troubled getting Vonnegut's voice out of my writing when I've been reading him recently.

i'm just starting to see the hints of my own voice coming through, after quite a bit of writing. it's exciting.

Ishta Mercurio said...

What a timely post! I was thinking about voice all morning.

As for my own voice, I just don't know. I know it's there in my personal writing and my blogging - in other words, when I'm just being "me" - but as for my manuscripts, it feels different (radically so!) from project to project. Is this a bad thing?

Cheryl Barker said...

This is one of the most thorough posts I've seen on voice. Thank you!

J. T. Shea said...

Interesting comments. DirtyWhiteCandy re Ian Fleming. Fleming was so self-critical he had his secretary hide each new page he wrote to stop himself destroying it immediately! Joseph re Robert E. Howard. Howard’s voice seems strongly and deliberately archaic to many today, yet it retains great power. God (or whoever!) broke the mould after making him.
I second Jane Harmony re James Patterson. Again the white space and succinctness. Not to mention contagion, since Patterson has long been more a franchise than a single auteur!

Toby Speed said...

Voice eludes me when I try too consciously to produce or refine it. When I relax and enjoy the writing, it seems that the voice comes and maintains its distinct features.

I agree with John above when he says that a memorable voice establishes the tone of the story. Tone is actually a more useful word for me than voice, which makes me feel self-conscious about my writing. Tone hangs out in the background, coloring all.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Voice is the reason I ignore advice that says "don't cast your novel" (the theory being that only newbies do this "stupid" thing.) And I think that studying screenwriting helped.

I pick an actor/character and try and hear the words in the cadence of their voice. Certain words will fit, others won't. You have to pick and choose until there's no edges hanging out.

Just don't tell anybody you did it.

;-P

Vegas Linda Lou said...

OMG, voice is one area where I totally have it together! (My writing voice, not singing.) (That’s horrendous.) I’ve even been told my writing sounds like a straight, female David Sedaris.

I know I sound terribly full of myself, but believe me, SOMETHING has to make up for this crappy hair.

cannonwrites said...

Charlaine Harris's voice cracks me up. I devoured nine of her Sookie Stackhouse novels in two weeks, despite having a two week-old baby. They provided a serious antidote to baby blues.

Something I've struggled with is whether it's easier to create voice writing in first or third person. I often think about trying some first person rewrites on my third person YA MS because so much YA is first person. (Of course, I fear this will mean another complete manuscript overhaul!)

Kristan said...

Nathan, great breakdown. You know, I'd love to see how your blogging voice differs from your writing voice. Can I call for an excerpt of JACOB WONDERBAR? Who's with me?! :D

Terry Stonecrop said...

Thanks. I like the way you put this together. I know a good voice when I hear it, but yeah, what is it?

I like a certain style of writing in my genre and I think my voice finds its own way into it. At least, I hope so.

This is a post, I'll study.

Ink said...

Authority.

For me, one of the absolutely key elements of voice is authority. With a great voice you know the writer is in control, so in control that the writer vanishes and you see only the story. A great voice carries you through the story, compells you through the story.

"Call me Ishmael."

There's such authorial command in that opening. Indeed, it is a command. He doesn't say "My name is Ishmael" or "I'm called Ishmael." He says "Call me Ishmael." The voice itself tells you to sit down and listen to the story it's going to tell.

I think all great voices have that authority. Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, Tim O'Brien, Ann Patchett, Javier Marias, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Chimamanda Adichie, David Foster Wallace... voices so uniquely themselves, and yet they all hold an incredible confidence and command. There's a sureness to a great voice. The words are simply right and the rhythms of the prose are buoyant. You won't sink, not with these voices.

T. Anne said...

This is great Nathan. I always try and spend some time with my characters before chasing word counts. It helps me hear their voice better when I understand them.

Red said...

My favourite voices are often those tied to particular characters.

I absolutely love the wry wit and patient affection of Meyer in the Travis McGee novels of John D. MacDonald, as a foil to the masculine, conniving and often lonely voice of McGee himself.

With Hemingway, I find that I always want to read with a slight Spanish accent, even when it's not needed.

As for what makes a good voice, I think it has to do with the author having a strong sense of who the characters are as people. The interaction between characters, be it for good or ill, sets the voice in many works. It can be good willed Hope and Crosby banter, or it can be icy knives of distilled hate... but the way the characters see and interact with each other, and the larger world, often speaks with a voice that shades the entire work.

Nancy said...

Thanks for the terrific treatise on voice, Nathan--I think sometimes we try too hard to find our voice--but really, it's just who you are, so write, be you and don't try to write like someone else. Tell your story...my favorites authors with really distinctive voices are Richard Russo, Garrison Keillor, Jennifer Crusie...

Chazley Dotson said...

This post and comments have given me many authors to add to my reading list. I think the best of classic literature has this quality too: Jane Eyre, Jude the Obscure, and (as much as I freaking hate this book) Moby Dick. My favorite modern example would have to be Audrey Niffenegger's Time Traveler's Wife (not the movie).

And I second the call for an excerpt of Jacob Wonderbar!

Elizabeth Poole said...

Great post Nathan! I have tried to find satisfactory explanations on voice, but most of them are murky at best. You did such a good job of breaking it down.

For me, voice is the “voice” I hear in my head while I am writing, which refers back to what you refer to as style. It conveys the tone of voice, cadence, and rhythm of my writing. I think your personality comes out the strongest in your word choice. Like how I naturally chose to use “satisfactory” to describe explanations up there, instead of “good” or “detailed”. There are a lot of words in written language, and each word you chose shows your personality. Word choice is also a good way to distinguish one character from another.

I think your voice comes out when you’re not trying to write in any way other than to get the story out.

Anonymous said...

The greatest single piece of advice I've ever had was this(from a reader not a writer, reading a first draft of my first book). 'It doesn't sound like you.'

Once I relaxed and stopped trying to be a 'writer', it all came together.

Just let yourself shine through.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Nathan , this is the post I've always wanted but didn't have the " voice " to express the need . I can now talk ! WWwwweeeeeeeeeee!!!

ElizaJane said...

Some voices that have impressed me recently: Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country (not a recent book, of course, just one I read recently) and Sonia Hartnett, Thursday's Child. I picked up the latter at a bookstore because I was looking for books with great opening lines (which would make an interesting blogpost in itself--it was very enlightening to just read scores of first lines...)-- Hartnett's was the only first line that was so striking that I HAD to read the whole book, and indeed that voice carried through from first line to last.

Anonymous said...

Can't remember which but a famous writer said that she does not read novels when she's working on a WIP so that she doesn't emulate the voice subconsciously.

Keisha Martin said...

Nathan, that is true I find that was the easiest part for me, right away I knew what my main protagonist would sound like especially since I finalized her characteristics, she is witty, weird the way she thinks and the reader reads all her inner sarcastic remarks that she would dare never say out loud. In addition I am somewhat like that so when I read it I sometimes ...okay all the time burst out laughing. You are the uber agent I dont know if that is how uber is spelled but thats the way I am writing it.=D

KSB said...

First time posting! Thank you, Nathan, for your perspective, information, and humor!

I've been thinking about voice a lot so I thought I'd comment and ask more questions. I understand the idea of a writer's voice and I think I know the general tone or sensibility of my own. What I wish I could get more clarity on is how this voice changes depending on whether you are writing in 1st or 3rd person and depending on what character's perspective you are writing from, if any. In my current novel, most of the writing is in 3rd person, from the perspective of one character, but there are also sections in 1st person from another character and letters from yet other characters. Should my writer's voice be absent in these 1st person sections since I am solely in the character's voice? That's my intention, but I'm not sure it's successful. I guess what I'm asking is how to separate writer's voice from character's voice?

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks, Ink! Love that comment about "Authority" so much I cut it straight into the post.

Peter Dudley said...

I normally hate comments that just say, "Wow! Great post!"

But... Wow! Great post!

I hope to find time to read the comments tonight.

Lydia Sharp said...

You hit the nail on the head with that final point. I still surprise myself with how many different styles I can write, and still remain true to the character's unique voice, while at the same time seeing myself in all of them. It's an amazing, beautiful, and vastly unexplainable thing. I know I've found a new character's individual voice when I can hear them saying the words in my head, and it sounds like an actual person, and different from the MC of my last novel, even if it happens to be the same genre. Like I said, hard to explain, but it's there.

terripatrick said...

Great post! I copied this to keep in my "workshop notes" folder.

I do love your references to Tolkien - now. LOL!

Linda VandeVrede said...

Most of my favorites are from the past, like Edith Wharton, as someone mentioned.

But a current author, Lisa Genova, pulled off what I think is the most difficult "voice" of all - that of someone going thru Alzheimer's in "Still Alice." A remarkable feat.

David Kubicek said...

The best analysis of voice I've seen. My favorite is Ray Bradbury.

Ink said...

Nathan,

No prob - I aim to please. :) Actually, I'm reading an example of that authority right now, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It's a strange story, told from different points of view in different styles... and yet there's command in that shifting voice, something unified and powerful.

macdibble said...

I always thought Neil Gaiman had a subtle voice. Then I was doing something in a room where a movie was playing and I recognised his voice in the dialogue of the characters and realised he did have a powerful voice. He's one of my favourites. Michael Swanwick is another, punchy, gritty, precise, and he captures the flavour of Russian science fiction somehow. I love that. No wonder he is such a hit in Russia.

Ink said...

Oh, one last thought on authority - I think it's a key element when we come to something new, when we decide to keep reading or not. It's like in the query/pages experiment we just had, I think readers could often sense that authority. And they could sense when the writing was pretty good but not quite there... and that not quite there is that lacking authority, that sense that they can't quite force you to believe. You can't quite see past the words on the page yet.

Emily White said...

I think my aha moment for finding my own voice came when I realized that I was telling a story, not just a sequence of events.

I would have to say that some of my favorite voices out there are in works by C.S. Lewis, Mark Twain, and Terry Goodkind. Though they are all exceedingly different from each other, they immerse the reader so completely in the story that it's hard to distinguish reality from fiction anymore.

Elizabeth Rushing said...

This is an excellent post on voice. I'm glad to see an industry insider blogging about the actual mechanics of good writing instead of sales and self-promotion.

But I have a question for you: What happens when the author has a strong, established voice and, instead of writing in third person, s/he begins to write in first. How do you compromise between a character's voice and that of the writer? Because sometimes, I feel I'm dueling with the narrative--would this character really use those words? Etc. Or am I thinking too much about this?

Thoughts?

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I love Ink's comment about confidence and authority being the central elements of voice.

I wasn't sure why my recent foray into craft improvement resulted in a more defined voice, but there it is: more control, more mastery of the language and the storytelling, more voice. Because they are one and the same.

Vegas Linda Lou said...

Yes, Ink--confidence and authority. Exactly.

ryan field said...

I always wonder about authors who use several pen names, and whether or not they have different voices for each pen name.

reader said...

It may very well just be me, but I think sometimes "voice" can backfire, depending on how different (or not) the plots of any one author's novels are.

For instance, I think John Grisham has a great, recognizable voice but I've only read three books of his, because the plots are so similar -- young, eager bright-eyed attorney up against corrupt system/opposing counsel -- that when you combine that same-ness of voice to the same-ness of plot, I feel I'm reading the same book over and over.

Whereas I never feel that way with someone like Chabon, because his books subjects and plot are very dissimilar, and the although his voice is still a standout, the needs of the books' diverse characters and plots make it feel much fresher.

Richmond Writer said...

"It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while." Was, Frank McCourt successfully used the passive voice to give the reader a sense of who he is, his tone, his world view, and why you want to read his story. He not only successfully used the passive voice, he used it to create the hook for his memoir, Angela's Ashes. That is the gift of a true story teller.

Davy said...

Have Vonnegut and Twain really only been mentioned once a piece so far? I just puked in my mouth a little.

Nancy Coffelt said...

What a great post and I've enjoyed reading all the comments. I kind of came in through the side door as far as writing as I started out as a fine artist and I was lucky to find my art "voice" right off the bat. I felt the same way when I began writing picture books in the (gasp!) early 1990's.

Back then my writing voice was reviewed negatively as being "sparse". Now my pared-down style is in vogue.

Not complaining - just saying.

RLS said...

Great post.
Using the same word more than once on a page interferes with voice. Unless intentionally done for style.
Even my choices of: he said, said Michael (or forgoing the tag altogether)impact rhythm and can make or break a scene.
Seamless prose is my goal.

Florence said...

Nathan, you are the man for sure,
however, you can no more "teach" voice than you can teach soul ... if you are tone deaf, it's one of nature's little jokes on you.

Voice is simply the muse, from the muse comes music and poetry and your voice follows ... be it harsh horror or soft prose ... no one can "teach" this part of our craft dear Nathan. It is one of the little gifts we come in with.

Henya said...

Nathan, you outdid yourself. With clarity and precision, as if you were talking directly to me, you gathered all the components of VOICE and delivered it to me succinctly.

Thanks.

Rick Daley said...

This post has voice. One of the best treatises I've read on the subject, too.

I'd like to add Balance to the list.

Balance: A writer with strong voice knows the rules and when to break them. Read the greats and you will find adverbs, passive voice, telling instead of showing, and instances of all the other inviolable rules. They are there, they are used. The balance is to use but not abuse; to break rules with purpose.

WORD VERIFICATION: morip. 1) An additional copy of digital media, e.g. a CD, that has been burned illegally. 2) An extended afterlife.

Ishta Mercurio said...

Ink: "Call me Ishmael." YES! I LOVED that book! I loaned it to everybody I knew when I had finished reading it.

What you said about authority really resonates with me. I think some of my issues with voice stem from the simple fact that I have not yet reached that stage as a writer in which I can step back from my own work enough to see whether it is "there" or "not quite there" - whether I've made you believe my story, or not quite. I still need my critique group for that. (Do we ever get past that stage of needing a critique group for that?)

Thanks again for this great post, and for the enlightening and stimulating discussion. I'm inspired to write tonight.

Ruth Donnelly said...

Terrific post and discussion! My favorite masters of voice: Alice Hoffman and Daniel Pinkwater. Few similarities in their writing, but both of them nail the voice so well, all you can do is nod your head at the rightness of it.

John Jack said...

A quality of voice I include, taking a firm position, related somewhat to Ink's authority quality. A powerful voice takes a stand, makes a credible point, and substantiates it creatively. The stand taken makes a meaningful statement with a thematically potent message.

Naomi Canale said...

This was great! Thanks for this Nathan!!!

Dawn said...

I'm still working on figuring out my voice, but if I ever needed a reminder of why it's important, I found it after reading Where The Truth Lies. One of the best *voice* lessons I've ever had.

Marilyn Peake said...

Such a great explanation for something that is very difficult to explain. I especially like this part under Authenticity: "And this is the key to finding the voice: your voice is in you. It's not you per se, but it's made up of bits and pieces of you. It may be the expression of your sense of humor or your whimsy or your cynicism or frustration or hopes or honesty, distilled down or dialed up into a voice. We should never make the mistake as readers of equating an author with their voice, but they're wrapped up together in a complicated and real way."

I also love Ink’s comment: "For me, one of the absolutely key elements of voice is authority. With a great voice you know the writer is in control, so in control that the writer vanishes and you see only the story. A great voice carries you through the story, compells you through the story."

Voice is what distinguishes one writer from another, and authority allows fictional stories to ring true.

D. G. Hudson said...

Enjoyed this post very much, but have little to add to it. My favorite voices are Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka and Jack Kerouac.

I feel that my own voice comes through better when I'm unaware of it.

Ink Spills said...

Argh! So I finished typing my comment and apparently it didn't post.....

I love your explanation of voice, Nathan. I've been thinking about the subject for the last two weeks or so.
I tend to indulge myself in thinking my voice is somewhat distinctive, but when I'm dealing with multiple characters, I forget to nuance for each character. On the re-reads, they all sound too much alike. (One of the reasons I write so much first-person poetry!)
So, I'm half-way there. But the writer's journey never ends, so I won't complain.
P.S. My favorite voices are Joseph Heller (the comedic), Ayn Rand (the philosophical), and Billy Collins (the candid).

Susan J. Berger said...

Most excellent post. One of my favorite children's Lit voices is E. Nesbit (The Five Children and It, etc)I love a voice with warm good humor that does not talk down to children.
My fellow critique group member Lupe Fernandez is developing a truly funny readable voice on our mutual blog Pen and Ink. Here is one of his posts http://thepenandinkblog.blogspot.com/2010/05/customer-support.html

Amanda said...

I can think of one girl's book where the voice stands out so much and she really sounds like she is telling the story to a friend. She is so engaging. I can't wait for her next book.

Bren said...

If a writer cannot find his/her voice and grasp it firmly, there is nothing to keep me interested. The authors who've captivated me are:
Stephen King- His earlier works. He is fabulous at invoking a sense of innocence, wonder and growth when children are his characters, and has perfected their"voices".
I also loved the cadence of George R.R. Martin in the "song of ice and fire" series.
Robin Hobb, Tim Dorsey, Marrion Zimmer Bradley...the list goes on, (and is long) but they are all very different voices, liked for very different reasons.
I think there just needs to be a natural ebb and flow to a character that gives the reader the feeling that this could be someone they admire/would hang out with/are scared of, etc. In essence, the voice comes across as REAL. If you can capture that, you will find a rapt audience begging for more.

min said...

I agree with the part about overuse of everyday language. My 5th and 6th grade students like to write stories with, "I'm all" this and "He's all" that and so on. They might talk like that in real life, but in a story it's just plain impossible to slog through.

Or maybe the reality is just at this very minute hitting me that these kids have NOTHING to talk about except a bunch of "totally," "SO not!", "Tru Dat," "Fo shiz" etc. That's their whold day's speech! ARGHHH! Oh no!

Leis said...

This must be one of your all time top ten posts Nathan, thank you for this!

I believe 'voice' is where most writers-to-be fail. We tend to get muddled in technique and plot and all the other basic elements of writing, and in the process manage to 'lose control' of the flow of writing, burying the 'voice'. I believe that understanding the importance of 'voice' is the key to compelling writing.

From my experience, it takes a lot of practice to identify and take charge of one's 'voice'. Lots of rewriting, reshuffling of the scenes and viewing the characters from a different perspective. I am quite pleased to have 'found' mine recently. Whether it's a voice that might be appreciated by others, remains to be seen, but it's good to know that it has 'arrived'.

The one voice I am currently obsessed with is Cormac McCarthy's. I worship The Road.

Steve said...

My all time favorite voice has got to be that of the late Robert A. Heinlein. As an aspiring novelist, I don't precisely try to imitate Heinlein, but his voice certainly informs my development of my own voice.

Recently, I've been going to the librar yand reading all of the Spenser novels from the late Robert Parker - a writer I only heard of when he recently passed away. OMG does that man have a voice!

-Steve

Glynis said...

I'm still in the process of finding my voice. Your article as quite informative and helpful. Thank you.

Victoria said...

I think Ink has quite the voice. I recognise Ink's individual tone on every blog we happen to hit together...

Which brings me to my next point. When it comes to voice, I always describe it thusly; if you can give a piece of writing to someone without telling them who wrote it, and they can identify the author, then that is voice shining through.

babyoog said...

Fantastic post, Nathan! Contagious, yes. How many times have a started the day sounding an awful lot like Willa Cather or Stephen King or whatever I'm reading at the time? (And those two are pretty hard to reconcile!)

Buffy Andrews said...

Totally awesome post Nathan. Will definitely post on Inkwell.ning.com. I love how you organized your thoughts and presented them clearly. Have a super day....

Kate Evangelista said...

One word: WOW!

Ashley A. said...

Fabulous post! A compelling voice is one of the most important things for me as a reader – maybe the most important – and I take every available opportunity to work on my own as a writer.

I'm revising my novel, sure, but I also get creative at work with writing business newsletters and copy for catalogs and product packaging. I'm able to fall pretty easily into a sales voice, an editorial voice and a storytelling voice.

The first thing I look for is whether or not a voice rings true; overly self-conscious intellectualization or affectation will turn me off.

Mesmerix said...

As always, a great and informative article. I've struggled with voice in the past, and sometimes still do. This was a very enlightening breakdown. Thank you!

Zoe Winters said...

I think voice is like peeling an onion. It's not so much something you create as something you just uncover and allow to "be."

I think a lot of "finding one's voice" is really more about blocking out everybody else's voice and stopping trying to sound like anybody but you.

Voice is how you uniquely express yourself. If you're "trying" to create voice, you're trying to be somebody besides yourself.

Being you should be something that comes naturally to you. Your voice should be something that comes naturally too. It may not feel natural if you've spent a lot of time trying to be someone else or write like someone else.

You may think that "being someone else" would be "more marketable" but it will lack authenticity. You can't be JK Rowling. That position is already taken by JK Rowling, etc. But you can be you. And that's probably just as cool. (Though statistically speaking probably won't make you as much money, but meh.)

Lisa said...

So, so happy for this post because this is what I'm working on now: finding my voice. I'm trying on different skins.

Voice, to me, as I'm understanding it at this point in my learning process, and of which you conveyed so well here, is the tone and the personality and the flow of the words. A voice can be urgent, it can be kind, it can be spare, it can be dense, it can be harsh, it can be sarcastic, it can be chatty, it can be sincere, it can be lovable, it can be innocent, it can be jaded, it can be...anything. But it has to feel real. AND IT HAS TO BE YOURS.

The voice is a way to connect with the reader. It's a way to pull him in, wrap your hands around his shoulder, pat him on the back, and say, "Relax. I've got you. Sit back. Drink a cup of tea. I'm going to pull you in but you're going to be just fine..."

Man, I'm so struggling with this right now...

The Author-In-Training said...

This was a great piece. Thank you. It really helped me figure out where I need to concentrate on developing my own voice. My most recent favorite is Sara Gruen. Of course, my all time favorite is JK Rowling.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh. I'd just about convinced myself that voice can't really come through if I'm writing a plot-driven novel. I thought it was only in character-driven novels that it made a difference. I assumed genre dictated style (quick paced, short, direct sentences = thriller), and that I chillax re: voice. Guess not.

Michelle Miller said...

Jim Butcher's Dresden Files books are some of the best examples of voice in the business. While much of his technique has grown and developed over the years, Jim's voice has been from the beginning strong, authoritative, and consistent.

Ee Leen Lee said...

I found my voice and its still changing, because I change all the time.

this was a great technical breakdown of 'voice' in writing, its still a bit hard to pin down but you'll know it when you read it

Liesl said...

Great post, however I don't think voice is something a writer should be prescriptive about. I think it's something that develops naturally as you develop as a writer. Voice is like human personality. Every writer has one, sometimes it's just covered by immaturity, insecurity, or lies.

Clarity, honesty, and confidence are what I think bring out a strong voice. And like a personality, if you try too hard or think about it too much, you just come off as phony and sometimes annoying.

Favorites when it comes to voice are Shannon Hale, Sharon Creech, M.T. Anderson, J.K. Rowling, and Roald Dahl. But they got everything else going for them too, and that's why I think they have such unique voices.

heather said...

Amazing post! There's a lot to think about here. Now? To keep my focus and trudge forward in the voice I've always felt I owned. :-)

Chuck H. said...

Like Steve, my favorite is Robert Heinlein. I read "Have Spacesuit, Will Travel" when I was about ten and never looked back.

My trouble is that my critique group often says my writing sounds too much like Chuck. Isn't it supposed to? Oh well, I don't worry too much about it and just keep on writing.

Great Post!

WV: sucto ????

Eric said...

There's that term "hyper-aware" again. I assumed it was a negative, but now it seems that's not always the case. Maybe my confusion stems from not even being sure what the term means.

GhostFolk.com said...

I recognize a voice at play in your blog posts, Nathan. Nicely done and surprisingly complex, although it reads as if it is simply natural expression.

The best of voice is sometimes when you don't as a reader seem to notice it at all. Only a confident and highly skilled magic pulls that off in fiction.

Joanne Bischof said...

Fabulous insight on author's voice. I like the thought of opening up a book randomly and simply recognizing the author through his or her voice. Makes me think of my own writing. I will pay special attention to voice from now on. Thanks!

Mira said...

I like this post, and your analysis of voice. It's hard to capture and I think you did a really good job breaking it down - thank you.

I also like Ink's addition - authority, very true! - and many of the commentors said great stuff - I like what Rick D had to say, and what Lisa said:

"The voice is a way to connect with the reader. It's a way to pull him in, wrap your hands around his shoulder, pat him on the back, and say, "Relax. I've got you. Sit back. Drink a cup of tea. I'm going to pull you in but you're going to be just fine..."

That's really nice.

For me, finding my voice was very much like learning to ride a bicycle. When I was a kid learning to ride, I got worried I'd never figure it out. Then one day, it clicked. 'Okay, this is the way to balance so it stays upright.' Voice for me was like that - it clicked. 'Okay, this is where I come through most clearly. This rings true.'

So, I think the best way for someone to find their voice, if they haven't, is to just keep writing. It will emerge evenutally. Just be patient.

I'm not sure, but it may also help to get to know yourself. The more you are in touch with who you are, I think the more easily your voice can flow out.

Anonymous said...

If you want a perfect example of 'voice'...listen to a voice!
Watch/listen to Hugh Laurie on 'House' and then watch him on a talk show...he comes across as an entirely different person...as if he carries a piece of America inside him, rather than 'affect it' like an accent (which of course it is).
The 'voice' of the House character...his authority, his personality, his 'being', is carried perfectly in his physical voice.

Kim Batchelor said...

My answer would be Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende. There may be something about the translations, but their voices are distinct and influence my own writing.

Alexis Grant said...

My real voice comes through on my blog. So when my voice isn't strong enough in my book -- or I start writing too formally (since I'm a journalist by training), I remind myself to write like I would on my blog. Casual, cool. Very me.

The Red Angel said...

Wow, this is probably one of my favorite blog posts ever. You give many great examples of authors who have voice and the elements of voice you give are right on the money.

I am still a young writer and have only found my true voice a few times. It's difficult to be my own voice while I write because many a time I just end up sounding like a certain writer after I've read his or her book(s). But there are times when I have a lightbulb idea go off for a WIP and begin to write, write, write. Afterwards I feel so thrilled at what I've got down that I barely even realize that what I wrote was in my voice.

It takes a lot to find your own voice in writing, but it's worth it in the end because in a way it's like finding a part of yourself.

~TRA

http://xtheredangelx.blogspot.com

The Red Angel said...

Wow, this is probably one of my favorite blog posts ever. You give many great examples of authors who have voice and the elements of voice you give are right on the money.

I am still a young writer and have only found my true voice a few times. It's difficult to be my own voice while I write because many a time I just end up sounding like a certain writer after I've read his or her book(s). But there are times when I have a lightbulb idea go off for a WIP and begin to write, write, write. Afterwards I feel so thrilled at what I've got down that I barely even realize that what I wrote was in my voice.

It takes a lot to find your own voice in writing, but it's worth it in the end because in a way it's like finding a part of yourself.

~TRA

http://xtheredangelx.blogspot.com

Talei said...

Wow, what a great post. A great voice draws you in and never lets you go until the very last page. Great storytellers have that magical rhythm and style that leaves you wanting more.

My favourite voices are David Mitchell, Paul Coelho and Haruki Murakami.

Julie Musil said...

Thanks for breaking it down. My favorite voice? Jodi Picoult.

Jessica Peter said...

This is something I've struggled with, but now I think that anyone can find their voice. The more you write - anything, not just Your Big Project - the closer you get to your own voice.

Lately, I've been finding that I'm less likely to start writing like someone else inadvertently when I'm reading them. Plis, on my blog and later drafts of my novel, I'm starting to have a certain way of speaking - or perhaps a voice. It's me, but not just me. I was delighted when one of my first-readers that knows me well said they found "Jess-isms" in my novel. I have Jess-isms!

Lisa_Gibson said...

Great post with well thought out elements! Voice is elusive. I think over time, it becomes crafted.

Ishta Mercurio said...

There are many, many, many great voices out there in literature. Dickens, Twain, Bryson, Steinbeck... I could go on, and on, and on. It took me forever to think through them all and weigh them, but what it comes down to is that my favorite voice belongs to Garrison Keillor.

Amanda Sablan said...

When I first began writing about three years ago, the author that would not leave my head was Zoe Heller. Her voice is very witty and cynically intelligent, typical of a lot of British authors who also use high-falutin vocabulary.

But after a couple more years of struggle, I discovered my own voice, and this happened through patience. I'm only a senior in high school and I've never taken a creative writing class, so I'm 100% self-taught. Cultivating your own voice is very possible. All you have to do is simply let it show up of its own volition, instead of forcing it out of you. I tried that, and what did I find? Zoe Heller, creeping up on my screen like a mosquito.

Christina said...

I REALLY enjoyed this post!! Very helpful! :)

Anonymous said...

You argued that writing voices are born and that experience primarily refines them. I would say they're more nature THAN nurture, but the latter does more than refine. Consider a few examples:

Ian McEwan
Upon graduating, he enrolled in a master’s program in comparative literature, at the University of East Anglia, which allowed him to submit stories as part of his degree. From the beginning, his prose had an unnerving discipline. Descriptions were precise; there was no failed wordplay or tortured metaphors; sentences had a razored gleam. (“I saw my first corpse on Thursday,” one story began. “Today it was Sunday and there was nothing to do.”) In “Mother Tongue,” McEwan explains that his surgical prose was, in part, a product of class anxiety. He composed words “without a pen in my hand, framing a sentence in my mind, often losing the beginning as I reached the end, and only when the thing was secure and complete would I set it down. I would stare at it suspiciously. Did it really say what I meant? Did it contain an error or an ambiguity that I could not see? Was it making a fool of me?”

Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/02/23/090223fa_fact_zalewski#ixzz0nt3loN3z

Would his style be the same if he came out of the background Martin Amis did?

Kazuo Ishiguro is often said to be a very English writer. Would he truly have the same voice if his family never migrated to England from Japan.

Junot Diaz talked about how hard it was to fit in a kid being an immigrant, and some argue there's a forcefulness to his writing. Would it be the same if he never came to the United States?

Would Tolstoy be the same if he was a factory worker in Manchester as opposed to somewhat upper classish in Russia?

Underlying abilities and dispositions strongly influence voice, but experiences do too.

Kenneth Mark Hoover said...

Great advice, thank you.

Anonymous said...

I want to high-5 the person that mentioned Hunger Games. You just feel Katniss in everything she does, without there being a defining characteristic that jumps to mind.

Oh, and let's face it: Pride and Prejudice has a pretty good voice, because sometimes I don't know why something should be funny, but it jumps out of the page and yells, "If you lived in Victorian England, you'd be busting a rib in laughter"

Owldreamer said...

RETURN IN SNOW
genre:romancesuspense Pamala Owldreamer Excerpt * * Chapter One * *


Symon Branigan, the only man she had ever loved was the last man on earth Caitlin Caldwell O’Brian wanted to see and the only man she wanted to see. Just her luck, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Caitlin waved goodbye and shoved through the door of the town’s only grocery store. Jesus, the temperature had dropped in the half hour it took to shop. She glanced up at the heavy bruised clouds and frowned. The storm was going to be a bad one.
Time to get home and check the wood supply for the fireplaces, police the outside of the house again for anything that could blow around in the gale force winds a blizzard always brought and check the snowmobile again.
The storm prep list her dad had drummed into her, played for the umpteenth time in her head. She only had herself to rely on now. The generators were already fueled but it wouldn’t hurt to check them again. She had plenty of canned and frozen food, the last minute shopping trip was for fresh milk, eggs, fruit and produce. She ducked her chin close to her chest to escape a blast of frigid wind and hurried toward her truck. If the storm was as bad as predicted, she could be snowed in for days or weeks.
The local weather expert and resident witch, Miss Ella Brodie, predicted blizzard conditions by late afternoon or early morning with two to six feet of snow on top of the three feet already on the ground. Miss Brodie was seldom wrong.
She loved her home town, but winter storms in Rook Haven, Alaska were not for the faint hearted or careless.
Another moan of frigid wind whipped her waist length hair across her face. Unable to see, she collided with a tall figure and slipped on the thick ice.
Strong arms caught her and kept her from landing on her butt with a shopping bag filled with eggs, milk and produce.
Laughing, she stepped back and tilted her head up. “I’m so sorry. Thank you for….”The smile froze on her face. She didn’t think about it, didn’t plan it. She just reacted. Like a slow motion sequence in an action movie, her hand curled into a fist and swung out and upward, connecting with Symon's grinning face and snapping his head backward.
Overbalanced, she pitched forward and fell against his broad chest. Maybe it was to keep her from falling or maybe he reacted in self-defense. Either way, she ended up crushed against his tall lean muscled body with his arms wrapped around her.
Caitlin was as shocked at what she had done as she was to see him standing in front of her. She had never punched anyone in her life, until now. Damn if it didn’t feel good and he definitely deserved it.
Symon grimaced and wiped the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand. His green eyes locked on hers. “Some welcome home, Slim.”
Caitlin shoved against his chest. “Get your hands off me Symon Branigan.” He allowed her to step back, giving her some breathing room, but kept a hand curled around her wrist. “I guess I had that coming. I’ve missed you Cat.”
She glared up at him and swallowed hard to force the lump in her throat down. She found her voice and spoke, her voice flat, husky and foreign to her ears. “I don’t want to hear it Symon. I don’t care anymore. There’s nothing I want to say to you and nothing I care to listen to. I gave up on you … I gave up on us a few years ago.”

Can't find my voice in this excerpt. Or in the rest of the finished manuscript.What do you think?

dori said...

I'm sorry, owldreamer, and please forgive my honesty, but your first sentence left me going, "Huh?" I had to read it three times. And the rest didn't garner a much better response. I'd keep working on that voice thing. But I'll give you this, you're a brave writer for posting your work here. I did like the punch in the face. Haven’t we all wished we’d done that at one time or another?

As for me, after years as a newspaper journalist and freelance writer, I'm attempting my first novel. To avoid journalistic tendencies and to get a feel for novel style, I read multiple books in my genre. And of course, I’m still reading how-to books. After nearly eighty pages of fiction, a definite voice has formed. It's a coin toss right now whether I like it or find it annoying. But since I'm on the first draft, I figure I have several revisions to cultivate an original “sound.”

At least, I hope it works that way!

Thanks Nathan for a great post - I'm taking it to heart.

Remilda Graystone said...

This was a great post. I was asking about voice and was pointed here (because somehow I'd missed this post) from one of the people who helped me. Now I have a good idea of what voice means when agents and readers talk about it.

Thanks!

Rose Green said...

Three authors with excellent voice: Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Dairy Queen), Hilary McKay (the Casson series), and Sarah DeFord Williams (Palace Beautiful).

Anonymous said...

I think that voice simply lies at the intersection of the author and the story.

Who are you? What is your story? How will you tell it?

It might be easier to achieve, initially, in first person because you have the main character to filter the author through. You think, "How would he or she tell this story?"

It's a little harder with third person, but most third person, these days is third person close, which helps, I think.

And even in omniscient third, the story has a personality of sorts, doesn't it?

I think it is that interaction of author, character and story that produces voice, and if the author allows the story and the characters to speak through him rather than draw attention to his writing, the voice will be authentic.

I have a sign over my desk that says, "It's not about me."



John Palmer

subtlegifts said...

Voice is so important. You can have the best story in the world and it will fall flat without voice.

My favourites have got to be Terry Pratchett, Jasper Fforde and Cassandra Clare. There are others, I know, but for now, these will do. I love their humour and the way they twist old ideas by changing the angle. I mean, have you ever seen Death not smile?

Shelby said...

Three of my favorite writers have very distinct voices: Bret Easton Ellis' 'coolly mesmerizing' voice, Chuck Palahniuk's darker, quirky voice, and Pat Conroy's cinematic, sweepingly beautiful voice.

Anonymous said...

Lisa McKay definitely has the strongest voice i've ever seen. loved her book My Hands Came Away Red...

Rebekah said...

Terry Pratchett and Daniel Pinkwater are favorites. Rick Riordan and James Patterson certainly aren't bad, either.

I don't care if some of my favorite writers' styles show up in my work. I still can't find any books that sound like my own writing, which makes it much harder to judge whether my own work is ready for publishing. I suppose if I could, then it would be a sure sign that it wasn't...

koprivakopriva said...

What a great post! I'm very happy to have stumbled across it. Great pointers for writers of all levels/purposes/styles.

Yellow Wood Photography LV said...

The breakdown of voice left me recalling the voices of some of my favorites like Jasper Fforde and Charles Dickens. Both entirely unique and very recognizable.

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