Discovering Voice

 By Allison Brennan

On Monday, Pari wrote about honesty in writing. Her post, specifically her question at the end, really stuck with me because I have been thinking about this exact thing lately, but without a name for it:

“What the heck is ‘honesty in writing’ anyway?” she asked.

Honesty in writing is authorial voice. It’s staying true to yourself, writing to discover your voice. We talk about the market a lot, but truly the market is so big that no author should write to the market but instead should write to their voice.

But what in the world is ‘voice’ and how do you find it?

Two days after Thrillerfest officially ended, I had a call from my editor about revisions for ORIGINAL SIN, the first book in my Seven Deadly Sins series. We’d scheduled it ahead of time, because I wanted to jump on revisions quickly. I’d turned in the book without an ending because I honestly didn’t know how it would end. Being the first book in my first series with continuing characters, I’ll admit I was nervous (still am. And no, I still don’t have an ending, but I have two weeks.) I know how to write a climax and finish a story, but how to end a book while keeping interest piqued for the next book?

Fortunately, I planned on revisions, so I sent my editor my first draft. (Caveat: since I edit as I go, my first drafts are pretty clean. I didn’t send her complete crap. Just slightly stinky crap.)

The first thing she said was that when she started reading the manuscript, she was unnerved. It sounded “just like an Allison Brennan novel” but it was paranormal. She went on for several minutes about how odd it was to “hear” me in the story but have something so different than I’ve written for twelve books . . . different yet it was the same.

My editor told me during our first conversation after she bought me, that I had a “commercial voice.” I didn’t know what it meant, and while I won’t say I was insulted . . . I didn’t take it as a compliment at that time. Now, I understand what she meant. At least I think I do—I write in an accessible voice using universal themes. To entertain, not educate.

I rarely talk about voice because you can’t teach it. You can’t tell someone what their voice is or how to write in their voice. “Voice” is one of those ethereal elements in writing that is hard to define. One definition I’ve heard in the past is that voice is the author’s fingerprint on the written page, similar to a singer’s musical voice and a speaker’s talking voice.

Voice is a combination of everything that makes an author unique. Tone, style, and most importantly, the rhythm of the written story. Voice is not genre or theme, though those elements could be part of an author’s voice. When an author is told they have a “strong voice” it generally means that readers love them or hate them. But either way, their voice hits the reader emotionally in both extremes.

I believe it was Lori Foster who said at an RWA workshop several years ago that she hated 3-star reviews. 3-stars meant “blah” or “just okay” or “average.” She’d rather have a bunch of 5-star and 1-star reviews because that meant she hit all the right notes—even if someone hated the book. I tend to agree, because no one wants to be average. No one wants their book to be blah. We may not be writing the Great American Novel, but whatever we DO write, we want our voice to be memorable, so readers will be excited or scared or amused or sad or happy or angry. We want the reader to FEEL SOMETHING, to bring out their emotions, so they become part of the story, not a disinterested third party.  

And that connection is what makes a strong voice. When the writer connects with the reader in such a way that the reader is sucked in, whether the book is commercial or literary, a thriller or a romance, a coming-of-age novel or an epic saga. The words themselves should almost disappear as the reader absorbs the story, becomes part of it, immersed and invested, through the strength of the author’s voice.

I’m of the mind to believe that every voice is unique, like fingerprints. I also believe that most—or all–writers have one, strong voice. Toni and I have discussed this many times and she disagreed with me up until recently (she can share the story if she wants!) My argument is that a writer’s natural voice is, well, natural. It’s how we best tell a story on paper. When we try to write using an unnatural voice—one that doesn’t “feel” right to us—we are then writing for the market or for someone else, fighting our natural rhythm, forcing words and phrases and ultimately the story out onto the paper. It’s stiff, artificial, phony. Dishonest.

One of the biggest hurdles for unpublished writers is a lack of voice. It’s not that they can’t write—they could be technically perfect—but their voice is weak, or it’s not natural to them. Weak voices—and I’ve seen it a lot in contests—tends to be stiff and labored, as if you can actually see the author thinking about what to put on the page. The voice is blah, a 3-star voice, it doesn’t stand out as anything different, even if there’s nothing you can pinpoint as being wrong.

When starting out, some writers mimic their favorite authors, thinking that if Stephen King is successful then they need to write like Stephen King. Since an author’s rhythm is part of voice, to write against your natural rhythm is hard and frustrating. Some new writers also grow scared that their voice is not strong enough, so they pack gimmicks into the story—usually plot devices—to hide a weaker voice.

As most Murderati readers know, I wrote five books before I sold. My first four books I wrote I was still trying to find my voice. I wrote what I thought I should write without letting my natural voice take over. They were all romantic suspense, but I held back, hesitating, and the reader could see the hesitation on the page. I was scared because I didn’t know what I was doing or how to do it, but I was trying to find something–something that I couldn’t articulate at the time.

It was with THE PREY that I let myself go, so-to-speak. I have said I “discovered” my voice writing that book, and that’s as close to an accurate description of what happened as I can get. I literally found my voice in the writing. I let myself write without constraint, without fear of the market, or whether it sounded good, or whether it would sell. I was excited, even when I was stuck. I just knew this was it, this was me. While in writing THE PREY I found my voice, I don’t think I was truly comfortable with it until I wrote my fourth published book, SPEAK NO EVIL. And while every book is harder to write than the last, it’s not the writing itself that is hard. (Which sounds like another blog post on another day!)

You recognize authorial voice just like you recognize a singer on the radio. It’s distinctive, it’s strong, it’s natural. 

When you pick up a book by one of your favorite authors, you read the first page and feel like you’re coming home. It’s comfortable, familiar, and you let the rhythm of their story carry you to the end.

Alex’s post yesterday discussed who we are as part of our voice. She didn’t exactly say that–and maybe she didn’t mean it, I just inferred because I’d already written most of this essay. Voice is more part of us than we realize, which is why when a writer discovers her voice, when the writing—though not easy—becomes natural, comfortable, seemingly effortless—at least on the final draft; we physically yearn to write. We couldn’t not write, because the storytelling is as much a part of us as our verbal voice.

I’d argue that even if you’re switching genres, your voice is unique and moves with you. As in my supernatural thrillers and my romantic suspense novels, I “sound” the same—even though the subject matter is different.

I give a workshop called No Plotters Allowed every year or so. One question I ask people, “If you knew today that you would never sell, would you continue to write?”

I believe that if you answer yes, you’ve found your voice—because it’s so much a part of you, that you could no more stop writing than stop breathing. And once you find your voice, you’re halfway there. You might need to hone it, strengthen it, practice it, but when you find it you know.

Think about one of your favorite authors. What about their voice resonates with you? Would you recognize them in whatever genre they wrote because of their “fingerprint?” Would you follow them wherever they went because you love the way they “sound” in print? 

All the Murderati authors have strong voices–but Toni McGee Causey is truly unique. Perhaps because she’s humorous as well, something that is not only difficult to write but rare in a thriller. I find myself attracted to comedy because it’s something I can not do. I’ve tried. My agent told me I’m not funny. (She denies it, but it’s the God-honest truth.) So I particularly enjoy authors who write with a humorous voice–dark or light.

I flipped open the first Bobbie Faye book, CHARMED AND DANGEROUS, and found this opening for Chapter Seven:

Bobbie Faye had barely turned toward him when Trevor took her gun–so quickly, she hadn’t even known he’d done it until he waved it at her.

“You can decide to shoot me later.”

“Oh, sure, make promises you won’t have to keep after I’ve drowned already,” she said, hugging herself, trying to sustain the snark in order to fake the calm while the water rushed into the truck and crept up her calves. She was calm, damnit. Of course she was calm. She was so one-with-the freaking-calm that after she had drowned, they were going to call her St. Bobbie Faye, Patron Saint of the Calm People. There was a big drawback to that, because calm people don’t really need any help and only the crazies would be haranguing her in the afterlife. Fuck.

Trevor snapped his fingers in front of her face and she lasered a glare at him.

“Am I interrupting something?” he asked, leaning past her, grabbing the flashlight from his glove box.

“I’m a little busy working out my afterlife schedule, thank you very much.”

So last time Murderati regular Billie won books from Toni and me, and to celebrate our dual release month of August (Toni’s WHEN A MAN LOVES A WEAPON comes out this Tuesday, and my CUTTING EDGE came out last Tuesday) I’m giving away more books. Yeah! Free books! So comment about voice–or anything for that matter!–for a chance to win SUDDEN DEATH (by me) and CHARMED AND DANGEROUS (by Toni) both firsts in a trilogy.


42 thoughts on “Discovering Voice

  1. Terri W.

    Hi Allison,

    Great post I’m always learning something.

    I love reading your books and congrats on your new release.

  2. billie

    Allison, the books arrived on Friday – thanks so much!

    This is a fascinating post. It’s interesting that it dovetails with a discussion I’m involved in on a classical dressage list that has to do with "feel" in riding.

    The big question is, can you teach "feel?"

    I wrote something about some experiences I’ve had riding my big horse with big movement and how at several points along the way I’ve had to tune my trainers out and just focus in on my body and his as I ride, and that’s when the magic happens. It’s not that I don’t need the trainers, it’s that they can take me only so far with the coaching and teaching. Feel is something I have to find on my own.

    Then someone wrote that having a trainer is having a 3-way conversation, but at the point of learning feel, the rider has to have the discussion only with the horse.

    I suspect it’s similar with voice. There are many elements of writing that CAN be taught, but as you describe with the writing of your first four books, at some point the writer has to continue on solo to find his/her voice. (or simply continue writing if there was no teaching involved)

    I’ve seen similar things in writing groups, where individuals reach a point where there is nothing to critique anymore – except the "voice" – which I don’t feel should be subject to critique since it’s so subjective. At that point the writer sometimes needs to push on alone and have the discussion, so to speak, with the book, not the writing group members.

    Another great week on Murderati. 🙂 Thanks.

  3. Derek Nikitas


    I’m with you on this one. I keep going back to James Ellroy, Megan Abbott, Joyce Carol Oates, Denis Johnson, and those old crime greats–Hammett, Cain, Chandler, Thompson–primarily because of their voices.

    I’m trying to learn that myself, and hearing one reader say of my second book: "you found your voice," was quite delightful. I wonder, though, what about first-person narratives? Do you think a writer is confined to a certain kind of first person narrator, one close to his/her natural voice? The experimentalist in me wouldn’t ever want to be that limited. I’ve done some fun experiments–always in the short story form–with first person narrators whose voices were very different from my own. This kind of "method acting" is quite weird and unnatural, but satisfying when it works, though I’ve never been tempted to try it in novel form.

    Still, even in third person, I try to use "Free Indirect Style," taking on the "flavor" of the thinking process, syntax and diction of the viewpoint character of the moment (i.e., I have characters with vastly different education levels, but I use only words a viewpoint character would know and naturally use when I’m writing his/her third-person scenes). What’s incredibly difficult is maintaining one’s own authorial voice while, at the same time, engaging in Free Indirect Style. LOTS of revision to get that right.

  4. JT Ellison

    Derek, good to see you!!!

    Allison, I couldn’t agree more about voice. What’s funny? I wrote a silly little chapbook story when I was about eight or so – about a poor spaceman who was stranded on another planet. I was eight, mind you. The voice is exactly the same as mine now. I’ve looked through all my college work, and it’s the same too. I’ve always had the voice down. It’s the rest I have to work so hard on : )

  5. Sandy

    Louise Ure critiqued a section of my WIP at last year’s Book Passage conference. At that point I was writing in 3rd person limited. She asked, "Why aren’t you writing in first person?" I soon saw that question as a nudge; and since changing to first, I have found my voice emerging, putting its watermark on my pages.

  6. Allison Brennan

    Hi Terri, thanks so much!

    Billie, glad you got the books . . . and I love your analogy with riding and learning to "feel". You’re exactly right, and it’s funny how you talk about something I talked about "There is No Spoon" on Friday. It was about breaking rules, but one of the points was that sometimes, writers listen too much to other people and lose their voice. You can’t teach people to feel emotion–it’s simply there. Truly the greats in anything–athletes, doctors, teachers, authors, actors–train and practice and learn a lot, but only in the DOING do they turn inward and allow their natural strength to come out. Stephen King says to write with the door closed. Don’t let anyone come in between you and your story. Then edit with the window open, but ultimately, you–the writer–need to make the decisions. That little piece of advice has helped me immensely to protect my voice.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Allison – I always learn so much from your posts. Every time you write something it’s a Master Class in the Art of Writing.
    Voice – it’s a big deal to me. I’m pretty strong on plot, but voice means more. Voice is what the author brings to the table. I would say an actor has voice, too. I’d watch Sean Penn or Robert Duvall tie their shoelaces for two hours. Why? Because they bring their own "voice" to the action. I can always recognize the Jazz pianist Chic Corea when I hear him. His voice is unique and distinct. And there are so many great authors with unique voices. Walter Tevis wrote across genres and his voice stayed intact – The Hustler, The Color of Money, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Queen’s Gambit. Jim Thompson stayed within his genre, but his voice remained the same from book to book. Dickens…come on, now. Who wouldn’t recognize Dickens. This is a great subject for blogging. To me, voice is everything. I know a writer who once told me he would never write anything unless he was paid to do it. And he’s a good writer. I couldn’t understand his position. Writing is so much bigger than money. To me, writing is the exploration of life around us. That’s the essential element that must exist in the books I read. If there is not some basic exploration of what it means to be alive in this world, then I don’t want to read it.

  8. Allison Brennan

    Hey Derek! How’ve you been? We agree on a writing point! Yeah! Though you completely lost me on "Free Indirect Style." I’ll pretend I never heard that 🙂 . . . . (I *think* it’s the same thing I think of as deep POV, where the author becomes the character and writes from deep inside the character’s psyche.) I think the degree to which you write in different character voices becomes part of the author’s voice itself. Because the rhythm, tone, feeling of the overall story is the voice. It’s comfortable to write and comfortable to read. As far as first person . . . I’m trying to think of an author who writes in first person but different characters. I know it was big in the former "chick lit" genre, but I rarely read the multiple first POV. Oh! Our own Tess Gerritsen. Her first and her third are exactly the same, meaning, I can tell just by reading it that it’s the same author and same strong voice. She often has a secondary character speaking in first throughout the story. And while Maura and Tess have distinctive character voices, the overall story is still all Tess’s voice. It’s the same voice that wrote HARVEST and GRAVITY when Maura and Tess weren’t characters. So the character in VANISH (her name escapes me) and the evil doctor in THE SURGEON and THE APPRENTICE have distinctive, different first person voices, but they are STILL Tess’s voice. I don’t have a strong first person voice. It doesn’t come naturally to me, even though I’ve tried.

    Hi JT, fascinating. I haven’t looked at anything I wrote way back when, though I’m sure my mom has some of them. I wonder if I sound the same . . .

    GREAT example, Sandy!

  9. Allison Brennan

    I’m right there with you Stephen, though I’m hardly a master. I can’t define anything, and I cringe when talking about things like "Free Indirect Style." (sorry, Derek, I couldn’t resist! LOL.) Strong voices are wonderful. I think Johnny Depp is one of the most versatile and talented actors of my generation. Some people might disagree, but when you look at the breadth of his work (except for CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY which should never have been remade, but I digress) you see that he is distinctive, he becomes his character, whatever character he is. And he’s always someone different, out of the mainstream, challenging conventions. Edward Scissorhands, Jack Sparrow, Ichabod Crane, and most recently John Dillinger.(He saved that movie.) He has such a powerful presence you feel him even when he’s off the screen, as if the movie takes on his voice.

    I think you have a great blog post in your comments about writing being an exploration of life and living. I really hope you expand on that in a few weeks! I know, for me, I write to explore human nature–what makes people good and bad, what makes bad people do something good and good people do something bad? Motivation is something I’m fascinated with. Heroes, villains, good, evil, extremes and shades of gray. I don’t usually show this through my protagonist’s actions–I’m pretty traditional with my heroes–but through her eyes I explore the rest.

  10. Allison Brennan

    One thing I just remembered I’d wanted to say . . . (Obviously, I don’t revise my blogs like I do my books!) . . . just because someone hates an author doesn’t mean they have a bad or weak voice. Just like not all of us like listening to the same singer, not all of us can appeal to the same readers. And the world would be boring if we did.

  11. billie

    I’m curious whether Derek’s "Free Indirect Style" is similar to what I refer to as "close third" – it’s interesting how a close third feels almost like first when you read it, b/c the nuances of the character are very evident.

    I can get quite caught up when rewriting b/c I enjoy taking something from first to third and back again just to see what happens. (usually a LOT)

    And occasionally when drafting if something feels "off" I’ll take the pen and notebook I always keep handy and just free write in the character’s "voice" until I get to a better place.

    I rarely analyze this too closely but I would guess when the "offness" happens it’s me losing my voice on the page – either b/c I’m trying to hard to make something happen, or am too self-conscious with the story itself – and putting myself in what I consider the character’s "voice" gets me back to the "honesty."

    Really interesting discussion today.

  12. Derek Nikitas

    Ah, Free Indirect Style. The technical term isn’t important; it’s just good shorthand. It’s pretty much what you, said, Allison. The tendency for a third-person narrator to "freely borrow" from the "voice" of the viewpoint character of the moment. It’s "indirect" because it’s not first person, not directly from the viewpoint character. If a viewpoint character is an elaborate thinker, full of long sentences and ornate language, lots of figures of speech, then the third-person style will adopt that kind of voice for a while. But when we switch to another character who’s a simple, direct voice, then the narration adjusts accordingly.

    It’s very different from the "storyteller’s voice," which keeps its own tone and rhythm and distance, no matter who the viewpoint character is. There’s some great stuff about it in James Wood’s *How Fiction Works.* For me, modulating these voices is not easy, not natural. It requires intense concentration and obsessive revision, but I love the challenge. There’s great risk in screwing it up, thus great emotional reward when it goes right.

    That said, books written a strong storyteller voice tend to be more popular because they’re easier to read (not easier to write!). It’s like the difference between a pop band where you always kind of know what you’re going to get, and you like it right away, versus a "challenging" alternative band, like, say, Modest Mouse or Radiohead, where you really have no idea what the next song is going to sound like, and it takes a bit of listening to get into its groove. In music, there are big audiences for both. In publishing, ?

  13. toni mcgee causey

    I did disagree with you, but I have now seen the light. 😉

    I think the thing that I always held as a truth (and I think Derek maybe alludes to this, though I don’t want to assume here), is that writers want to feel as if we have created characters who are so vivid, so distinct, that the voice that emerges from them is their voice, their resonance in the world. And that the other characters in that world have *their* own unique voice–that they, too, are whole and recognizable.

    But for all the deep immersion into character, there is still the writer there, sifting, figuring out which detail, which slant of light, to bring into relief in the image on the page. And that set of choices is voice. That instinct about world, about what matters, about what, ultimately, the writer wants to convey, and *how* they want to convey it, is voice.

  14. toni mcgee causey

    billie, I really liked your comment about the three-way vs. the conversation just between the rider and the horse. That is so utterly true, such a great example, and helped me with something today. Thank you!

  15. toni mcgee causey

    oops, cross-posted with Derek, so yeah, we’re saying the same thing.

    Derek, I try to do the same thing–I honestly hope that Ce Ce’s voice is different from Bobbie Faye’s, which is different from Cam, who is different from Trevor, etc. It still kinda stuns me that the overall presentation ends up with a sort of gestalt, a voice, that is identifiable.

  16. Terry Odell

    I was clueless about voice when I was reading fan fiction (long story, don’t ask, but it’s how I started writing) but there was one author whose stories I loved, and my initial reactions was, "That’s how I would write if I could write." It was her voice much more than the stories that snagged me.

    And I totally agree–if it sounds ‘ writerly’, then it needs to be cut.
    And I also think that there’s a difference between the character’s voices and the author’s voice. Characters need to sound like themselves, both in external AND internal dialogue. Navigating the slope where the author is handling the narrative becomes the challenge, but once you find and release your own voice, it gets more natural, and more distinctive. Who would confuse Nora Roberts with Janet Evanovich?

  17. RKCharron

    Hi 🙂
    Thanks for a terrific blog post on "voice".
    All of my favorite authors have that undefinable characteristic.
    Their own unique "voice" that makes me buy whatever they write.
    Stephen King, Tanya Huff, MaryJanice Davidson, Jim Butcher, David Webster, etc.
    I hadn’t thought of "voice" as it pertains to writing before.
    This was an eye-opening blog post for me.
    I take the wise advice contained herein to heart.
    Thanks for sharing.
    All the best,

  18. Lynnette R

    I would never, by any stretch of the imagination, call myself a writer. That’s probably why I read do much. I greatly admire those who can weave a story that pulls me in and gets me so excited to read it that I disregard my much needed sleep just so I can find out what happens.

    I do feel that Voice is not just part of writing. It’s what makes you what you are, whether in writing or in everyday life. I teach high school students, and everday its about finding their Voice, who they are, and becoming who they are going to become. A lot of my students come from very difficult environments. I try to teach them how to shape their environment, instead of letting it shape them. That’s part of Voice.

    On a side note, one of my favorite stories in our Literature textbooks addresses Voice. It’s called, GERALDO NO LAST NAME, by Sandra Cisneros. Now if you’ve ever read her writing, it’s very distinctive. This story, in particular, is a great example of Voice. To me, it evokes the image of two older ladies gossiping over the back fence to each other about an incident. Because of the cadence, word choice, and sentence structure, it pulls the reader in and paints the picture. This story could be written any number of ways, but because of the casual, seemingly careless language, the Tone of the story is totally different.

    I haven’t read any of Toni’s books yet (definitely will now! I love me some smart aleck with my suspense!), but I’ve read everything of Allison’s I can get my hands on! BTW, Allison, your editor may not think you are ha-ha funny, but there have been a couple of instances in your stories that have made me chuckle.

    Keep up the good work, authors!

  19. pari noskin taichert

    Ah, Allison,
    This is a great post. I’m so glad one of mine spurred you to write it!

    I think we do have our own recognizable voices that come through in everything we write — even if the characters are tremendously different.

    For a long time, I tried very hard to force my voice — if that makes sense — and though my writing was good and people enjoyed it, I think it wasn’t quite (think millimeters here rather than centimeters) on the mark.

    The readers who’ve traveled with me so far say that I’ve found it.
    I know I have because I feel liberated rather than constrained, like taking off a bra that looks gorgeous but doesn’t quite fit <g> and feeling the beauty of that silk blouse against my bare skin . . .

  20. Victoria

    As an author still trying to find her voice, I found your post really enlightening, giving me lots to think about. "Voice" was a topic that came up time and again at RWA National 09 and I realize I’m on the verge of finding mine and I shouldn”t submit any of my work until I do. I’ve always known I like the process of plotting (Panster here) and other aspects of writing, but something was missing. I described it to someone as a "layer" I still need. Hoping to get there very soon. Thanks again Allison for another teaching moment. I think I speak for many when I say I appreciate your generosity of time and spirit when u interact w/ other writiers.

  21. Jill James

    Allison, you and Toni have such distinct voices in your stories. When I read an Allison Brennan book it is like an audio book in my ear. So clear-cut, no nonsense, to the point voice.

    Toni’s books are so funny (I love funny too, can’t write it to save my life). I can hear that voice of the South, slow, langorous, but biting when it needs to be.

    Voice is what makes a book unputdownable. LOL

  22. Louise Ure

    Voice always seemed like that unexplained secret handshake in my early writing classes — the one thing you needed that nobody could describe or tell you how to do. This post goes a long way toward solving that problem, Allison.

    For those floundering, fan fiction could be a great place to start. If you love a particular author’s work, maybe it’s the voice that’s speaking to you — a voice that resonates because it resembles your own.

    And Sandy, I’m so pleased to know that you tried the first person format and it answered some questions for you!

  23. Tammy Cravit

    Great post, Allison! I’d never really thought about the "if you knew…" question you posed until I read your post. As I sit here pondering it, I realize that getting published, while definitely on the radar as something I’d like to do, is far from the top item on the list of reasons I write. In a way, we writers are a bit of a funny breed that way — I don’t know any amateur painters who would stop painting if they were told they’d never sell a piece of their work, for example.

    As to the daily question about voice, I guess I feel as though "finding ones voice" is a bit of a nebulous thing — I feel as though I’ve caught glimpses of "my voice" when I’m in that zone of digging deep and writing honestly and unflinchingly. But I sometimes feel as though voice is something we always strive for, but something that’s constantly changing and evolving so that we can never quite get there because "there" changes as soon as we draw close.

    I do think, though, that the quest for our voice is what propels us ever forward, and upward, and (at least for me) it’s what carries me through the tough spots and propels me to keep writing.

  24. Eika

    Can voice ever be a drawback?

    I write YA, and a while back I sent out a second-draft to beta readers. (I don’t expect to get it published. Not until I’ve cleaned up the three million mistakes they found. And have figured out a way to, as they both put it, make the beginning of the story as awesome as the next three-quarters.) One of them mentioned a problem I hadn’t even considered: vocabulary. In my head, things made perfect sense, and all the dialogue worked, but now I see there’s no way the five-year-old would have that sort of vocabulary. Or that the seven-year-old would. Or whatever.

    And I’m the one writing them, so they all sound… not exactly alike. They’re all clearly different people, the characters who mattered, but they still ‘sound’ similar. Most of the characters had grown up together, which could explain it, but now I keep worrying it’ll happen in other stories I write. The characters could all sound alike, because I wrote them. Any thoughts?

  25. Alli

    As far as first person . . . I’m trying to think of an author who writes in first person but different characters….

    Allison, apart from the lovely Tess G., another author who does this well is Marian Keyes. She can switch from third to first and have 4 POV’s going on (she likes to separate them by swapping POV chapter by chapter) but, she still has her fingerprint. I can pick her work a mile off.

    I have finally found my voice on the current MS I’m working on. This is my third MS, and as a result I’ve discovered I’ve learnt enough rules to know which ones I can break (LOL!) and allowed myself to just let it flow. This MS has been a lot easier to write and the emotional scenes, where I find myself typing with my eyes closed (Luckily I am a touch typist) and FEELING the scene….. well, that is when I do my best writing. The discovery of voice, for me, has changed the way I feel about my writing – even on the hard days I still enjoy sitting down and nutting it out.

    And yes, I would still write even if I knew I would never be published. (But I’m hoping that won’t be the case!)

    Thanks for another great blog today!

  26. Karen in Ohio

    This blog is a wonder. Not only are the bloggers so full of great information, but the commenters, as well.

    I have only one further comment, regarding multiple first-person voices. The Poisonwood Bible has four–the mother, and three of the four of the daughters (the father is only referred to in the third person). Each one of the voices is unique to the rest, which to my mind makes the book such an education about voice. If you’ve never read it, it’s worth taking the time to do so.

    PS I’m writing from memory, not having read this particular book for several years. I checked my library for it, and it’s missing, so I apparently mistakenly lent it to someone who has not returned it. Grrr.

  27. Barbie Furtado

    I have so much to say about voice; I argue about it all the time! I am not an author, but I want to be one day. There are two main things I want to say about it.
    One is about the choice of words. I know *a lot* of people who think that books with big, complicated words are awesome just because of that. They get all impressed because of some for syllable words. I mean, really? To me, ‘big’ words generally put me off. Not because I can’t understand their meaning or I don’t have enough vocabulary knowledge, but simply because it usually sounds forced. In so, so many books, it just feels like the author spent hours trying to think of a word that would make the easily influenced readers (and, mass market does work like that, we all know it) go "oh, wow". Generally, it just breaks the flow.
    I believe that voice is something that is *natural* from authors. It flows and it’s beautiful, but it goes together. The choice of words and figures of speech all come to a perfect balance. And that’s what the readers go for.To me, what makes an author great isn’t the big words they use, it’s *how* they use their words. An example? Karin Slaughter. I *adore* her books. And her language can be… foul. I am generally turned off by a text in which the f word shows up every three lines, BUT, when she writes it, both in the narrator’s voice and the character’s speech, it’s just natural. It doesn’t feel for a second that she’s trying to impress or shock, it’s just how it is, even with words and expressions that would make a sailor blush. There’s no other way to describe her voice other than "beautifully vulgar". Because it works for her and for her books, and it’s one of the things I have grown to love about her writing, her stories and her characters.
    Which brings me to the other thing I want to talk about. It is something that hasn’t been brought up here before — and, since English isn’t my first language, I see a lot of that: Translations.
    For the first 17 years of my life I read mostly only translations of books. I always loved to read and read a lot. I loved, and adored some books. It wasn’t until I became fluent in English that I started to realize how much of a book is *lost* by translating it. There are many books I read the Portuguese translation and years later I read the originals. And every single time I see how much was lost. It’s the meaning, it’s the words, it’s the intonation and the intention. The author’s voice disappears and it turns into the translator’s voice. And, even though the story is the same plot wise, it is never *the same*. That’s why I can’t read translations anymore, no matter how good and accurate they are (because some of them are). I’m all about voice. And it just doesn’t work for me anymore. I try, sometimes, but I can’t get past it. I keep trying to figure out what the author really meant by those words. How they used them. Just a bit ago I "had" to read a book in Spanish because I couldn’t find its original. I read it, and liked the story, but a lot of it just didn’t work for me. Then, a couple months later, I finally get the original and *snap*, totally different thing. A book I had liked I then to *loved*, though the main idea was the same. Words that in the translation didn’t see right coming from a character’s mouth, suddenly fit them perfectly. And, whenever I can, I try to get books in the originals and their translations (Well, to Portuguese and Spanish), just to compare. I find it really interesting perceiving these things.
    Having said all that, I think I have found my voice in English. I’ve heard from *a lot* of people that it really works for me. And I’m starting to believe it does. It’s something that comes to me naturally, that I don’t have to stop and think up a word. As strange as it sounds, I can’t write in Portuguese well to save my life, even though it is my first language. Why? Because people from the place where I’m from and have lived my whole life (except the 5 months I lived in the US), speak, in their daily lives, grammatically incorrect. It’s not that we don’t know the right way to talk, we just don’t use it. It’s the way we talk here, everyone, from the most educated people to the ones that haven’t had a chance to finish school. So, when writing in Portuguese, it doesn’t feel naturally, especially during dialogue, writing correctly. If we don’t speak that way, if it’s not how I hear it every day, how is it ever going to sound natural for me? I don’t know. It’s something I have to work on.
    Sorry this was so long, it’s just that "voice" is one of the things I’m always thinking about! 🙂

  28. Catherine Shipton

    Sunday afternoon was spent sitting in the sun at a local Irish pub discussing, just this. Well lots of writery stuff…as a friend is off to the Byron Bay Writers Festival and there is also Writers festival happening in Brisbane in September called ‘when ink on a page becomes true passion’.
    Voice came up too. I think in a way when we started talking about bloodless writing, technically beautiful writing that lacks….something. We were talking about voice.

    Also congratulations and thank you, Allison and Toni for the timely unleashing of their books in a week where I get birthday money…woohoo.

  29. Catherine Shipton

    no coffee yet messing up my stated their with the uber-personal intended, your…as in your paper babies unleashed.

  30. kit

    Have you ever felt a cetainity? Something you believe or think you know….it’s way different from arrogance, although it can appear that way to others that have never felt it….
    Having said that, I’ve known I had Voice…it’s the subject matter that ties me in knots.

  31. Alli

    Barbie, what an interesting post! I totally agree regarding translations. I speak English and Spanish and find Spanish definitely has it’s own poetic language. I’m a huge fan of Pablo Neruda and I adore his poems, but when they’re translated into English all the beautiful sentiment disappears. Then again, I’m a huge fan of Indian writers, but I can’t read Hindi or Urdu to save myself – so of course I read the English translation, and, to me, I find the writing (most times) wonderfully poetic. It was a really great point you brought up re: translations. Thanks!

  32. Allison Brennan

    re: deep POV (or, for Derek "Free Indirect Style")–I think that even when characters have distinctive voices while in their POV (either dialogue or internal thought) that there is an overall authorial voice. I write in deep POV, but I avoid a lot of dialect or education related speech/thought. I can’t pull it off. My characters voices are probably bit more uniform, I suppose, and I choose to use more obvious clues, such as word choices. (In ORIGINAL SIN, Moira swears a lot, she speaks fast, she tends to jump into a conversation, and she’s very "physical" in her communication–moving, hands, etc. Anthony rarely uses contractions–he’s highly educated, raised in Europe, tends to be more "cultured." Acts more like a teacher or authority in his speech. Rafe is a more Americanized European, doesn’t speak a lot, is very "still" and more the "strong, quiet, tortured" type.

    Toni, as I tell my kids: I’m always right. Get used to it 🙂

    EXACTLY Terry! I Nora (even in her JD Robb books) sounds like Nora. JD Robb tends to be more clipped, more "just the facts" but it’s the same overall voice. Eve is more clipped and common (and the primary viewpoint character of the series) and Roarke is more smooth and cultured, and I can tell instantly when POV shifts to his thoughts, even for just a paragraph. And I would even argue that Toni and Janet Evanovich, who both write with humor, sound distinctly different.

    Thanks Kristen!

    Hi RK, thanks for popping in from Twitter! (Toni has been explaining how to use it to me. I’m still confused, but I’m getting better.) I love Stephen King, and I read one Jim Butcher and intend to read more (I think I have 4 on my shelves) because he has a wonderful voice and I’m instantly sucked into his stories. For me, I need a storyteller. Someone who can make me care immediately about what’s happening, and I like both light and dark, so it’s really just about the story. But I do lean to the dark . . .

  33. Allison Brennan

    Hi Lynette, thank you so much for your kind words! Sometimes, even I can make a joke 🙂 I love your example about teenagers finding their Voice in life. That is so true! I had never thought of it like that. But I have five kids and they are all trying to find their place, and they all have distinctive "Voices"–which maybe is another way of saying personality. And for authors, our writing personality is our Voice.

    Pari, I like that image, that freeing our voice is liberating. It makes me WANT to write.

    Wow, Alex, I can’t believe I got it!

    Victoria, Voice is another layer, it’s almost like the finishing touch. Voice is more important than anything else, however. You can have all the tools in your Writer’s Toolbox, but Voice IS the toolbox. It’s what holds your tools, it forms them, it makes them work, and tells you which tools work for YOU. Good luck!

    Thanks Jill! For someone like me who can’t shut up, I like that my books don’t ramble 🙂

    A secret handshake that no one knows, Louise! LOL

  34. Allison Brennan

    I agree Tammy. Without us constantly growing, pushing ourselves, digging deeper, we become hacks.

    Eika, re-read Toni and Derek’s comments about deep POV/third person. You can have your characters sound different, but the overall tone and voice of the STORY ITSELF will be all you. As far as having young characters sound too mature, that’s always a problem, but it can be fixed. Avoid going into their POV if possible and work carefully to craft their dialogue. Hang out with young people A LOT (you can borrow mine!) Listen to them. You want them to sound their age, but you don’t want them to be childish because readers don’t like that (IMO) and YA readers don’t like being talked down to.

    Hi Alli! I love it when I’m in the zone, when the words just come smoothly and seemingly effortlessly. It happens. Sometimes :/ But if I wait for the "zone" I wouldn’t meet my deadlines.

    Thanks for the recommendation, Karen!

  35. Allison Brennan

    Barbie, you sound so American it’s amazing. I’d never have guessed, reading your post or our emails, that English wasn’t your first language. Three languages? Wow. (I have a couple friends who learned both English and another language growing up. I’m jealous.)

    I never thought about how the translators voice interferes with the author’s voice, but I can absolutely see that’s the case. The nuances and the style, different languages switch things around, amazing. Thanks for the great explanation! And I’m so glad you found your voice.

    Catherine, I’m jealous. An Irish pub? I want to be there with you! 🙂

    Kit, I *knew* when I found my voice. The writing felt natural to me, comfortable. It wasn’t easy, but it felt "right." But sometimes our voice is tied closely with what we write about. My books wouldn’t be as dark if I was writing with humor, for example. I don’t think I’d write a straight romance very well, or a fantasy novel because my voice is too contemporary. I also hesitate to try YA because I don’t think I have a YA voice even thought I have thought about it (mostly because I have five "YA"s or soon-to-be "YA"s, LOL.) Sometimes the subject matter doesn’t appeal to us, or we pick a genre or a situation that we think has commercial potential, but it’s not something we’re interested in writing. Writing something we don’t want to write can severely hinder our voice, and usually there’s no passion in the writing. Good luck.

  36. mikaela

    Thank you! I loved this post. I have wondered for years what voice was, but I couldn’t find any satisfying answer. This post helped a lot, so thank you!

  37. Dana King

    Thank you for what is–to me–a timely post. I have always tried to match the voice of my stories with the subject matter. First-person PI stories, multi-POV crime stories, time period, darkness of levity of story, I tried to make them all unique. The writing has always been well received, but no sales. I’ve been thinking more and more of letting the current WIP appear on the page just the way it flows through my head. Clean up a few things in revision, but let the natural voice fly as well as I can. Then we’ll see how it goes.

    What the hell, I’m not selling as a writer. maybe I should just tell stories.

  38. Barb C

    Thank you for a wonderful discussion. Voice has always been something intangible that I don’t quite get. I’m still not sure I ‘get’ it but I certainly have much to think about and digest.

  39. MiMont

    Was I the only one who fainted when Allison said that every book is harder to write than the last?

    How am I to explain this head bruise to strangers?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *