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.