by Toni McGee Causey
It’s very late as I write this. I’m sitting in the gorgeous hotel suite in Scottsdale, AZ, as the Desert Rose Conference winds down to an end. It’s been a very full couple of days, and I’m utterly worn out. Rejuvenated about writing, but worn out.
I taught two sessions here today; one was on sex scenes (when to use them, why, how, what the point should be, pacing, tension, subtext, conflict, etc.), and another on voice (how to define it, how to recognize what is authentically your voice, and how to hone it).
It will probably not surprise anyone that the first class was far far easier to teach. Teaching voice is a little like dancing in a minefield.
I purposefully did not set out to teach someone a “voice” — I don’t think that can be taught because I can’t impose that from the outside. It is something one can learn about oneself. Some people say that “either a person has a “voice” or they don’t,” but I would disagree. I certainly hadn’t figured out my voice prior to my Bobbie Faye series. I could show you the two projects I’d written just prior to Bobbie Faye and you could pick up the hints of what would become my voice, but it was inconsistent, at best, and nonexistent most of the time. I was constantly writing, searching, trying to figure out what this voice thing was all about, and how the hell did I get one of those?
While I don’t think voice itself can be taught–I can’t take another person and prescribe for them a set of steps for them to take and voila, a unique voice will emerge on the other end of that process–I do think that we can define what voice is, and find ways to hone it. (After all, this is what we all do–we all work on honing our own voice.)
But first, what it is not: it is not tone, nor cadence, nor syntax. It is not vocabulary, nor style, nor level of complexity of sentence structure. It is not the choice of POV character or characters, nor which type of POV to use (first, second, third, third intimate, omnipotent). It is not the setting of the world, the socioeconomic background of the writer or the subject matter.
It is, in a way, all of those things. Voice is every choice that a writer makes–what matters to them. How they want to approach the story. Where they will start. Who it will be about, and then all of the other things above.
Voice is the authority of the author. Confidence in their choices of how to tell the story. Infusing that story with their own unique personality, their own perspective on the world, the themes or issues that they care about, and communicating a goal specific to themselves.
I couldn’t have had a unique voice if I was busy emulating others, or trying to write to a trend, or trying to stay within rigid guidelines, or trying to meet all of the necessary ingredients of a genre’s checklist. Emulation and prescription are the antithesis of “voice” — where “voice” is the unique view of the world.
No two people are going to tell the same story, even if they were given identical story prompts, and that’s because they’re writing from different experiences, and with different goals. Thematically, each person will focus on something relevant to their worldview, because different issues resonate with them. Each story produced is going to have its own voice. (Some will be boring voices, because the writer wouldn’t take a risk on exposing themselves to the reader, making themselves vulnerable by chancing risky story-telling methods. They don’t want to show something that they are worried might reflect badly on them, so they hobble their voice, vanilla it up so it won’t be judged, and only accomplish the very judgment they were hoping to avoid.)
Voice is going with your gut instincts that this is how your story should unfold, and believing in your authority to tell the story. (That’s not to say there isn’t trial and error in that process–but ultimately, when it’s done, you have to go with your gut’s final choices.)
It’s the courage to be authentically you and to reach into your own experiences to write the characters authentically, even if you, the writer, haven’t lived their life.
Once you believe in your own authority to tell the story, all of the other choices simply become tools to help create the story: tone, cadence, mood, language, theme, POV, style, etc.
We moved on from there to some exercises that I think might help the attendees to look at what they’re doing and help them hone what they think their voice is, and to get rid of what they think isn’t working for them. From the response, I think it might have actually been a successful class (which is always the hope and the fear), and I loved the moment where we ran over time and no one moved, they were so busy scribbling and asking questions and I wished we had another hour. This really should have been a two hour workshop.
Maybe next year. (grin)
Thanks to many of my fellow ‘Ratis who sent their books, signed, as giveaways. Man, I wish y’all could have seen their faces light up when they received them.
I’ll be on a flight home–long flight and layover. I’ll try to check in, but meanwhile, I’d love examples from you of writers who you feel have a unique voice. Any genre.
I’d say our Ms. Cornelia has a voice: a unique worldview that could not have come from anyone else and resulted in those fine, fine books.
Louise, thank you for saying that, and the admiration is entirely mutual. I love the voice of your wonderful books, which so resonates with the depth and breadth of your own fine heart.
Voice is one of those intangibles. If you’re trying, it’s going to show. It’s being able to keep the author off the page, while still letting the author write the book. I think when the words flow, that’s when you’re getting your voice on the page.
Hey Toni, thank you for posting your thoughts on voice here. I learned a lot. I am still trying to figure out what my voice is, so you post is quite apropos. Have a wonderful and unevenful flight. Rest easy. See you when you get here.
Peace and love,
Wow, this is something I personally need to work on in my own creative writing. I’m still working on that darned mystery novel, but I’m having trouble getting a clear voice inside the story. I know I have one in there someplace, I just need to find out where it is and drag it out into the open.
What a fantastic article, Toni. Voice is everything you said it is, and isn’t. I’ve said that I "discovered my voice" when writing THE PREY, my fifth manuscript and first sale. It was like something clicked inside, I couldn’t say specifically what, but now I can because you defined it: my authority. I went from fooling around and writing what I thought I needed to write, to writing a story that broke rules and was different but also the same–I wrote five romantic suspense novels, but only the fifth had the confidence in the storytelling to appeal to an editor. And you’re right: you can’t teach voice.
The hard part, what is a strong voice? Part of it is author authority, but the other part is familiarity–that you can pick up a coverless book and know exactly who is telling that story. This is why I think commercial fiction writers who hit high on the lists with consistency have strong voices. Their readers are comfortable in their voice, can fall into their stories from page one because it’s familiar–the tone, cadence, structure–that they don’t have their shields up wondering if they’ll like the book–they know they will. They trust the author, but that comes from voice + story.
Not all strong voices are ones everyone will love, and I’m sure there are strong voices that I don’t like but I can’t think of any. The strong voices for me are my auto-buys, the books where the author draws me into the story from page one, takes me to the world, and is familiar–where I can tell that author apart from all the other books I buy.
Toni, you have a distinctive, fabulous voice. I know a JD Robb book from page one. Stephen King–especially his short stories–has a strong voice. There’s a confidence, for example, in the writing of UNDER THE DOME–just read the first three pages and you’ll see the authority in every sentence. Amazing.
Great blog Toni!
YAY, writing lesson! 😀
Unique voice? Karin Slaughter. First time I got one of her books in English I thought: "What on earth is she trying to say?" I’ve gotten used to it by now, and can read it pretty well, but it always amazes me how unique it is, how… regional? I’m not so sure. But, yeah, unique. 🙂
I agree with Allison on J.D. Robb. She’s the first person I thought of when I read your question. Others I can think of are Jill Churchill, Elizabeth Brightwell, C.S. Harris and P.J. Tracy. Tony Hillerman used to be another. All are (or were) auto buys for me.
I keep going back to Chuck Palahnuik in FIGHT CLUB for voice. I friggin’ love it.
Toni, it was so awesome having you here at our conference. You were a big hit…as I knew you would be! Thank You for coming!! (I’m a hero for having been the one to invite you…hahaha)
The two workshops were wonderful! I love a lot of voices, like yours with Bobby Faye and Allison’s which I find even more unique with the 7 Deadly Sins series. =)
I think JK Rowling stands out, especially voice with a world building component. Voice makes me nervous – it’s sort of like porn. I know it when I see it, but describing it never works. xo
A few maters: Richard Price – he’s one of the few writers that can write a whole book on a mystery that’s already been solved and make it enticing, Robert Eversz – the longing of the character and the loneliness hit me hard; and Walter Mosley – even when nothing’s happening, something feels like it’s happening. Oh, and Tana French.
Brash Madeline Dare- haven’t real Invisible Boy yet, but I know the voice will be there. I’m looking forward to Nancy Pickard’s Scent of Rain and Lightning to compare the voice with The Virgin of
Small Plains. John Sanford has a voice I like. And I don’t care how heavy the book, Elizabeth George. Perhaps my favorite was Daphne Du Maurier. Great Post!
Great post, Toni. It’s all about voice. I really think that’s what separates good writers from the great ones.
When I pick up a book in the bookstore and start to read, I usually don’t read more than a paragraph or so before I make my decision whether or not to buy. And that decision comes down to — you guessed it — voice.
Like a certain Toni McGee Causey. That’s a voice that keeps me reading.
Thanks Terri 🙂 . . . I think with the SDS series it’s my voice with a sarcastic edge–Moira sort of took over the story, and she’s sarcastic.
Voice is why I like authors to put excerpts of their books on their websites. I may be attracted the storyline of an author that I’m not familiar with — certain elements jump out at me initially like historical setting, a cold case, etc. — but it is the first few paragraphs (sometimes just a couple lines) that will determine whether I’ll read it or not.
Sorry to be a day late with this . . .
Dean Koontz’s voice in the Odd Thomas series is very cool.
Also have you ever heard of Mark Leyner? I loved the voice in Tooth Inprints on a Corndog.
And then there’s Mark Twain who had an incredibly distinctive voice; one I still adore.