Writing Your Book, part II: Finding Your Voice

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This past week, Catie and I both began blog “series” in writing, and it seems that for this week and potentially down the road, there is going to be a fair amount of overlap between our posts.  Catie and I might reinforce each other’s points.  We might disagree.  That’s okay.  Getting more than one perspective on any of these writing issues can be a good thing.  Specifically, last week I began my “Writing Your Novel” series and Catie began her “Developing Your Voice” series.  The overlap comes because this week’s “Writing Your Novel” post is about “Finding Your Voice.”

I have long believed that “voice” is something that works on several levels — and I believe that Catie’s post later in the week will make a similar point.  Again, though, I expect that she and I will come at the issue from slightly different perspectives.  Let me offer you my definition of  “voice.”  Basically voice is the distinctive tone, mood, and style that makes any particular book unique.  As I say, for me voice exists on four levels, and I like to distinguish between 1) Authorial Voice, 2) Genre Voice; 3) Book Voice, and 4) Narrative Voice.  What do I mean by each of these?  Let’s take each one in turn.

Last week, Catie offered this definition:  “Voice is the distinctive style that tells you who wrote the book you’re reading.”  That is a perfect description of Authorial Voice.  Every author writes differently.  Clearly.  You can read Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, and identify stylistic quirks and tendencies that set each one of them apart.  You can do the same with fantasy authors.  An Anne McCaffrey book is going to read differently from a novel by Guy Gavriel Kay.  They can write high fantasy, contemporary fantasy, YA fantasy, and you’ll still be able to tell one from another.  (Yes, I know, McCaffrey has always said that she writes science fiction and not fantasy; work with me here…)  An author who is just starting out might have a harder time establishing a unique Authorial Voice, for the simple reason that he or she is new at this.  When we first start writing we tend to mimic others.  It’s hard to help.  I know I did it as I was working on short fiction and early drafts of my first couple of books.  I admired Kay, and so I wanted to write like him.  But I also admired the simpler, more direct writing style of Ursula LeGuin,and so at times I imitated her in my work.  I had read a good deal of McCaffrey and Donaldson, Card and Herbert, and I’m sure I brought elements of their writing to my own.  I also had things that I liked to do that were more idiosyncratic — they were mine.  And with time, what began as an amalgam of stylistic mimicry became something entirely my own.  I don’t think I’m unusual in this regard.  Writers are readers.  We learn what we like and dislike; and inevitably the styles that emerge as our own are actually alloys of individual preferences and chosen influences.

Like Authorial Voice, Genre Voice is an outside influence of a sort.  Lets go back to the example I used earlier.  Guy Kay and Anne McCaffrey have individual styles.  But they also are guided in part by what they write.  If they’re both working on high fantasy, their books are going to reflect what I would call the “received culture” of that subgenre.  The prose and dialogue might be somewhat more ornate than it would be for, say, a contemporary urban fantasy.  The pacing might be somewhat slower.  There might be more threads to the plotting.  If for their next books, Kay and McCaffrey wrote urban fantasies, their books, while still distinctive, would reflect that subgenre:  tight prose; terse dialogue; fast pacing.  Just as an epic movie feels different from a “noir”, different types of books read in certain ways.  This is Genre Voice.  As beginning authors move into one subgenre or another, they should familiarize themselves not only with tropes and trends of that field, but also with its voice, so that their work reads as it should.  It’s not that you want your work to sound like everyone else’s, but rather that you want your stylistic choices to reinforce your pacing and plotting.

Book Voice might be the hardest of my four voice levels to explain.  I find that every project I work on has a different feel, a different mood.  Usually the Book Voice is a blend of plotting and character and worldbuilding; put another way, it is the sum of all the storytelling elements that I draw upon to write the book.  I’ve often found that the first 50-75 pages of my own books are the ones that need to be reworked most extensively in rewrites.  And I think this is because it takes me several chapters to find the right voice for the book.  With time, I grow more comfortable with the characters, I start to see exactly how the plot is unfolding, what themes are developing.  If the book is one of a series, I get a better sense of how this volume fits into the larger work.  And so, by page 100, I have found the right tone for my writing; I have established my Book Voice for this particular novel.  If I was smart, I would stop there and go back to rewrite those first 50 pages.  But usually I save that for revisions.  For me, the importance of Book Voice is greatest in a series.  Every series has its own style and mood (I suppose I could have created a fifth level:  Series Voice).  Book Voice ensures that you don’t write the same book three times in a trilogy.  Each book within a series should stand apart from the others.  Yes, the characters and the world are the same — it might even be one extended story line — but each book should be unique.  Book Voice makes that happen.  One way to establish Book Voice early on is to write short fiction about characters or situations that are going to appear in the book.  They don’t have to be stories you send out for publication, though it’s great if they are.  But simply writing character studies and vignettes can help you establish that Book Voice, so that you don’t have the 50 page lag time I describe above.

Finally, we have Character Voice.  If you’re writing a book from a single point of view, then Character Voice is going to be quite similar to Book Voice.  Your point of view character — your narrator — is going to establish the mood of the novel with her personality, her humanity.  And yet, if you’re writing a series of books all with the same POV Character, you will still have to distinguish between Book Voice and Character Voice.  You want your narrator’s style to be distinctive, but you don’t want it to be static.  Remember, every book should be different from the previous one; otherwise readers have no reason to keep reading.  But it’s in books with multiple point of view characters that Character Voice really takes on importance.  If you’re switching narrators, your goal as a writer should be to make each Character Voice distinctive enough that your readers don’t need to be told whose point of view they’re in.  Again, writing short fiction about your characters can be enormously helpful in establishing Character Voice.  So can taking the time to learn as much as you can about your character’s background.  Finally, I find it helpful to give some of my characters (definitely not all of them) distinctive ways of speaking — a verbal tick (“ya know?”), a speech impediment (I have one character with a lisp and another who has a nervous habit of clearing his throat quite often), or even something weirder.  One of my characters in my urban fantasy always talks about himself in the third person, and sometimes, for no reason, he speaks in verse.  These are things that can help establish unique Character Voice.  Ultimately, though, Character Voice is made by the character him or herself.  It’s not verbal tics, but established attributes that make a character, and his or her Voice, unique.

David B. Coe
http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://magicalwords.net
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17 comments to Writing Your Book, part II: Finding Your Voice

  • David, I am getting a huge charge from this series of blogs. As I said to Catie last week, Elmore Leonard *always* has a different voice (after this blog, I’ll now say he has different voices) for every single book. If his name was not on the front, no one would know he had written it. This meant that picking up one of his books was like being led, blindfolded, into a strange place and set free to find my own way. Early on in my career, that was something I aspired to without knowing how he did it or how I might do it. (grumbles) Wish I’d had this series of posts back then.

  • Thanks, Faith. I haven’t read Elmore Leonard’s work, but I’ll put him on my “to read” list. I have to admit that I haven’t always gotten my book voice just right. I would like for my books to be more distinct from one another. Something to strive for as I continue along my career path.

  • Great stuff, David. I like these distinctions and–since I don’t think I’d consciously broken them down like this–am grateful for them. I always tell people that they can read the first few pages of Act of Will and know whether it’s their type of book. It’s the only one of my novels I can say that for because it’s the only one written in first person, so the character voice–as you suggest–really defines the book. The book also has a tiny preface written ostensibly by me, though that is also a (different) character voice, rather than authorial voice! (If anyone feels like it they can see extracts at http://ajhartley.net/chapter_one.htm) One of my favorite things about writing is being so comfortable with a character that his/her voice–all the phrasing, word choice etc. just tumble out.

  • Thanks, AJ. I’ve written one book and a couple of short stories in first person and I find that those characters are the most distinctive I’ve ever written. Something about first person voice, for me at least, brings me much closer to a character. Thanks for the link to your book — looking forward to checking it out.

  • Hmmm. That link isn’t working, apparently. http://ajhartley.net/chapter_one.htm

    If that doesn’t fix it, try this: http://ajhartley.net/actofwill.htm and look for the “read the first few chapters” link on the right. Sorry.

    AJH

  • The only one I’m having trouble with is “Book Voice”. It seems like the “mood” or atmosphere is the most important element here, eg, if a lot of important characters are dying, then the book voice will darker, or bittersweet(assuming some success) or more tragic, similarly for setting. Am I getting that right?

    Also, I definitely think “series voice” is another to consider.

  • That’s sort of the idea, Atsiko, although I find that when I get the book voice right it’s a bit more subtle than that. The mood is part of it; so is the pacing — in many ways that might be the most important element for me. Every book has a rhythm and dynamics, almost like a piece of music (something I’ll refer to in greater depth with the next post in the series). So that it’s not just the mood (the musical key, if you will — minor versus major, etc.) it’s also how that key is presented. Is it melodic and slow; dissonant and fast; something in between. These are all factors in the Book Voice. Does that help at all?

  • Thanks for breaking it down. As a new author and hopefully one day a new novelist, I’ve been working hard trying to find my own voice. Honestly, I hadn’t considered that there were so many voices to master.

    I knew about author voice, character voice and genre voice but, hadn’t really thought about the others. I’ve taken classes but, usually they hit the top two, author and character voice.

    Thanks for the great post.Do you guys have any idea how helpful your posts are to newbies like myself? :)

  • Thanks for the comment, Melissa. Nice to hear that you’re finding our posts helpful. I like to think about voice on many levels, because it helps me as I work through the planning of a book. That said, it certainly isn’t my intent to make the process more complicated than it needs to be, and I can see where for some people, that’s what I’ve done. To all our readers: if thinking about Author and Character Voice works best for you, then keep it simple and focus on those. Our posts are intended to be tools, and as with all tools, you should only use those that meet your needs. If thinking about the additional voices helps, great; if not, that’s great too. Whatever works. Again, many thanks for the comment and the kind words.

  • Excellent post! Voice (and all its variations, as you mention) is something I’ve been paying very close attention to lately when I read.

    Here are a couple of writers who I’ve found to be quite good at very strong, unique narrative voices:

    *George R. R. Martin
    *Joe Abercrombie
    *Karen Miller

    Martin, in particular, stands out. Off the top of my head I count 12 POV characters in his A Song of Ice and Fire and each one is completely different from the others.

    And then there’s Stephen R. Donaldson. I remember vividly the first time I read the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. (I was in the hospital for a week and read through all 3 books in a day and a half.) Donaldson had a very vivid voice in that trilogy. The word coruscate stands out in my memory from that read. The Covenant books have a lot of description and some intense inner turmoil. Covenant can take an entire page to just walk across one room.

    And then there’s Judith Tarr who can be very sparse in her descriptions, in her sentence lengths, to great effect.

    I’m not really sure if I’ve found the exact right voices for my WIP. I’m a lot closer than I used to be. The POV narratives have far more variation to them now than when I first started writing way back in school. The characters, while all important people in their societies, range from very old and experienced people to youngsters just coming of age.

    One specific thing I’ve been focusing on in my character narratives is making sure I include how each POV character reacts to those around him/her. When I have more than one POV character in the same place I try to include a larger descriptive picture by including unique things each one would notice. And I make sure and show how they try to interpret what the other POV characters are trying to accomplish.

    I think I’m almost there with their narrative voices. Sometimes it’s hard to see your own characters clearly.

  • Thanks, CE. I agree with you about all the authors you mention above (at least those I’ve read….) I was a big Donaldson fan and loved the Covenant books. Yes, the voice in those was gritty and hard, and at times challenging. I know how hard it is to find distinctive voices for each of your POV characters and I wish you luck with that. I’m not sure I was as good at it as I would have liked. For the new project I’m writing from one POV, and I need to find a way to make his voice unique and compelling throughout. The last thing I want is for readers to grow tired of my POV character!

  • David,

    This is one of the best posts on voice that I’ve ever read. I really like how you describe the levels of voice, and I think you’re right. I’ve also definitely noticed that the voice of the story and the narrator does take 50-75 pages in my work to fully come out. First chapters are definitely the roughest for me.

    ~Dianna

  • Thanks for the kind words, Dianna. I’m writing a first chapter right now, and it’s beating the crap out of me. Here’s hoping it gets easier eventually….

  • It helps some David, although as I am splitter instead of a lumper, I’m wondering if that isn’t stretching the concept a little far.

  • Could be. As we say here at MW quite often, what works for some writers might not work for all. This might just be one of those times when the advice I offer doesn’t help much. Hopefully my other posts in this series will.

  • Karen

    Very helpful post once again, David. As someone else mentioned, I think the hardest for me is establishing a “Book Voice”. I hope it comes to me eventually.

    I’m glad CE mentioned Joe Abercrombie – he was the first name that came to mind when Voice was being discussed. He is really good at establishing different voices for his characters, and the mood in his books is very easy to distinguish as well. For anyone who wants to see how Character Voice is done right – pick up and read Abercrombie.

  • Thanks, Karen. Book Voice is really about theme and mood and pacing, which is why it can take a while to establish itself. But as I said in an earlier comment, I might have made this a bit more complicated than it needed to be. Every book is different, and in that difference lies the “voice” of the book.