Letting Your Voice Be Heard

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I spent the last few days reading Donald Maass’ exceptional book, Writing The Breakout Novel. I’d heard about the book for years, but never had hunted it down for myself. I’ve sold a book, I said to myself. I already know how to do that. What could he possibly tell me that I haven’t already heard? Which was an entirely foolish thought, and one I’m pleased to have wandered away from long enough to read the book. Maass offers simple advice for taking your novel from good enough to bestselling. I’m excited to put his words into practice for myself.

He talks about voice, and the importance of having yours. You know about voice, right? You’ve heard it a million times, at cons and in workshops and definitely around here. Voice is, to put it simply, the individual style of an author. It’s the word choices and story structures that become familiar to readers, enough that they can read a few paragraphs and say, “Oh, this sounds like Stephen King or J K Rowling.” Now this definition might make you think that voice only works once you’ve written and sold a half-dozen stories or novels, but that’s not so. Not at all. Your voice is like the current in a river on which you’re travelling. You may have to paddle into different positions in the water two or three times before you locate that current, but it’s there. Once you find that current, that voice, your stories will flow smoothly along. Sure, you’ll hit rapids occasionally, and dead spots that you have to row through and even shallow places that force you to stop and portage around, but you’ll keep moving, because your voice carries you.

Maass writes that many authors’ voices are “as neutral as a national news anchor’s accent. Some say it takes blandness of style to break out; or rather, to rub so few people the wrong way that millions can read the author without discomfort. My own feeling is that voice is a natural attribute. You no more control it than you control the color of your eyes – nor would you want to.” This is why we don’t talk about creating voice or building voice, but of finding it. It’s tucked inside every writer, waiting to be released. Of course your voice will get clearer and more solid the more you write. The first time you speak in public, you might stammer and cough and speak too quietly. The more you do it, the more confident you eventually sound. No one talks quite like you do, no one writes quite like you do. Admire other writers, learn from them, but in the end, it’s you that tells your story.

I used to fight my voice. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing at first. All I knew was that I worried all the time that certain words were too highbrow, certain descriptions too dressy, certain events too bloody. After all, a properly raised woman shouldn’t be writing about nastiness like hangings and stabbings. And just because I know what frenetic and loath and delusive all mean doesn’t necessarily imply that I should use such words…what if my readers don’t know them? When an agent told me my characters spoke too formally to each other, I panicked that I didn’t know how to write dialogue. I struggled and I worried and I fought my own voice because I feared that editors wouldn’t like it or that it wouldn’t be fit to tell my stories. It wasn’t until I was working on Mad Kestrel that I began to understand my own voice and its place in my work. I stopped worrying about whether the words I loved were good enough for everyone else. I started using the words that I needed, writing down the dialogue I heard my characters using, letting my voice flow.

Maass says “To set your voice free, set your words free. Set your characters free. Most important, set your heart free.” I agree. Your voice is what will make your writing individual and amazing and yours. You can’t write your story without letting your voice flow. Don’t hold yourself back and don’t be afraid.

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16 comments to Letting Your Voice Be Heard

  • Misty, Let me first agree with you about Maass’s “Writing the Breakout Novel.” In fact, he’s got a workbook with the same title which is also very good. I have to admit, voice is something that I used to fear until I realized that fearing it and fighting it were exactly the worst thing I could do. Your voice is your own, it’s already there, all you have to do is let it flow. Of course, a writer’s voice (as others have written here before and in more detail) is not the same thing as a character’s voice of even a book’s voice (read A.J.’s “Will” books for a marvelous example of what I mean), but the writer’s voice is there just the same, always running through and over and around the story. Like a singing voice it can (and should) be trained and polished and refined, but for goodness sake, don’t fight it (like I did for so long).

  • This is also one of those things that beginning writers haven’t usually honed yet, instead often emulating the voices of their favorite authors. I know when I first started out writing, I emulated those authors I admired, whether consciously or unconsciously. It took practice to find my own voice. And I’m still learning things about how I write, my style as well as voice, that at one time I tried to go back through and fix because I thought it was a bad thing. But I’ve stopped trying to fix it and just let it ride now. This is one of those things I was gonna mention on Mindy’s(?) post the other day on teen writers, but didn’t get around to it.

  • This is a wonderful post, Misty. The one thing I would add is that I believe my authorial voice has changed over time and is still developing. My voice now is not the same as it was when I wrote my first book, and I’m sure that it won’t be exactly like the voice I bring to my 25th book a decade or so from now. Voice is a reflection of who we are at any particular time; in a way it’s a snapshot, a static image captured in the midst of constant change and growth.

  • Very wonderfully written…

    …but you allude to something that does give me pause: when your agent worried aloud that your characters were speaking too formally. I wonder, do you have to overcome certain hurdles in order to pass the gatekeepers of publishing. Does this include modulating or moderating or adjusting your voice to fit within certain criteria and expectations of it?

    Writing is creating art, and your voice is the tenor and quality of that art. But it seems to me, at least at the early stages of one’s writing career, successful publishing isn’t about art at all: it’s about the commercial prospects of your work. After you’ve proven that, it seems the publishing powers-that-be are more apt to give a writer-artist freer reign to create the vision they have, and to actively encourage the development of their own unique voice. But for those of us who haven’t proven our commercial viability, I wonder if we have that artistic freedom.

    Or rather, of course we have the artistic freedom as long as we’re our own audience, but I wonder to what degree that freedom is constrained when we decide to attempt entry to the halls of Publification*.

    Anyway, it’s unlikely I’ll stop being who I am when I write, or stop writing with the voice that I’m growing into. Just thought I’d play devil’s advocate, for a moment… I have to play that role to myself all the time, so I’m used to it by now.

    *Note: a word that made “Publishing” sound like “Academia” did not leap immediately to mind, so I made up a word that sounds completely un-academic instead.

  • Unicorn

    Daniel said, “This is also one of those things that beginning writers haven’t usually honed yet, instead often emulating the voices of their favorite authors.” This is exactly what I did for a long time and I think I’m still doing it. If writers’ voices can be likened to normal voices, my first fantasy sounded like C. S. Lewis with laryngitis.
    Voice really changes a lot with character. My works in progress have two completely different POV characters. If I were to put Falcon and Destry together in a story, it would be an absolute bloodbath. They would detest each other. Likewise the two stories have very different voices. One of my favourite writing exercises (or at least imagining exercises, which are, to me, like writing exercises done in my head) is writing the same scene from three different points of view. It helps for character development.
    Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Misty.
    Unicorn

  • Great post Misty! Voice is something I think about a lot, but don’t really know how to define. I also don’t have any idea how to help people with voice. I recognize mine and other’s voices, but even describing them is tough.

    What’s odd to me, though, is how voice changes sometimes. I read my work, and there’s a distinct voice. I read Sarah’s work, and there’s a distinct voice. Then I read the work we’ve written together, and it is neither voice, it’s something different. And it sounds like it is one voice (a necessity). It’s cool, but also puzzling. I tend to go way darker on my own.

    I’ll definitely check out Maas’s book. I’ve got it, but I’ve not read it yet.

  • Not meaning to hijack Misty’s post, but I thought I would respond to Stephen. It’s not that we have to get our work past “the gatekeepers,” necessarily, although in order to publish you do need to convince those in charge that your work is worthy of their investment. But our agents and editors are there, in part, to critique our work, to help us make our books as good and, yes, as marketable as possible. It’s usually not adversarial or dictatorial. Ideally it’s a collaboration among people who are all pulling for the same thing, namely the success of the book. We are creating art. We are also creating a product. Balancing those two things is not always easy, and sometimes we do have to adjust a character or a setting or a scene, or even elements of our voice. At times it’s a compromise, and we have to adjust our creative vision to the realities of the business. That’s a choice I believe we make when we decide to pursue this professionally. As I’ve said before, I can be as pure and unyielding in my pursuit of “art” as I want, but if no one ever reads my book how will anyone know how virtuous I was? 😉

  • To pick up on what Daniel said, I had a writing teacher who told me that the only way to find my voice was to let myself be wildly imitative for a while – just stop fighting my influences and write the words that came to me. Her idea was to get me to stop second guessing every word I wrote so I could actually produce. (I think CS Lewis said something similar about embracing one’s influences as well, though I’m not sure.) For me anyway that actually helped. Consciously imitating my idols helped me become more self aware and more able to find the voice that is really me. It also taught me flexibility in voice and word choices. My own voice is still developing and I’m sure a practiced reader could identify who influenced me, but I’ve come to accept that that’s not always a bad thing. I can recognize Tolkien’s sources at work in his voice, but it makes the reading experience all the richer, rather than being a detraction from his skill as a writer.

    The other thing I’ve learned is that it’s possible to have multiple writer voices for different audiences. My academic voice is very different from my fiction voice and my letter writing voice is different from both of them. It’s not just the content and genre that’s different, but the vocabulary and syntax I use.

  • @DavidBCoe That’s kind of what I was getting at. I didn’t mean to imply that I see the process of working through the gatekeepers as necessarily adversarial: indeed if a writer has set sights on career success in publishing then working to the expectations of those who know that industry best can only be beneficial to the writer’s chances of making it.

    But I guess I see discussion of “voice” as something of an indulgence of the “auteur”, as opposed to that of a published author: the singular vision of an individual artist. Whereas a successful publication is, as you say, more of a collaboration. Inasmuch as a successfully published book is such a collaboration, though, doesn’t the “voice” necessarily alter? As Pea Fairie points out, when she writes with a co-author, the voice changes, and it is neither the voice of the one nor of the other but something altogether different. When editors and agents and others get involved, while their influence is for the ultimate betterment of the book, won’t their involvement alter the voice? It won’t really be the author’s true voice, anymore, but the amalgamation of a conversation, so to speak.

    I guess the question I was after was: how much do we have to be aware of this, and pro-actively change this, in order to gain the affirmative attentions of editors, agents, and others? How much do their preferences and expectations, in this specific matter, affect what they are willing to consider? As in, not only might we worry about sending the right genre and right type of story to the right editors and agents, but might we also worry about whether the editor or agent we are targeting is interested in stories of the tone and style that we have created? I don’t expect that’s an easy question to answer, or even a fully answerable one.

    Certainly, if there were something I could do differently, stylistically, in order to make my work more palatable to editors, agents, and general audiences, I’d give that a lot of consideration. But since voice is so hard to pin down, I’m not sure that’s something that can be easily achieved, regardless. But it did seem like maybe – just maybe – Misty’s experience hints that there are some things that can be done to moderate one’s voice to better impress various gatekeepers.

  • David said My voice now is not the same as it was when I wrote my first book, and I’m sure that it won’t be exactly like the voice I bring to my 25th book a decade or so from now.

    That makes perfect sense to me. I’m no more the same woman now that I was twenty years ago, even though we share a face and a name. I would expect my voice to change as I mature. Tim Powers, when asked in interviews, says he would never consider writing a sequel to The Anubis Gates, because it was written by someone that he’s not anymore, and he wouldn’t know how to reach that man.

    Stephen asked, …when your agent worried aloud that your characters were speaking too formally. I wonder, do you have to overcome certain hurdles in order to pass the gatekeepers of publishing. Does this include modulating or moderating or adjusting your voice to fit within certain criteria and expectations of it?

    David covered this pretty completely in his answer, so I won’t repeat what he said. I will expand on the situation I was referring to, just so it’s a little clearer. It wasn’t my agent that made that complaint, but one I met a few years earlier, who was reading a chapter from another book I’ve written. That book takes place in a Renaissance faire, and the scene in question featured two faire actors speaking to a fairegoer, so the two men were staying in character. Naturally their words and manners were formal, because they were playing a part. I don’t know whether the agent had never been to a faire, or just didn’t understand what I was trying to convey, but he didn’t like the formality. Trouble was, instead of trusting that I knew what I was doing, I let his criticism convince me that my voice was wrong.

    So I’m saying this for everyone – your voice may be loud and obnoxious, soft and gentle, silly or staid, but it is never wrong. 😀

    Pea_faerie said I read the work we’ve written together, and it is neither voice, it’s something different.

    That is so cool! I’ve never written with another person (yet…) but I hope I’ll experience that someday.

    Sarah said I’m sure a practiced reader could identify who influenced me,

    Wouldn’t that be a fun a party game, in which we all sat around trying to decide who our work must have been influenced by just by reading passages? Yeah, I’m just that wild of a party girl. *laughs*

  • @Misty Massey: Thanks, that does clear up the specifics of your experience. (In that particular situation, it definitely would have made complete sense for the characters to be speaking to each other in an overly formal and flowery way. Still… I can’t say it would’ve been wrong for them to be doing so anyway; it wouldn’t have sounded natural to contemporary ears, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean writing dialog that way wouldn’t have captured a certain flavor, if that had been your goal, I think.)

  • Razziecat

    I would guess that a good editor would be able to help a writer bring out their voice in a way that enhances both their story and their sales. Their job would not be to mute or distort the writer’s voice, but to guide it and polish it; sort of the way a voice coach works with a singer. As far as imitation, I can spot the places in my own work over the last three years where I let myself emulate some favorite authors; but things written in my own voice are not only better work than the ones where I intentionally imitated, they also don’t sound like anyone else (at least to me).

    Donald Maass has another book called The Fire in Fiction which I found wonderfully inspiring.

  • Young_Writer

    Fantastic advice. My voice in descriptions is different than when I’
    m writing dialogue. Is that normal?

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    I’m so glad you discovered Maass’s book! I find it so helpful! I even had the pleasure of taking one of his courses once.

    I also, like others above, really recommend the Handbook. It puts his ideas in exercise form. I find that if I am stuck, often I can open the handbook and find some exercise that addesses the scene I’m stuck on in a constructive manner.

    My favorite exercise is on page 64…the one that helps you give motivation to secondary characters and villains.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    >My voice in descriptions is different than when I’m writing dialogue. Is that normal?

    Just happen to see this…I would say yes, very normal. In fact, dialogue should sound like your characters and description like your current writerly ‘voice’.

    (I say ‘current’ because writerly voice can be very different for different projects, especially if the story is in first person.)

  • Young_Writer

    Thank you, that’s very helpful of you.