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.