Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Coming Home as a Writer

In a comment to Bonnie's post, "Literary Fingerprints," Amy K. Sorrells said, "My current novel has a pretty unique voice, and I find my pen/fingers feel sluggish whenever I'm hesitant about speaking freely through her. It's when I open my heart unabashedly that my character is able to sing." That got me thinking about the difference between character's voice and author's voice in fiction. There are, or should be, as many "voices" in a novel as there are characters. The more distinct we make those voices -- without resorting to cliche -- the better our work is. That's not to say that conveying the voice of every character is an easy task; some will undoubtedly be more difficult than others to "get right." But getting it right is one of the most important jobs an author has. We talked recently about the voices in the best-selling novel The Help, about how you can "hear" each of the three POV characters as you read, and how you can easily distinguish between them. In fact, all the characters have strong, identifiable voices. I love to read novels like that, where the voices are so well executed that you feel a part of the story. That's not always the case, as anyone who reads much fiction can tell you.


But there's a difference between the voices of the characters we create or read about, and the author's voice. Bonnie cited word choice and sentence structure as things that add to the author's voice, and she's absolutely right. As part of the writer's syntax, they help make an author's voice unique. Added to that are diction, author's personality, education and locale. It's the use/non-use/over-use of adjectives and adverbs, or falling into patterns of passive voice. It's the way punctuation is used; the tight or flowing style in which an author writes; their preference for dialogue/action tags. An author's voice should be as individual and identifiable as his or her physical voice, because one is as unique as the other.


In Finding Your Author Voice, Michele Dunaway writes, "An author's voice is that mystical, interplanetary thing that you can't buy in Walgreen's or find on the Internet. But every best-selling author has it. So where did they get it? And better yet, where do you find it? Your author's voice is actually already with you. It's found deep inside you..." It's there in everything you write, from the first rough draft to the final spectacular one. It's part of your creative DNA. Even if you try to emulate another author, your own distinctions will inevitably shine through. Wendy Paine Miller, a frequent commentor on this blog, said, "I believe voice happens on the page when you lose yourself to the writing." William Brohaugh, in Write Tight (one of my favorite books on the craft of writing), agrees. He says, "Remember that voice and style should be quiet. They are not established with gimmick. When you strive for voice and style, you don't achieve it. You simply show off" (pg. 149).


I've experimented with a variety of genres in my years of writing, but it was when I began to write contemporary women's fiction that I found my true and best author's voice. That's the genre where the best I have to offer comes through, where all the elements I mentioned above come together in the best way possible for this writer. It gets to the heart of who I am and what matters most to me. That's important for many reasons, not the least of which is that editors are not just looking for a great and unique story; they also want a great and unique authorial voice -- someone to tell that story in the most engaging way possible.


I highly recommend that you experiment with different genres as you seek to find who you are as a writer. Write short stories to determine which genre is the "mystical" fit for you, to find where you shine, because not all genres are created equally for each and every author. If you find that you struggle with the work -- above and beyond what every writer experiences -- then maybe you haven't found your genre. Experiment! Experiment with tense and time and topic. If you're like me, you'll know when you've come home as a writer.


Can you define your author's voice, even if just to yourself? Have you experimented with genres to find if one is a better fit than another? If so, did you learn anything about yourself as a writer?


Dina Sleiman said...

Interesting thoughts. I use very different rhythms in my historical and contemporary voice. I've finally gotten into a groove with each one. Personally, I love the sound of my medieval writing, even if it's less "marketable" at the moment.

Megan Sayer said...

I started writing another short story a few weeks ago and got a bit frustrated because "it sounded like the other ones". It was one of those moments in time you can pinpoint a revelation: it sounds like the other ones because that's MY authorial voice, and the better I can recognise and harness the strengths and weaknesses of that then the stronger my writing will be. The more I sat with the story and the characters in my mind the more I could hear their individual voices and personalities coming out, and the story is developing with their colour and flavour as well as being still obviously mine.
I realised too that pretty much everything I've ever written has been in first person. I'm trying to break that now, although I'm not having much success. I think that intimate narrative distance is a part of my voice too. There's something really powerful in that kind of self-understanding. I'm looking forward to exploring it more and seeing where it goes.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

I think I've found my flavour. Dark and dramatic sums me up best. By "dark" I mean haunting, atmospheric, and with an undercurrent of mystery or suspense, even though I don't write in either genre. I also like my writing to be lyrical.

I think I'm beginning to make peace with my natural voice. At times it makes me roll my eyes - why can't I lighten up a bit for a change? - but when I think about it, those are the sort of books I'm drawn to as a reader as well.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Hey, I'm quoted. So humbled by that!

I love that you delineate author voice from character voice(s) in this post. As an author, I found women's fiction was a welcome home for my voice. But I often struggle with my character's voices.

In my last MS I attempted four unique POVs. It was messy, to say the least. Now I'm focusing on two with my current WIP and I feel I have more of a handle on things.

Constantly growing in this role.

My hope is that my voice will continue to strengthen.
~ Wendy

Marcy Kennedy said...

I recently received feedback on the start of two of my novels that said I had a strong voice. I was encouraged by that because all the technical issues of writing can be taught and learned. Voice needs to be found.

Nicole said...

I think I'm street-literary. Always passionate--even subtly.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I started out as a playwright...which I still love! That was such a great way to learn writing character voices. I was writing for specific actors, which was incredibly helpful.

As a novelist, I'm still figuring it out. And it's exciting! I know that my good voice is coming through when I find myself making funny faces as I'm writing...kind of making the facial expressions I imagine the characters or narrator making. Weird...yeah, probably. That's why I can't write at coffee shops very much :).

Debra E. Marvin said...

Very true, Susie. I tend to do a lot of physical stuff while I'm writing, so it's good I'm alone.

I recently found something I wrote about 15 yrs ago and recognized the same thing that I'd like to think of as my voice. I enjoyed that...unless it was a lousy voice!?

Thanks, Sharon!

Anonymous said...

Dina, you're so right. Rhythm, cadence will be different in different genres. And remember, what isn't marketable today will be all the rage tomorrow.

Megan, excellent discovery. It certainly will lead to stronger writing. I too love first person, or very close third.

Karen, I love how you describe your flavour. It certainly appeals to me.

Wendy, you often say things that are quotable -- as do all our faithful friends here. 4 POV characters can be tough to pull off. I wish you success on your WIP.

Marcy, YES! Technical elements can be taught, but voice is "already there" as Michele Dunaway said.

Nicole, welcome back. It's good to hear from you.

Susie, writing plays is an excellent way to learn to hear and write character voices. The WAY it's done will resound with the author's voice. I do the same thing as I write -- make myself feel what the character feels, practice the dialog out loud. I can't write in coffee shops either. I love my quiet little corner of the world. Which isn't quite so private anymore. My little Boo Radley is sitting on my lap as I type one-handed. He says hello to everyone.

Debra, you're very brave. If I found something I'd written 15 years ago I'd be afraid to read it.

Lori Benton said...

Another meaty and thought provoking post! I haven't read all the comments yet, but in case it hasn't been mentioned, I think an author's world view and spiritual beliefs inform her voice too.

I've learned that writing contemporary fiction doesn't hold my interest, and my voice falters. I've never finished a contemporary set story (that wasn't a fantasy with a teddy bear for a protag), though I've begun several. As hard as it is with the added research involved, historical fiction is where I feel most like "me."