Friday, March 18, 2011

Caught Red-Handed or How to Leave Fingerprints

I’ve always loved the famous RCA logo with Nipper, the little black and white dog, listening to his master’s voice on the recording. Nipper, with his head cocked inquisitively, recognizes his master’s voice on the machine even though his human is not there.

As baffling as it was for Nipper to understand where his master’s voice was coming from, understanding the art of the writer’s voice can be equally perplexing. There are a lot of definitions for what a writer’s voice is, or isn’t. There are many bits of advice about how to develop your own brand of voice.

One thing is certain, however: a well-developed, unique voice is what sets your writing apart from all others. We know from Claire’s post, “The A to Z of Getting Published in Australia,” that publishers sit up and take notice of manuscripts with a unique voice. In an industry where the odds of being successful are slim-to-none, having a publisher take notice is a Very Good Thing.

What is a writer’s voice?

Generally, there is a consensus that voice is the sum of a writer’s experience, convictions, angst, triumphs, and expectations. It’s originality, a spark, an attitude. It’s presence. Without being present in your writing, there is no original voice and no real reason for anyone to be attracted to your work.

So, voice reveals the writer’s personality, but with several caveats. I like what Nathan Bransford, former literary agent and current author, says about voice. “We should never make the mistake as readers of equating an author with their voice, but they're wrapped up together in a complicated and real way. We leave fingerprints all over our work. That part of you in your work is what makes it something that no one else can duplicate.”

Fingerprints! Our literary voice is like fingerprints, undeniably original. I also like what literary agent, Rachelle Gardner, adds to the definition of voice. “ To me, your writer's voice is the expression of YOU on the page. It's that simple—and that complicated. Your voice is all about honesty. It's the unfettered, non-derivative, unique conglomeration of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes, coming through in every word you write. Voice is all about your originality and having the courage to express it.”

How to Find Your Voice.

Originality and having the courage to express it. Simple, eh? Where do you find your voice, then? Ms. Gardner goes on to say that most of us spend a lifetime learning to present an image to the world. We mostly hide who we really are, either afraid to show our true colors, or having copied others for so long we’re out of touch with our real selves.

So developing your voice calls for honesty. That dig-deep, psychotherapy kind of honesty. It means shedding the affectations, dropping the imitations of writers you admire, forgetting the expectations of your audience, leaving your fears, until all that is left is what spills from the center of you.

Not easy and obviously the only way to do this is to write, write, write until the words on the page sound like you: original and engaging, or dark and brooding, or smartass funny, or whatever YOU are. Voice emerges quite naturally as a writer develops her skills. Those of us who have found our voice can attest to this. I’ve been writing for twenty-odd years, and still I often find that I flail around, stumble and bumble through a piece of writing, until I remember my voice. Then suddenly it’s smooth sailing. My trouble starts when I don’t listen to my own voice.

There are many suggestions out there for finding your writer’s voice. I find some of them silly and some of them quite valid. In the end, though, it’s writing - and a lot of it - that will develop your voice. If you haven’t found yours, or don’t know if you’ve got one, relax. It’ll come to you. There’s no secret but to write honestly.

For those of you who have found your voice - tell us how you did it. I’m guessing for most of us, it was as natural as learning to walk. We crawled, toddled, and fell on our butts a few times before we walked. And then, with confidence, we ran with it. Or to mix metaphors... we left our fingerprints all over it.


  1. Great post, Susan! My voice is a bit different according to what I'm writing. I don't know if that's good or not. At least I think my devotions can be told apart from my WIP. : )

  2. Oh definitely, Zan Marie. Voice is a complicated subject and I tried to keep it simple. But yeah, an author's voice may change from book to book, but the indefinable "thing" that makes you YOU, is still there.

    And then there's the whole complex subject of character voice, which I didn't touch on. How do you make each character sound unique? Why does Laura Grace sound like a retired teacher and why does Samantha sound like a little girl? And why do they sound uniquely YOURS, rather than, say, mine? With my voice, I'd have a different Laura Grace and Samantha.

    It's enough to make a novice dizzy.


  3. I write in the first person, so although I'll retain certain elements of my own style, I have to find a lot of "voices."

    I find the most effective thing is to base that voice around a secret I have myself, that I'd normally never confess to. When I embed that in a character, all kinds of juicy conflict comes to the surface and I'm able to flesh out those bones. This is pretty much what was said: originality and having the courage to express it.

  4. That elusive "voice"...argh! Your post was very helpful. Thanks! =)
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  5. Lucy, That's an interesting way to find your voice. I love the idea of a "secret" for any character, but to tie it in with voice is brilliant.

  6. Honestly, I found my "voice" by grinding it out. By doing the everyday thing and sitting down to write. Like you, I lose it fact, I lost it this week!...and haven't quiet found my way back to it. So frustrating!

    But, thank God for you. Your post really hit home. "Listen to my own voice" and "write honestly". Gee, why didn't I think of that?!! So...getting back in my chair now....grin.

  7. Write honestly. It sounds so simple. You are right we spend a lifetime guarding ourselves and writing strips it away (or at least it should). Great post.

  8. Love it, Susan. At one of the writing classes I attended a fortnight ago, one of the ladies in the class put her hand up and asked, a little despairing, what to do about the fact that her writing "voice" always sounded the same. The instructor asked if she meant that her characters always sounded the same, and she said no, she meant that you could always tell it was she who had written the story. Funny to hear it out of someone else's mouth, because everyone in the room was a bit like, yes- that's *your* voice! You want that! And yet many of us have probably thought similar things ourselves in the past without paying too much attention to what's good about consistent authorial voice.

  9. Great post, Susan.
    The thing that most helped me find my writer's voice, something I had trouble with when I first started, was to stop worrying if people were going to judge me by what I had my characters doing and saying. Not easy to write a steamy love scene if I pictured Great-Aunt Sadie reading it, hand poised in the phone to tell my Grandma I'm a pervert. :)

  10. Nice explanation of voice! Weirdly, I never worried about finding my voice. I just wrote. That was in the 1990s before I was online so much and read all about it. :)

  11. "Voice is all about your originality and having the courage to express it." That's a great definition!

  12. I must admit that I had difficulty in really understanding what this often cited 'writer's voice' was all about back when I started writing, but I think you've described it really well and what you've said does make sense to me!

    I think what identified being 'on the right track' for me was that the words started flowing more easily. The whole process became less tortured. Though funnily enough, some of the unique elements which would identify my work as mine are the things I worried would put off agents, editors etc. So yes, honesty and courage and writing which is very much your own and not too derivative are all part of the package.

    I don't think the whole 'finding your voice' is easy for many of us though, and I certainly struggled on my way to get there!

  13. I think I found my "voice" the way most people do - simply by writing and writing, and then writing some more. But you make a good point about the need to write honestly. If your voice is buried beneath layers of image and ego and self-defence mechanisms, then it will always be muffled.

    Excellent post, Susan!

  14. Great post Susan! I think my voice has always sort of been there from the very beginning - and yet I worry, because it's not a smartass, funny, quirky voice. It would be interesting if we could try on other authors' voices for a day or two [g]

  15. @ E.C. Smith: Grinding it out is pretty much the way to do it. It comes easier for some, but all of us have to write, a lot, to develop our voice.

    @ Kari Marie: It's sometimes hard to let go of a lifetime's worth of guarding ourselves. Writing is cheap psychotherapy. :)

  16. Claire - I have to admit, I never really thought much about authorial voice. I developed one before I knew what it was, actually. (I wonder if that's a byproduct of starting to write at young age, before learning to mask what's inside us and therefore, bury our voice?)

  17. @ Tina - LOL, yes, I tend to worry about what Great Aunt Beatrice will think. It's a big stumbling block for me.

    @ Carol - You're one of the lucky ones, then. I was just commenting that the same happened to me. It was a seamless transition.

    @ Susan - Isn't that a nice way of looking at it? I love Rachelle Gardner's definition.

  18. Adina, interesting that the very things that made your voice, were the things you worried about. I agree, though, that when you've found your voice and you're "in your groove" so to speak, that writing comes so easily.

  19. Thanks Rachel! There really is no short-cut to finding your voice, is there? Simply sit down and write!

    I love your voice, btw. :)

  20. Deniz - Yeah, me too. I have "voice envy." I love Kristen's incredibly sensual voice, I enjoy Diana Gabaldon's voice, and so on.

    You can always try on another voice for fun. Mimicking a favorite author is a great way to understand the craft. But it won't be YOU, then, will it? *sigh*

  21. I think I've found my voice now. It came when I was writing my first published novel and it was a struggle to keep it as a straight romance. Now I write comedy romance, and I feel comfortable.
    Crusader saying hi. Hope to see you over at mine soon. Bring a bottle!

  22. Louise -- Welcome fellow crusader! Nice to see you here.

    Hurrah for finding your voice and recognizing it. Writing is so much easier with your own voice, isn't it?

  23. Excellent post, Susan. I have to say my voice shines through most when I'm writing Madison. We're alike in so many ways, and yeah, she has definitely adopted my sense of humor. (Or lack thereof in some peoples' opinions. (g)) She's a cornball, but for me, she comes out naturally. Guess that says a lot about me. :)

    I think what you said is true, though. You just have to write honestly. It's difficult because you don't want to be judged harshly for your secret thoughts and words, but it's what you have to do to capture your own unique voice.