“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” ― Mary Harris (Mother) Jones

Archive for December, 2010

A Confusion of Voice

If the complaints I hear from writers are any indication, the only thing harder for them to get their heads around than show vs. tell is the concept of an author’s “voice.”



Voice is that unmistakable tone in a piece of written work that is unique to its author. No one who’s read Hemingway, for example, is ever likely to confuse him with anyone else. The brisk irony of Jane Austen’s novels is also readily identifiable. And this unique tone runs consistently through all their work.



I recently turned down a submission, citing the usual reason why I do that-—it’s not what I need. (There will likely be a mild rant on the subject of querying a publisher with material they don’te publish at a later time.) Ordinarily, I don’t send critique notes. For one thing, I rarely have time, although I wish I did. For another, all too often my attempt to help is…poorly received.

In this case, however, I did respond to something this particular author had written me, suggesting a change in a major element in the manuscript, advising I thought doing so would make it more marketable. I stressed the suggestion had nothing to do with my decision not to consider the manuscript.



This writer replied that I was rejecting her work solely because I didn’t like her voice. I’m still not clear where that came from, since I said nothing about it anywhere in the exchange. It did, however, remind me of when a writer under contract loudly protested requested changes in punctuation or vocabulary or sentence structure on the grounds I was “ruining their voice.”

One writer with whom I worked cried foul when I insisted her attempts to be clever by using wordplay that made no sense needed to go. She wailed I was going to destroy the book because this sort of thing was what her readers expected. It was her “voice.” Understand, when her wordplay worked, it was terrific, but sometimes it was painfully contrived, and those latter were the instances I requested she either revise or delete.



Both of these instances are cases of writers using mechanical means to achieve what they mistakenly believe to be their unique voice. Yet, neither has anything to do with voice. They are style matters, in the first case, and narrative structure, in the second.



Voice isn’t something you can manufacture. it’s a reflection of who you are as a writer. Dean Koontz and Stephen King both write in the same genre, yet given an anonymous excerpt from both men to read you would immediately know the two pieces weren’t written by the same person. That’s voice.



Writing an entire novel using simple sentences isn’t voice. It’s a style choice (and a bad one–your reader will be asleep by the end of page two). Clever wordplay is just that—-clever wordplay, not voice, and if your reader doesn’t “get it,” you’ve wasted your time. Refusing to use semi-colons has nothing to do with voice (and usually everything to do with the writer not knowing when to use them).



A beginning writer rarely has the experience and expertise to have found his or her voice. A writer who’s switching from nonfiction to fiction may have a voice but may also need to determine if the one they have is going to work in their new category. One of the most common problems I see with journalists and technical writers who essay fiction, for example, is that they can’t get out of “tell” mode.

 They don’t have any practice with being in a character’s head.

Hemingway brought the terse, spare journalistic style into his fiction, and for him it works. Likewise for Glen Cook’s Black Company fantasy novels. However, both use this style because it suits personality and content. However, the style is not their unique voice. No one will likely confuse Cook’s work with Papa’s, and not just because of the genre.



A good editor intuits the voice of a writer, and will do everything in his or her power to ensure it survives whatever stylistic changes are need to make a work as accessible to the reader as possible. A good editor also knows doing so rarely involves comma placement or repetitive sentence structure or whether or not there are dialogue tags.



Style is a tool. Voice is the vital part of a writer that sets him or her apart from every other writer. The first you learn, just as a pianist learns scales, and knowing the mechanics of the writing trade is as necessary as knowing which key matches which note on the sheet music.



But no matter how much you practice, you’ll never be Mozart. And aping Hemingway’s style will never give you Hemingway’s voice. Nor do you want it to. It’s up to you to discover the unique way of utilizing the tools of the writers that, combined with the intangible something that sets you apart from every other writer, creates writing that belongs to you and no one else.