Monday, August 10, 2009

That mysterious thing called Voice

I've been thinking a good bit about the concept of a writer's voice lately. Finding and honing your personal voice is so important, and yet explaining voice is so hard to do. Then I thought of this analogy...maybe it will help people understand voice (or my interpretation at least).
Think of all the people you meet every day. Neighbors, co-workers, family, grocery store clerks, waitresses, friends of friends, people in line with you at Starbucks. Most of the people you know or meet are nice people, decent, upstanding, law-abiding citizens with pleasant personalities. They form a sort of homogenous average. These people are the average submission to an editor or the average book on the shelf. They are good books. Technically clean, well-thought out, interesting enough to keep your attention. But... sigh. No real spark. Nothing that makes them really pop and stand out. Nothing that makes them mocha chocolate chip instead of just vanilla. There is nothing wrong with these books. They are good, enjoyable, escapist fiction, just like the average person you meet is friendly, pleasant and law-abiding. They simply don't stand out as memorable. Just as you may forget the nice lady in line at Starbucks by next week, an editor will likely reject that book because, although there is nothing really wrong with it, it didn't sing to her, it didn't sparkle and shine and beg to be bought.
Now some books/submissions are the really annoying guy next door, or the whiner in the next cubicle at work, or the skanky girl your brother is dating that you can't stand. Some books have something fundamentally wrong with them that turns you off immediately. Horrible grammar, endless repetition, flat, lifeless characters who make stupid, groundless decisions. These books make us cringe, make editors slap a rejection letter in an envelope without a second thought.
Finally, there are those rare diamonds. The people who become your best friend, your spouse, someone who is a joy to work with. The people who stand out from the rest because of their sense of humor, their vivacious personality, their heroism, their genuine interest in you. They have a special aura, a light in their eyes, or a certain magnetism that draws you in. You want to be with them, party with them, confide in them, vacation with them. These are the books that you stay up all night to finish. The authors who make you laugh out loud, cry, keep the light on at night. The books you want to take on vacation, own in hard cover on your keeper shelf to re-read on a rainy day. These are the books that go to auction and editors fight over. The breakout bestseller that becomes the all talk at the water cooler.
But think about this— have you ever read one of those best-selling, well-buzzed books and thought, "What's all the fuss?" Have your ever wondered why Mr. Annoying Nieghbor's wife thinks he hung the moon? Ever wondered why your husband doesn't think your best friend is as funny as you think she is?
Just like certain people resonate with you when they don't resonate with someone else, an author's voice is that undefinable something that makes some books memorable stand-outs, while others are just pleasant diversions. Just like your personality is what makes you uniquely you, an author's voice (which is a reflection of their personality and world view) is what makes one author stand out from the rest. Your keeper book may be someone else's ho-hum.
The words an author chooses, the way she arranges her sentences, the tone, the mood, the pace, the literary gimmicks...all the choices an author makes in writing her story shine through the writing as her voice. Your writing voice is as important as your personality. Just as you should be true to yourself in life, be true to your voice in your writing. Ultimately it is your voice— not incorporating every contest judge's feedback and every critique partner's suggestion— that will make an editor take notice. Voice is not something you learn; it is something you already have. Learning to let that voice shine through your work and not be suffocated in trying to make your writing conform to someone else's vision is the best way to get your work noticed!
Happy reading!
Beth Cornelison


  1. Great post, Beth, and I love the analogy with people.

    Voice is a tough one to teach, but once you "get" it, you've got yours.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. A couple of weeks ago I commented to a prepublished writer that the latest version of a synopsis worked because her voice was coming through.

    She wrote me back saying, "I have a voice? Can you tell me what it is?"

    I flopped and floundered around and finally admitted I couldn't. Voice is one of those "know it when you see it" things.

    I'll send her a link to this blog. :-)

  4. A writer friend of mine, whose work up until that point hadn't been published, had a multi-published author rewrite her opening scene to show how it was done right. Ack, it was horrible. It totally lost my friend's voice, which was snarky and perfect for her stories. Without it, it sounded like a blah, nothing story. What made her stories so unique was her voice. :)

    In another case, a best selling author told of how her critique partners kept trying to make her rewrite her whole stories so she could fit in with what was acceptable. It was her voice that was so unique that caught the eye of publishers and she finally sold and became a best selling author. When you have a voice, don't let others edit it out of your work so you sound like everyone else! :)

  5. Beth, you certainly gave me pause to stop and think. I'm not so sure voice can be taught? Is it just a writer's natural talent showing through? Hmm... Maybe it can be learned like learning how to make your transistions from scene to scene read smoothly. Maybe those of you who write in more than one genre can tell us. Do you have the same voice for each?

  6. Great post on one of the mysteries of writing... it truly is one of those 'I can't define it but I know it when I read it' kind of things!

  7. Beth, this is a great way looking at voice. I once did a blog post on how a writer's voice is similar to music. Its what makes us recognize a band or a singer when we turn on the radio. And like you said how husbands, best friends, ecetra resonate so do certain musicians. I think some would call it style, there is that too, but when I turn on the radio and hear Toby Keith, or King of Leon, or Dave Matthews I know it's them. Then there is Pink, she's unique and distinctive, much like Gwen Stefani.

    Sorry didn't mean to ramble. I love talking about voice and you've given me a different way to think about it.

  8. Good description, Beth! I think my first person voice was better than the third person version, which makes me wonder when people tell me that they liked my last book the best. Apparently it works, it just doesn't feel that way to me.
    You're absolutely right about it being mysterious!

  9. A lovely post, written in a lovely voice. I remember when my kids first started having to write essays at school I would try to teach them to find their own writing voice. Not sure it helped, but it did make them feel better and more confident about what they wrote.

  10. This is very good. The analogy to people we meet, as well as Renee's to music, is spot on. Of course, it does extend that a person's "voice" is perceived by folks differently. Just like that person I may meet who I find "nice" but unmemorable may be the cat's meow to their husband or best friend, so will a certain book resonate with a reader and not to me. "Voice" is a mysterious thing that we must discover on our own irregardless of whether readers, or even editors or agents, universally see it. Advice and critique may help, or it may not. All very good food for thought. Thanks Beth!

  11. Interesting post, Beth!

    I agree with Donna and MM, not so sure I could define "voice" but I know it when I see it!

    Renee, I LOVE your parallel to music! I can always pick out my fave composer, Beethoven. I may not know which piece specifically it is, but I KNOW him when I hear him. ;-)


  12. Wonderful post, Beth.

    I'm not sure if voice can be learned, or if it just is. I think so many unpublished authors edit their books so many times and give so much credence to critique groups, they homogenize their literary voices.

  13. Great post, Beth.

    Robin--I think you make an excellent point. I think it's important to listen to the opinions of others, but don't let them take over your voice. I remember taking a class in college and after I'd taken everyone's comments/suggestions/etc into consideration, my piece (I can't remember if it was a poem or a story) was TOTALLY different and my prof simply wrote "where are YOU in this?" and it changed the way I handle critques to this day.

    I'm glad all of the Casa ladies have such unique voices that are quickly becoming easily identifiable :)

  14. Great post--the analogy definitely puts it in a new light and I really like the comparisons, thanks!

  15. Thanks, everyone, for the great feedback. I apologize for doing the post-and-run yesterday. Life happened! LOL I left the house before noon and didn't get a chance to breathe again until bedtime, at which point I just turned off the computer and hit the sack!
    I like the music analogy too. Good one, Renee! I think having the confidence to find and stick by your writing voice is the mark of when a writer has matured.
    Happy Tuesday!

  16. After going through this artical i have decided to bookmark this site found this really interesting & thanks a lot for keeping the blog Lively with such interesting blogs.

    Email Marketing Solutions