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Monday, February 28, 2022

Defining and Developing Your Author Voice


Previously I talked about the differences and similarities between the author's voice, narrator's voice, and characters' voices. I decided that my voice equation could actually work at any of those levels:

What the Person Thinks or Talks about + How He Talks about It = Voice

Voice is essentially that person's personality and how that is rendered on the page. On some level, there is some overlapping of the characters' voices, narrator's voice, and author's voice--and ultimately, the former two types fit into and help make up the author's voice. 

Like any kind of voice, defining and nailing down an author's voice can feel a little elusive at first, especially if the author's work varies widely and his or her writing has evolved over the years. How do you figure out your own author's voice? And do you need to work at finding, gaining, and developing it?

First, let's revisit what was stated in our previous post about the writer's voice.


The Author's Voice

What the Writer Thinks or Says + How She Says it = Author's Voice

You are a unique person. You have unique experiences, a unique personality, a unique worldview, a unique belief system. There are particular types of stories (or genres) you like to write--whether that's wide-ranging or narrow. There are particular tropes you are drawn to and perhaps types of people or places you like to write about. There are types of themes you like to visit. Maybe you enjoy writing protagonists that have positive change arcs

There are also particular types of stories (or genres) you don't want to write--whether that's wide-ranging or narrow. There are particular tropes you turn away from. There are certain types of people you'd rather not write about or types of places you have no interest in. There are themes you don't wish to touch and arguments you don't believe in. Maybe you dislike writing negative steadfast arcs for protagonists.

All of these things help make up your voice as a writer.

But it's more than that.

There is a breadth and limit to your lexicon. There are sentence structures you like using more than others. Maybe you like using lengthier, more poetic and meaningful descriptions. Or maybe you prefer simple and straight-to-the-point descriptions. Maybe you are prone to choosing metaphors that come from nature. Or maybe you only ever tell stories in first person. Or maybe you prefer having protagonists who are female. Maybe you like to always add at least a little romance to it. Maybe you use dashes more than most writers.

There are also things you may never write. Perhaps because you dislike profanity, you'll avoid using the f-word. Instead of having sex scenes, you always "fade to black." You almost never write long descriptions. You'll probably never tell a story in omniscient viewpoint. You'll never use a semicolon--you hate them.

How you tend to tell stories also makes up your author voice.

If we pick up a book by Mark Twain, we know what kind of places and people and themes and plots and language to generally expect. Same goes for Jane Austen. Same goes for Rick Riordan. William Faulkner. Dan Brown. C.S. Lewis.

Sure, some may have a wider range than others, but they still have their limits. Jane Austen wouldn't write a Dan Brown book.


Defining Your Author Voice

In order to try to define your own author voice, it might be more helpful to first look at what kinds of stories you don't have a desire to write. For example, I have zero desire to write a western or a spy thriller. Now, that doesn't mean I never enjoy those stories as an audience member, I do. I just don't want to write them. I also tend to be a more spiritual and optimistic person, so I'm probably unlikely to write negative or pessimistic themes. However, I can still enjoy stories with negative and pessimistic themes.

What won't you put on the page? For example, I'll probably never write the f-word in one of my books. And I'll probably never write an erotic scene. (Now, that doesn't mean I'll never read a book with the f-word in it.)

To get an idea of your own author voice, first look at where these boundaries lie. Hit the big, heavy things, first--would you write about rape? Pedophilia? Would you write about a protagonist who is a murderer? Would you write the f-word? How frequently? Many writers have no problem writing any of these things. Some writers would hesitate on writing them. And some wouldn't touch them with a 10-foot pole. Some would write about the content, but in a way that is very veiled and delicate. Whatever the case, starting with these will likely help you see where your boundaries are or aren't compared to others--which helps define your voice. We only know what something is, because of what it isn't.

Next, look at the work you have produced or are producing. What are the similarities? I almost (though not always) write stories that have a fantastical element. And like I said above, I tend to prefer optimistic themes, and I almost always want some mystery in it, even if it's on the sidelines.

Instead of looking at everything as either-or, it might be helpful to look at it as more of a spectrum. "I often include romance" vs. "I always include romance," for example.


Being True to Yourself

Let's be honest, some of us are the rebellious types, and that's okay. But the moment we hear about "defining" ourselves, we feel like we've been shut in a box. We feel like that actor who always gets cast in the same roles.

I've been there.

Let me tell you how that went.

I sometimes hated the idea of even being defined by a genre, even something as broad as "speculative." So I'd try to write something totally different from my previous story. This isn't necessarily "wrong"--there is nothing "wrong" with writing different things or being experimental. But maybe I was doing it for the wrong reasons--to "prove" something, instead of just writing what I truly wanted to write.

Another time, I had a critiquer that I essentially let steer my story into what he'd write because I trusted his perspective. He wrote in a different genre, and mine ended up having this pessimistic theme with a negative outcome. Not necessarily "wrong," but I probably wouldn't have written the story that way if he hadn't pushed for it.

Are these stories a true, accurate reflection of me as a writer? Probably not. 

One may argue they make up my author's voice, which in some sense is true, but is it my authentic author voice? Probably not so much.

They came out as a reaction to not wanting to be labeled, boxed in, or from following someone else's author voice.

Now, I'm not gonna say that's always bad.

But when you find yourself with that spirit or in that situation, I want you to ask yourself: Does this story actually embody what I authentically want to write? Or am I writing it to "prove" something? Or please someone else?

If so, am I okay with that?

Normally, it's best to be true to yourself.

We all remember those child actors who became adults and went and did something extreme to "prove" they weren't stuck in a box, but I won't name any names (*cough cough* Daniel Radcliffe *cough cough* Miley Cyrus *cough*). (And one of those two later came out and said she regretted it.)


Developing Your Author Voice

Do you need to learn and work at gaining your author voice? Is it something you find? Or something you are? Do you develop it? 

There are different opinions on this in the writing community, but I think that's really because people are looking at the questions from different perspectives. Your author voice comes from you. You may need to gain more experience and insight into yourself, and you may need to get to know your authentic self more (like Miley Cyrus apparently should have). It's hard to be true to yourself when you don't know who you are.

. . . Or maybe you don't need to do all that. Maybe it all simply bleeds through into your writing subconsciously. You simply know what you will or won't write and what's authentic to you, and maybe for you, that's enough.

Some writers may experiment with different types of stories before they find what they really want to write. Dan Wells kept writing fantasy until his critique group pointed out that actually, it sounded like he wanted to write horror. Turned out they were right. (So, there is a contrasting story to my critiquing experience.)

It can be helpful to understand your boundaries and preferences like we explored above. 

If you aren't totally sure what those are yet, then one might argue you are still "developing" or "finding" your author voice--just as some people say you are "developing" or "finding" yourself.

But if author voice is who you are and what and how you write, do you even ever need to change the way you write?

Let me explain what "author voice" should not be: poor communication and bad writing.

Someone out there in the vast world wants to argue that they don't need to improve their writing because that's just the way they write and that's who they are.

You can be any type of person who writes any type of thing, but you still need to learn to write it most effectively, you still need to learn the craft, you still need to learn to accurately communicate. You still need to learn to write.

This is what people mean when they say things like, "You just have to write a million words of crap before you find your voice."

What's really happening is that as you keep practicing and learning to write, not only will you write better, but you'll also discover preferences, tendencies, likes, and dislikes. You'll discover you love dashes more than others, and hate semicolons. You'll come to the conclusion that flowery language is too distracting from the story. You'll realize you prefer just about every line being told through the character's viewpoint.

It's hard to definitively know these things and develop these preferences, if you don't have a lot of experience. That's like saying you decided plain chocolate ice cream was your favorite flavor, when you haven't even tasted ice cream yet. You haven't even had vanilla or cookies'n'cream or strawberry or mint yet. Maybe you intuitively know plain chocolate ice cream will be your favorite, but maybe someday you'll taste something else and realize it's your favorite.

Still, there are some things you know you will never taste because you know you'll hate it--like bubblegum ice cream, because you hate bubblegum.

It's all sorta like that.

So in some sense, you do find and develop your author voice, but in another sense, it's just you.

Maybe it's better said that you refine your author's voice, so that it clearly, most effectively communicates your true, authentic self.

6 comments:

  1. I so appreciate your descriptions of the words that I hear being floated about my circles. "I don't know what my voice is," she , whines. "Don't worry about it, we hear it," said her critique partners.

    Thanks,
    Judith

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    Replies
    1. Hi Judith,

      I apologize for the late reply--I've had a lot on my plate. Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Yes, I hear those these two sometimes, but if you don't fully understand it, it can feel pretty vague.

      Thanks again!

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  2. I agree, September. It's both. We already have an authentic voice somewhere inside and we need to be brave enough to let it out but also have the diligence to invest in it. Your last sentence, nails it. :-D

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    1. Hi Charlotte,

      I apologize for the late reply--I've had a lot on my plate, but I know we talked about it on IG. "Bravery" sounds about right. It can be a little scary. I think all of us are afraid on some level of not being accepted--and writing is usually something so personal. Once we are ready to share, we need to learn how to best communicate it.

      Much love,

      September

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  3. Yes, it's refining your author voice that's Important. We already have an author voice. We couldn't write without it. Finding your author voice is like saying you can't speak until you've found your speaking voice.

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