The Author’s Voice

Years ago, when I had a dozen or so publications under my belt, my old writing teacher Jack Bickham remarked to me: “When I read your copy, I don’t detect any authorial voice at all.”

I was crushed. At the time, I’d worked so hard on my writing craft, yet here was another thing I didn’t know about and didn’t provide in my stories. Voice? Voice? Where was I going to find one?

The answer is, of course, inside myself.

We aren’t always ready to face that one, are we? Writers can be walking bundles of insecurity, contradiction, angst, doubt, and fear. We doubt that anyone’s going to read what we’ve written. We doubt that anyone’s going to enjoy our story. We doubt that anything we create has value or worth. And if those doubts and fears are strong enough, they can muzzle our voice until we silence it completely.

Do so, and you will write stories that may be well-crafted and smoothly paced, but they’ll lack the essential connection–the link–that keeps readers coming back to your work.

So which writers appeal to you the most? Which are your favorites? Chances are that their voice is a major part of why you enjoy them so much.

This weekend, I was reading a YA novel called Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer. It’s a ripping good adventure, very enjoyable. I’ve read it several times. Is there a central antagonist? Not exactly. The story instead relies on a series of adventures as the protagonist skips her way from one mishap to the next. What makes this fast-paced pirate yarn work, however, is Voice. Presented in first person, we’re given Jacky Faber’s voice in spades, and what a voice it is. She makes the book work. Her personality is vivid enough to sweep readers along.

Characters that distinctive don’t come along every day.

Another writer with a strong voice is Jim Butcher. His series protagonist is the wizard P.I. Harry Dresden, and Harry’s snarky view of the world in which he inhabits helps lift the stories above just another paranormal tale.

John D. MacDonald’s authorial voice is powerful. His soliloquies on anything and everything from jazz to gin to repairing a boat hull to the mind-numbing stupidity of television are wrapped up in the guise of protagonist internalization. And once again, they lift the Travis McGee mysteries out of the ordinary.

Dick Francis wrote with a very distinctive voice that came through every novel he produced.

All these examples are writers who use first-person viewpoint. Is that the answer? Just write in first-person if you want to develop a distinctive voice?

Not the answer. Maybe a step toward finding it.

Consider Dorothy Sayers. She wrote her books in third-person viewpoint, but her voice is distinctive. A few other authors of third-person viewpoint and strong voice:

Agatha Christie

Betty Neels

Georgette Heyer

Alastair Maclean

Jan Karon

Eudora Welty

Ray Bradbury

The list is endless. By now, I’m sure you’re wondering why I haven’t included your favorite novelist.

Voice shouldn’t be muffled. It shouldn’t be whispered. It should shout.

It’s what you love, what you care intensely about, what you value and honor, what you abhor. It’s wrapped up inside your protagonist, and it’s not preaching a message. It’s sharing your view, your opinion. It’s saying, “Here’s my insight. Here’s what I have to say.”

It’s being brave enough to let that come out, to take the creative risk to reveal a bit of yourself to people. It’s stringing your words together in a style that mirrors what you are. That kind of honesty or self-exposure is natural for some authors, difficult for others. But if we want to be read and remembered, we have to stop creeping in the tracks of writers who have gone before us and make our own footprints in the snow.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “The Author’s Voice

  1. Thanks so much for stopping by my blog for a read, I really appreciate the comments. Richard from My Old Historic House.

  2. Inspiring. ;^) I’m working on it! It’s nice to know that extra help is here, too. Thank you for sharing! ;^)

  3. Dee

    This week, I was writing a piece on blogging, and I wrote much the same thing in one paragraph about voice. Thanks for letting me know I got it right. 🙂

  4. I used to wash out my voice in the hopes of appeal to this agent or that market. Slowly, I began to hate writing. Then I decided to let my voice stand, and to heck with any other considerations. Now, not only am I having more fun, I’m writing better stories.

    It really does make a difference.

    As for contemporary authors with distinctive voices, I would put Stephen King at the top of the list. No one writes like him, but clearly a lot of people like the sound of his voice–even when his story endings are sometimes less than satisfying.

    • Rob,
      You are so right! When we writers chase the market, we can really lose ourself. Then it’s easy to burn out. When I urge writers to have the courage to use their voice, I’m really talking to myself. I was a chameleon for so long. It can be difficult to reconnect with what I’m really about as an author.

      And, yes, Stephen King’s voice can be very compelling.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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