Really, it’s Wednesday already? Wow. What happened to Tuesday? Wasn’t I just telling people about having a good Monday? This week is rocketing past.
Here we are again, ready for another blogpost. As we do on Wednesdays we head into the Scrooge McDuck money vault that is my inbox and pick one of the questions asked by you, the people reading my words in this little nook on the internet. And before we go onto the question today, I just want to say thank you – it really means a lot to me that you read this, and it means a lot to me that you keep coming back post after post. Thanks.
Today’s question comes from Erin, who’s writing her first fantasy novel. She asks: “John, I follow a lot of blogs, and many editors and agents talk about the importance of voice. They don’t really say what voice is, they just say that it’s important, as if I’m supposed to know what they mean. No one asks what they mean, and I feel like if I ask, people will think I’m stupid. So, what do they mean? What voice are they talking about? Is it important?”
Erin, I’m sorry that the culture on some blogs leaves you feeling like you can’t ask a question without other people calling you stupid. You’re not stupid. And chances are other people have the question too, and they’re just as afraid of being called stupid as you are. So everyone’s waiting for someone else to go first. With that, with that silence, the author assumes everyone knows what they’re talking about, so they don’t stop to define it, and this whole cycle moves from writing topic to writing topic and way too many people are left discouraged and confused. It’s one of the parts of blogging about writing that really irritates me, so let me start off by defining voice.
There are a few types of voice, and they’re all different, but all under the umbrella of “voice” (The way this was taught to me was to think of bread. There are loads of different types of bread – pumpernickel, rye, sourdough – but they’re all breads). It’s a shame people aren’t more clear about which one they mean. I know I’m guilty of it, so I’ll do my best to be as clear as possible.
Narrative voice is how the narrator sounds, and this is a key element in first-person writing, since the exposition comes filtered through one character’s experience and thought. (The technical term is narration-as-thought, if you ever want to sound nerdy while sipping a pinot noir with someone wearing a jacket with elbow patches) A strong narrative voice requires a clear view of the character’s attitude and philosophy, as well as an understanding that first-person is not omnipresent or omniscient, and because of those limitations, you’re only seeing one particular side to a story, with everything expressed to us by a single channel.
One of the first questions I get asked about narrative voice is “what do I do if I’m writing in third person?” Well, there the narrator is invisible, and you don’t want to reveal there to be some disembodied being telling you the story, you just want the facts and ideas presented with omniscience. In that case, narrative voice becomes narrative-as-exposition (man, you are going to impress a lot of people if you go to douchey wine parties), so a clear third-person narrative voice is strong exposition. Strong exposition comes from sentence construction and decision making as to what’s actually in scene, collapsing the barrier between the reader’s imagined presence in the moment and the fact that they’re reading squiggles and symbols on a piece of paper.
You can build a strong narrative voice by working on your decision making skills. If you’re in first person, keep the character in mind. (Note: If you’re looking to build strong characters, check out the FiYoShiMo section on characters.) Put us over their shoulder and lens everything you can through the character’s interests, goals, plans, fears, and thoughts.
In third person, make clear decisions and good word choices. If you mean to say that there’s a rusty pitchfork stuck in Mrs Dickinson’s chest, then there sure as hell was a tragic peasant accident. There’s room for paralysis due to overthinking here, which is another way of saying people can start doubting whether what they’ve got on paper is good enough, so get all your thoughts down on paper and make sure they’re at least clear before you start derailing yourself into “good enough.” (Hint: It’s good enough.)
Authorial voice is how you (the person writing whatever you’re writing) build sentences, employ writing techniques (like frontloading and backloading), and apply grammar and punctuation, so that your work, regardless of genre or series, has a signature unique to you. Maybe you use a lot of metaphors. Maybe you love long radial sentences. Maybe you like every sixth sentence to be a pair of clauses hinged with a comma. Strong authorial voice is not necessarily mastery of sentence structure, so much as it is a decisive broadcast of your style. The voice comes through regardless of whether the text is expositive, narrative, or dialogue. Strong authorial voice is engaging and comforting to some degree, because a reader develops expectations and familiarity.
Building authorial voice is about first having some level of comfort with what you’re doing. For some people that’s going to include a few internal conversations that it’s okay to be a writer, it’s okay to spend time doing writing, and as we’ve talked about previously, it’s okay to tell people that you’re a writer. For other people it’s going to be a permission slip that you can keep with you so that you know the Word Police aren’t three seconds away from kicking down your door and taking away your keyboard. For some people, it’s going to be relief that it’s okay to enjoy doing this activity for themselves on some level, rather than always being the parent on duty or the partner on call. Without that comfort, creativity is sludge in old pipes and you’ll never reach that level of production and enjoyment you talk about wanting.
Once you give yourself permission, authorial voice is built with discipline. Consistent effort applied regularly. Writing frequently. Adding to word counts. More doing and less saying you’re going to do things. Word after word, sentence after sentence. Put your butt in the chair and make the words happen. Marathons are measured in miles, but are won a stride at a time.
You’re not going to master your voice during a first draft. It will take several drafts and likely several books to get truly comfortable and nuanced within your voice, and I encourage you to try out lots of different approaches in writing. More dialogue, less narration, more description, fewer similes, bigger hyperbole … figure out where you sound the most like you while telling the story you want to tell, and then build a sustainable environment by reading in and out of genre, build a support network, stop letting fear of other people dictate whether you’re a good or bad person for making stuff, etc etc.
It’s hard. It sounds hard. It can be frustrating that you’re not “getting it fast enough.” There isn’t a “fast enough.” This is not a drag strip, this is Le Mans. But you can get a handle on your voice and use it well. It just means you actually have to write.
Character voice is how a character sounds or acts or thinks, ideally distinct from other characters due to not just manner of speaking, but also word choice, and content. If you have a character from the backwoods, they’ll sound differently than the upper crust European barony. Character voice is making each character specific and their own. And it’s not just about what they say, it’s also how they act or react to whatever goes on around them. Strong character voice makes character A wholly different and distinguishable from characters B and C.
Developing character voice comes out of really knowing your characters, and really being able to say clearly what makes one character different than another. That might mean something intrinsic like beliefs or fears, or something developed like speaking patterns or vocabulary, but you should be able to distinguish one character from another beyond name and physical description. Removing any one character from a story (assuming they’re not some bit player in the background) should leave an impact on the story you’re telling, and character voice is what’s absent once the character is 86’d.
So why are all these voices important? Because in their own way, they demonstrate the skill of the writer, which in a bigger picture means sales and audience building. I’ve always found it a bit of a pressure-stretch to say that your word choice on page 2, paragraph 4 of your second draft is going to directly influence your sales, and that it can easily freeze people up in anxiety, but there is a point to be made between how clearly and passionately you get your ideas out into the world and how people can therefore enjoy them by handing you money.
We enjoy a strong narrative voice because the story moves along and holds our interest.
We enjoy a strong authorial voice because we like each story and series and the styles therein.
We enjoy a strong character voice because we can project and imagine these adventures and these people having them.
Erin, this all boils down to write more. Write more words. Write more often. Your voice(s) will get developed through consistent disciplined effort. They’re important but not so critical you need to hyperthink your ideas to perfection before you put them on the page. You can be imperfectly perfect and successful and happy on your own terms. Truly.
Just keep writing.
I’ll see you guys at the end of the week. Have a great middle of your week, and happy writing.