What Are They Talking About?

Virginia Kantra

Agents and editors are looking for authors with voice. A glance at any agent's or editor's wishlist will reveal her desire for "new," "strong," "original," or "unique" voices.

But what is voice? And can you learn to find one?

The truth is, nobody can teach you voice. Nobody needs to. You already have a voice, uniquely yours. This article explores seven definable factors that impact that indefinable something, voice, and suggests a four-step process to finding your own voice.

What is Voice?
We can recognize voice when it strikes us.

Though he'd married in obedience to his father's command, Lord Dain had developed a degree of regard for his wife, who had dutifully born him three handsome sons and one pretty little girl. He'd loved them insofar as he was able. This was not, by average standards, very much.
- Loretta Chase, Lord of Scoundrels

One hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Farraday reached under the front seat of her husband's Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren't hers.
- Jennifer Crusie, Tell Me Lies

Imagine a place so ripe and thick with the promise of magic that the very air breathes in plumes of pearl and gray and smoky blue; that the trees bow with the weight of their heavy branches, dipping low to the ground, dropping needles and leaves into beds of perfume.
- Shana Abe, The Smoke Thief

I will not:
Drink more than fourteen alcohol units a week.
Waste money on: pasta makers, ice-cream machines or other culinary devices which will never use; books by unreadable literary authors to put impressively on shelves; exotic underwear, since pointless as have no boyfriend.
- Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary

That last voice was so strong, so frank, so compelling, it spawned the entire genre of chick lit.

Yet in our eagerness to please, our desire not to offend, our determination to be published, we can stifle our individual voices. Well-meaning critique partners and contest judges preach a marketable blandness of style. Aspiring writers are tempted to strangle themselves into sounding like someone else-someone who's already sold a book.

Voice is a function of two things: what you have to say and how you choose to say it. In fiction, each character's point of view springs from a combination of his outside life and inside life, his experience and emotions. There is a distinction (or should be) between character voice and author voice. But the same seven factors that determine our characters' voices also impact author voice: gender, time period, education, environment, age, knowledge base, and belief system.

No one could mistake a descriptive passage written by Tom Clancy with a description written by Barbara Samuels. In general, men communicate to establish rank or status, often through the display of expert knowledge. Most women communicate to create connection, often by recounting details that evoke emotional involvement. To see the influence of gender in your own writing, visit the Gender Genie (). Gender Genie uses an algorithm based on word choice to determine the sex of the author. (Although if I plug in a passage I've written in male point of view I can fool the program. Which means I'm either really good at writing guys or slightly butch.)

Time period
We are all contemporary writers. But reading in or writing about different periods must affect our word choice and sentence structure. Awareness of time period-our own and our story setting's-can contribute to a more authentic voice. As Teresa Medeiros (The Devil Wears Plaid, Pocket, 2010) says, “I can switch fairly easily between shorter, more snappy sentences for my medievals and longer, more complex sentences for my Regencies, Georgians and Victorians.”

Beyond the basics of spelling, grammar, and sentence structure, education has a profound effect on voice. On the positive side, familiarity with the canon of literature can expand our imagery and vocabulary. On the negative side, abstract or technical language can choke out our natural voices and our ability to tell a story.

Cultural influences, regional differences, and the oral tradition of our families and communities influence an author's vocabulary, rhythm, and sensibility. No one would confuse P.G. Wodehouse's novels about the British upper class in post war London with Garrison Keillor's stories about the Lutheran middle class in Lake Woebegon, Wisconsin. Yet both are well-educated, middle-aged, white males writing funny stories about closed societies.

Life experience shapes our perspective-what we have to say as well as how we say it. YA and chick lit each has a distinct cadence and sensibility. Every generation has its own vocabulary, reference points, and Zeitgeist (“spirit of the age”). Embrace what you know, but beware of dated vocabulary and attitudes.

Knowledge base
John Grisham's career as a lawyer and Eileen Dreyer's experience as a trauma nurse give them insights and authority that inform their voice. Your own professional vocabulary and observations can give your work similar authenticity. Even if you have never held a job that would inspire a novel, you can instill that authority in your own by expanding your knowledge of your novel's setting.

Belief system
Whatever you call it--religious faith, personal code of behavior, deeply held values-the writer's belief system is an intrinsic part of voice. Like a Celtic convert, my own Children of the Sea novels blend ancient, cherished stories with the cross and steel of Rome. Part of the joy of these books for me lies in reclaiming the vocabulary of my childhood, the language of fairy tale. But the writer's world view, the writer's voice, comes into play before we set a word on paper.

We write romance. That means on some level we buy into the RWA definition of "a central love story with an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending." But the range of stories available to us is huge, from sweet inspirationals to demon lovers...and beyond.

Where you fall on that spectrum, Connie Brockway says (Cupid Cats, Signet Eclipse, July 2010), "comes down to the choices we make as authors about the characters we're interested in writing about, who they are, how they act and react and why. In choosing our material we reveal a great deal about ourselves-possibly more than we are willing to admit. Just as important, and telling, are the character types and subjects we do not write about, or write about poorly, without honesty, empathy, insight, and conviction."

Developing Your Voice
We don't choose or control all the elements that comprise voice. But by identifying those things we can write about with honesty and conviction, we can define and develop our individual voices.

Writers are readers first. Reading teaches you what is good and fresh; what is true or trite; what works and what doesn't. Reading can help you generate ideas and form opinions, develop your vocabulary and your cadence. Your choice of reading is a good indicator of what you like-which can be a good predictor of what you should write. But don't read exclusively within your genre. Read widely to expand your knowledge base and your way of looking at the world. The more you read, the more you assimilate to create your own vision, your own voice.

Inevitably, you are going to have favorite writers. Almost as inevitably, consciously or unconsciously, you are going to try to write like them. This is okay. Anne Lamott says "it is natural to take on someone else's style...it's a prop that you use for a while until you have to give it back. And it just might take you to the thing that is not on loan, the thing that is real and true: your own voice."

Your writing will draw on your experience and emotions to capture what's truly important to you. Ultimately, adopting another writer's style will not satisfy you.

John Grisham's voice is dry and not particularly distinctive. Its zest comes from his understanding of legal and moral dilemmas. Your expert knowledge-whether your specialty is hospital trauma or police procedure, graphic design or social mores in the Regency-can provide authenticity to your voice. However, there is difference between sticking to familiar subject matter and telling your truth to the world. As Stephen King says, "The heart also knows things and so does the imagination."

Just as exercise strengthens your muscles, writing strengthens your voice. Write about what you see, what you feel, what you know. Hone your powers of observation. Develop the ability to listen and a sensitivity to the way people speak, the way they really speak. That honesty will give your words authenticity and power. If imagery doesn't come naturally to you, don't force it. A single realized detail can resonate as profoundly as the most elaborate imagery.

What makes your personal landscape unique? What interests you? What do you care about? Suzanne Brockmann mined her enthusiasm for Star Trek and World War II buddy movies to create her bestselling Team Ten novels. I am captivated by fairy tales: stories of ordinary people who are forced by extraordinary circumstances to do extraordinary things.

Find your passion. Identify your strengths. Maybe you are fascinated by the monsters that lurk under the bed or in the human psyche. Maybe you are drawn to the small joys and unspeakable frustrations of family life. Maybe you have an unabashed appreciation for frank sex and human kinks. Whatever you love, when you write, let go of your fear and affectations. Don't think about your mother or your pastor or your children reading your book. Or whether the historical is dead or vampires are overdone or what the last mean reviewer wrote on Amazon.

We are told all the time to "Write what you know." I say, "Write what you love."

Feedback can be enormously useful in defining your voice. Sometimes you are very lucky and someone "gets" you at a level that can help you articulate what's at the heart of your stories: your theme. I had published three or four books for Silhouette when I attended a Suz Brockmann workshop and she talked about how I had a clear focus on "home and hearth" in all my work. Once I got over my panicked ego rush (“Suzanne Brockmann read my books!”), I realized she was right. All my books are about creating family.

Early in your career, you may not have a clear idea what your theme is. You may have to be told by a reader, a reviewer, an editor, a contest judge, a critique partner. The important thing is to identify that strength, that core message, that experience you can deliver, that you want to deliver, again and again. And then you choose stories and characters that let you express your central truth in the details and images that capture your imagination.

Author branding allows you to promise a particular reading experience to the reader in just three or five words "dark and moody," "smart and sexy," "gripping and chilling"). But if your voice is strong enough, your name can do it in two.

Over the course of your life and career, your choices may change for one book or for good. Often this involves a change in subgenre...or a change in name. "My basic life view is the same, but with my romances, I have more room for unadulterated hope," Eileen Dreyer says (Barely a Lady, Forever, July 2010). "With my suspenses, reality intrudes. I have hope, but it's usually a bit beat up."

When I moved from writing romantic suspense to paranormal romance, my vocabulary changed. but my world view remained the same. So did the cadence, the rhythm of my writing: the mix of narrative, description, and dialogue, the balance of short and long paragraphs, the close point of view, the sensory detail of the settings, even the use of flashback.

Set Your Voice Free
Two things comprise voice: what you have to say and how you choose to say it. Some choices will be unconscious. You may find that some symbols and imagery recur naturally in your stories, like Jennifer Crusie's dogs or Christine Feehan's weather.

Other choices come with practice and your own awareness of what works. It may take a while to develop enough trust in your own voice to express yourself with authority. Confidence and consistency come with experience. Be wary, however, of letting style get in the way of substance. Your own style can become a crutch, the way other voices could be a crutch when you were first began writing. Be open to the observation of significant, specific details that will strengthen your voice, deepen your characters, and help you avoid cliché. Dig for the emotional heart. Chop out euphemisms and abstract language, the stuff that gets in the way of what you have to say.

To make our characters come alive, larger than life, and engaging, we must get the action out of their heads and onto the page. In my workshops on dialogue, I teach, "If she can think it, she can say it." That's true for us as writers, too. Get what you feel on the page. The most important questions you can ask yourself if you want to avoid cliché are "Is this true? Do I believe this?" Because if you don't, your readers won't either.

Donald Maas writes, "To set your voice free, set your words free. Set your characters free. Most important, set your heart free."

Listen to your heart. Read. Write. Define. Refine. Four steps to fiction that is acutely observed, honestly depicted, and deeply felt.

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