December 6, 2008

Still Hearing Voices . . .

I play bass guitar and learned to train my ears to hear the bass lines in music. It was cool when I discovered the ability to recognize not only lines, but certain artists’ styles. (Sting & Clapton are great for that.) I am now hoping to apply that mysteriously astute part of my little brain to writing.

I am currently working through a sizeable To Be Read pile. I recently finished reading The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. I’m sorry to say I had not read her until now. Her voice hit a chord right from the start (and her first novel!) For some whacked reason, I have a hard time finding books written in a style and voice that interest me. And I KNOW there are tons of really great writers out there—so obviously the problem is with Camille. One author whose voice grabbed me on page one and latched on for the rest of the book was W. Dale Cramer with Summer of Light. So did Sara Gruen with Water For Elephants.

I also just finished reading The Secret Life of Bees, another of those highly acclaimed works I never got around to reading until now. Now Sue Monk Kidd has a smooth, soothing voice and handles touchy, painful topics in a sensitive way. I’m currently reading Lisa Samson’s Embrace Me, and next up is Olson’s Shade, Ingermanson’s Oxygen (again), then Cramer’s Sutter’s Cross and Levi’s Will, and Samson’s Quaker Summer. I await Mary DeMuth's newest series. Right now, I plan to read more of Cramer and Samson in an effort to identify their author voice, especially when each story is told from the view of different characters.

Lisa Samson makes me mad. Her ‘voice’ is confident, knows when and how it may break the rules of writing, and brings such a rich hue to the story. I don’t mean to compare my work to hers (good grief, I may be green, but I’m not stupid) but I can’t help noticing the freedom of speech with which she writes and how glaring a contrast it is to my reserved, rule-strapped little writing voice.

For now. I am an obsessed student of this writing craft and I WILL learn to free my voice, even if it kills me. :)

Maybe all this reading will shed a wee bit of light on the whole “author voice” mystery and help answer the burning question you and I and are dying to ask these authors: how do you, as a writer, keep your wry wit, polished profundity and organic originality intact while following the Rules of Great Writing . . . or at least giving them a reverent nod in passing?

Dare me to ask them?


Anonymous said...

Beautiful, well-written post. I, for one, like your voice. Just remember, I was one of the first to discover you! Write on!

Anonymous said...

Developing your voice is just a matter of time. First learn to write, which means learning those pesky rules. At some point, your voice will emerge naturally. Let it.

Anonymous said...

You asked me what I thought was the key to unlocking an author's voice... In my view, voice emerges from an author after (1) a lot of experience writing, (2) good training from other writers, and (3) enough life lessons to have something to say. A writer's voice is simply the expression of one's personality onto the page -- it can't be rushed, can't be forced, can't be faked or readers will sense it. -Chip

Mary DeMuth said...

It took me over thirteen years before I "found" my voice. It all came at once, surprisingly. How?

I wrote a column that my mentor read. She wrote back: I think you've found your voice. Then my agent asked me a question about my childhood. I wrote a quick email back, explaining something. He said something like, "Man, you can write." It surprised me because I hadn't intended to write the email well, but what I wrote was very, very me. That's when I knew I nailed my voice.

But it took thirteen years.

And it's why I have confidence today, particularly when I'm edited. I can take some critique when it resonates, but leave other pieces of critique when I feel it's messing with my voice.

And I fear less about people stealing my ideas because even if a writer "stole" a plot from me, I absolutely know he/she couldn't write it in my voice.

Rachelle said...

I copied this from my blog post of June 9:

Let's start by identifying a few things voice isn't. Voice is not style. It's not technique. It's not branding. It's not a decision to write in first or third person.

So what is it? To me, your writer's voice is the expression of YOU on the page. It's that simple—and that complicated. Your voice is all about honesty. It's the unfettered, non-derivative, unique conglomeration of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes, coming through in every word you write.

Voice is all about your originality and having the courage to express it.

Sounds simple, right? Then why is voice so hard? One of the most common problems with fiction by new authors is the lack of a unique voice on the page. How is this possible? You are unique. You can't help it, you just are. You aren't exactly like anyone else. How, then, are you failing to express that on the page?

I think it's because most of us spend our lives presenting to the world anything and everything except who we really are. We present images of who we want to be. We show the world what we want them to see. We expend lots of energy upholding our facades, and in the process, we can lose touch with our true, unique selves. Many of us are afraid of real, total, gut wrenching honesty.

I also think one of our biggest problems is that we've been media consumers since the day we were born. When I read fiction that doesn't have a "voice" that captures me, it usually feels derivative, i.e. similar to other works of fiction rather than striking me as fresh and coming from life. Instead of truly creating stories and characters of your own, you may be unwittingly regurgitating stories and characters you've read and seen in thousands of hours of reading and TV/movie watching in your life. This means you are not being your unique self, but a composite of many other selves who are not you. Admittedly, it's a big hurdle for all of us to overcome.

So how do you find your voice? You can't learn it. You can't copy it. Voice isn't a matter of studying. You have to find it. And the only place to find it is within you. (Yikes, sounds like I'm going New Age here!)

It's a process of peeling away the layers of your false self, your trying-to-be-something-you're-not self, your copycat self, your trying-to-sound-a-certain-way self, your spent-my-life-watching-television self. It's like going to psychotherapy, delving deep and allowing the real you to emerge, only in this case you want it to find its way on to the page.

Anonymous said...

For me "voice" is "how I hear it in my head." I think that takes a kind of courage. Randy's right, you have to know the basic rules of writing, however, once that becomes second nature, a bass-line if you will, you're free to add your own voice in lead guitar. And the drums, the cadence of your writing, is supremely important. Think Bonzo, John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page, baby!

It takes time, but if you're a decent writer, I think it takes more guts than anything else.

Southern-fried Fiction said...

I think I found mine more along the lines of what Chip said. I worked ahrd, learning this craft of ours. I have the world's best crit partners (and the world's toughest ones ;))

I also happened to read a good book on finding your voice and what the author of that book said was what happened to Mary.

All our friends tell me they wait anxiously for the latest year's Christmas letter. That got me to thinking, and I went back and read all the fun Christmas letters I'd written over the years. Stories I'd made up about our fmaily, incorporating the real life events and embellishing them to make them more entertaining.

I finally let that voice come out in my fiction, and I can tell you this: it's freeing and much more fun to find it. :D

Christina Tarabochia said...

One of the ways I discovered my voice--though I think it's still developing--was at critique group. After five years with the same people, I could tell you who's written a piece in one paragraph. Maybe even one sentence.

I began to see how I differed. What I chose to describe, the storylines I ran with, the rhythm of my sentences ... it all felt right.

Now, I do think that the second book will tell me much more about my voice. ;-)

Forgetting about voice and telling the story the way you see it is the trick. When it just plays out and you record it, then your imagination has been expressed in print. No one else thinks exactly the way you do, so there's your unique voice.

But listen to the experts; I'm just a newbie!

Marcus Goodyear said...

I read somewhere that writing is easy. You just have to get past the first 500 pages of terrible writing. Then you'll find the good stuff.

I think I have more than 500 pages of terrible writing in me, but I'm still aiming for the good stuff someday.

And it helps to keep reading people who have fantastic voices themselves. I'm a big fan of Cormac McCarty, for instance.

Camille Eide said...

I appreciate all the valuable feedback on this. I hope to share this with other writers.

Thank You!

Anonymous said...

Your voice is how you tell your story. You’ve heard that there are only 6 different plots in the world…well, that’s basically true, but HOW that story is told is all about you and your voice. Your voice is what will cause an editor to put down their cup of coffee and lean into the story. What will make that coffee eventually grow cold. Your voice is your creativity, your prose, your style.

How do you find your voice? That’s another article, but here’s a few hints:

Ask: What books do you like to read and who are your favorite authors? Often, their voice will mimic your own.
Ask: What turns of phrases do you like to use, and what kind of dialogue draws you? Keep a journal of vivid scenes and compelling dialogue you read or hear to help you get a feel for the kind of cadence and flow you like.

Try it out on the page. (You can always delete!) Experiment with voice. Do you like it? Why? Why not? Figure out what kind of writing you enjoy…and keep doing it.

Voice is probably the hardest thing for an author to find – because it comes with confidence in your writing, in knowing what you’re doing it right, and beliving in it. And that only comes with learning the rules, solidifying your storytelling and believing in yourself.

Great discussion!
Susan May Warren

carla stewart said...

Camille, Great information here from some of my favorite agents and authors. Who knows if I've found my voice, but I think I have. It's my life experience, years and years of reading great books and books that I couldn't stand so I knew what NOT to do. Mostly, I'm just me. No pretty packaging. I write about the ick as well as the unusual. But I also love to write about the really great things people do, the small things people do that make them everyday heroes.

My voice is the way I string words together, and I suppose that spills over into my characters. When I'm writing characters who are nothing like me, I play tapes in my head of people who I've known or seen in film or on TV and let them have their say.

Rules, yes. Confidence? I'm getting there, and you will, too. I love what you said about Lisa S. and so glad that she replied here. Yes, she writes with abandon, and I love that.

My "voice" is telling me to shut up before I get redundant or take a rabbit trail :-)

Crystal Laine said...

This is something that all authors want to get a handle on/ask about.

I think a great example is the Girls Write Out blog by Kristin Billerbeck, Diann Hunt, Denise Hunter and Colleen Coble.

I get their blog by email often before I read it on site. It comes without who wrote the post, so I play this game of guessing who wrote the post before checking it out on site.The photos are generic bucket photos, so even that doesn't tip the reader.

Every time I've been right--and I think it's because I've read all their novels and know each "voice." They even write blog posts with their own "voice." Could you pick out who wrote what if you didn't have the byline?

When Stephen King wrote novels under his pen name, critics screamed that he was ripping off Stephen King! That is a strong voice.

To "get it," you have to do like Lisa Samson has said here--be authentic as you write, but also as Chip has said, write a lot. It's something that I have to comment about in manuscript reports to editors, so it is part of the process in narrowing down manuscripts.

That's all I have to say about that!

Gayle Roper said...

I found my voice by accident. I was writing a couple of middle grade books where the main character was essentially my one son. I had great fun writing about the hero, a kid who did as told but inside was standing up and screaming as loudly as he could. When I went back to my adult stuff, I took that same freedom with characters with me. I took the self-deprecating humor, the inner rebellions, the duality of character. In other words, I took the freedom to write the characters as they were, not as I thought they should be based on other stuff I'd read and seen. In other words, I wrote as me, not as I thought I was supposed to be writing.-Gayle Roper

Anonymous said...

Great topic, Camille. I've enjoyed reading all the answers. Voice has always thrown me for a loop as well.

So, I'll just keep pressing on...maybe it'll trickle out of me some day, right?

Have a great day!

Joanna Mallory said...

Thanks Camille (and all the commenters). There's a lot here to process. A couple things that especially stood out to me were Lisa Sampson's "how you hear it in your head" and Susan May Warren's "what voices do you like to read" ... there's lots of other good advice here too.

Camille, your TBR list includes more W. Dale Cramer but doesn't have my favourite: Bad Ground.

I've just read John B. Olson's "Fossil Hunter" and there's a voice I like. Christy Barritt's Squeaky Clean series has another one.

angela said...

I like Susan's theory that the writers you most like to read are the ones whose voice mimics your own. That's what I like to think about my writing anyway. Rachel Hauck and Tamara Leigh are just mimicing my voice. ;-)

Avily Jerome said...

I'm still trying to figure out my voice. And I'm still learning the rules of craft. So we'll see what happens.

But one of the things I find helps me is writing everything by hand for my first draft. I know, I'm old-fashioned, but if I try to write while I'm sitting at the computer, I get distracted. I'm pretty ADD, so my email and facebook and blogging and all those stupid internet games distract me.

But if I just sit and write, the words flow pretty naturally, and I can focus a lot better. Then, when I transcribe onto my computer, I can fix the glaring craft errors as I go but still keep my voice more or less intact.

Thanks for the discussion!

Jessica Nelson said...

I like your voice too, a lot.
My historical and contemporaries sound different, I think, so I'm pretty sure I haven't found "it" yet. :-)

Vicki Hinze said...

I loved your post, C.

Here's a tip on finding your voice:

Write the way you think.

We censor ourselves in writing, especially early on. Whether it is in earnest to write right, or due to feeling vulnerable at the exposure, or because we believe mannered writing is what we're supposed to (and don't learn until later that mannered writing is just that--mannered and not realistic), we hold back.

But when we think, we don't censor. We just think. And that means we get the dimension and depth that brings in the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects--the whole of us, and the whole of our voice.

That's not to say that you won't go back and delete the excess. It is to say that the writing won't be superficial or mannered. And I'm certainly not saying anyone's is that way. Just a tip I've picked up after reading a lifetime and writing since capable of holding a pen.

Write like you think. :)

Vicki Hinze

LeeBird3 said...

Just popped over from Glynnis' blog where she shared your Christmas wish for a new heart. Count me in on the Mr. Linky of that one!

Thank you for reminding me of what's truly important.

Angela Ackerman said...

Your post has really brought forth a great discussion on voice!

Thanks to everyone for sharing their thoughts. Voice is probably the biggest struggle for most writers, so I'll be pointing this out to as many as possible.

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Wow, what great advice from so many noted authors and agents!!

This just reiterates to me that voice is such a complex concept to understand, that I better just concentrate on finding my own.



I've published five novels and 2 novellas (more about those on my website.) I've been writing all my life, but decided in 2007 to get serious about being published.

I love action movies and Jane Austen. (she’s dead, I know. I found that out when I tried to get her to endorse my novel)

They let me play Bass guitar and sing in a worship band.

I can produce 4 dozen homemade cinnamon rolls in a flash for a crowd of drooling young adults. Or publishing house editors.

I used to have a Harley. Now we have six (going on seven) grandkiddos. Decent trade, really.

I am a proud Grammy. Don't even think about taking candy from my babies.

I hate shopping (Yes, I'm aware that I'm a girl)

I've lived in Oregon all my life, spent time in Eugene (Go DUCKS!), Springfield, Reedsport, and Smith River. Which is not really a town, but a river, about 70 miles long, a tributary of the Umpqua River in southwest Oregon.

Although it's not a town, it is a community with a strong sense of pioneer history. It's cool to say you've lived there, especially if you lived there during the days when you had to take a boat to school. No joke! The old farmhouse my grandfather and my mother grew up in still stands, nestled into a narrow, pasture carpeted valley, complete with a swimmin' hole and its own 'crick'. It may turn up in one of my novels.

There's a rumor that my ancestors had a connection with the Mafia back in Sicily. I used to fantasize as a kid about a big black limo with tinted windows pulling up and whisking me away from school. Ahhh. So THAT'S why I'm having so much trouble conjugating my dangling participles now.

NOT RANDOM: I am challenged by the truth and amazed by the grace of God. And it's either in spite of or because of that grace that I hold a PhD in Learning Stuff the Hard Way.