Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Voices are Talking Again

One of the most irritating pieces of advice I have received on writing is that I need to “find my voice.” No one has ever come up with a satisfactory explanation of what that phrase really means, and yet it’s absolutely true. So I’ve decided to blather about it for a bit.

I think it’s a pretty well-established fact that an author is most successful when writing within the genre that he or she most enjoys reading. This is an easy idea to grasp; you like gory murder mysteries, you should write gory murder mysteries. Simple.

And then someone slaps you upside the head with the whole “find your voice” speech, which simultaneously seeks to help your development as a writer and also throws a gigantic, amorphous roadblock in your path. (If you’ve never had this experience, yay for you. A lot of us have, though, so you’ll just have to trust me on this.)

Something I have in common with a lot of authors out there is that I enjoy reading books from different genres, so beyond narrowing down the sort of book I should write, that indicator doesn’t help me much. Even when you have picked out a particular genre, that still doesn’t give any indication of the sort of voice you’re going to use. Will you be funny? Dry? Bitter? Clinical? Flowery? Passionate? Sarcastic? Even when told in the third person, a book takes on a certain voice that sets the tone for both the story itself as well as how events will be presented to and received by the reader. I could tell you the story of Red Riding Hood, for example, in a way that was humorous or in a way that was darkly suspenseful. The voice of the story has a huge impact on the success of a novel, and finding the voice that works best for you is crucial.

I write romances that tend to incorporate paranormal or mystery themes, but I have written a fin de siècle novel that is deadly serious and uses tons of really big words, as well. It was fun to write, but I don’t think I could do novel after novel in that voice. I just don’t take myself seriously enough. I have also written a more “traditional” romance along the lines of a mainstream Harlequin, but I got bored by the end and slapped a marriage proposal on it and called it finished. And therein lay the clues to my “true” voice.

My current work-in-progress is an absolutely crazy, anything-goes romance that relies heavily on humor, sarcasm, and wit. It’s not any easier to write than my other novels were, but it does feel more natural. I enjoy knowing that the insane ideas or quirky bits of dialogue that pop into my head can actually be incorporated into the story, for one thing. For another, it is much more in keeping with my personality. What makes me (or any other writer) able to produce new stories, ideas, and characters is my unique point of view. What I see when I watch people interact or how I react when something happens around me is completely different from how another person would.

So what do you do when someone tells you to find your voice? Go to the local Voices-R-Us superstore and pick out one that looks pretty? Often, there’s nothing to help you except trial-and-error, which is my least favorite way to learn things. The error part really sucks.

How did find my voice?

One day, some unfortunate soul had made the mistake of asking me how I was. I love this question, because to my mind, this is an invitation to tell a story. As I launched merrily into an extremely tongue-in-cheek account of my trip to the grocery store and how I believe that the incident with the kiwi fruit was a clear indicator that ninja squirrels were out to get me, I realized that humor was the way to go.

I went home and gave it a try. I liked it. And the rest is history.

Which is not to say that my other voices (in a strictly non-multiple-personality sense) have been kicked to the curb – or kerb, if you’re in Great Britain. I’ve still got those other voices inside me, but they’ll be special little treats for when I need a break from the serious task of snark production.

In the interests of marketability, one probably should stop and consider that an author needs to build up a readership. That readership might get a tad cheesed off if the author has some sort of psychotic break and writes a novel in a completely different voice. So if you want to explore more than one voice, and your options are rather extreme in their differences (as mine are), I will just remind you that there are these wonderful things called pen names that can help you organize your different writing “personalities.” Think of it as The Three Faces of Eve, except with editors. And less makeup. And you probably won’t win an Oscar, but hey, you never know!

And really – it’s 2012. With Internet and e-books and a thriving indie writer community, the publishing world is your oyster... or we’re careening toward Armageddon (though we’ve still got a few months left, I’m told). If you want to write each book in a completely different voice, why not go for it?

Write what you enjoy.


Deborah Lawrenson said...

Very interesting - and honest! - post. Finding a voice or style does take time and experimenting. Sometimes we do have more than one style, like different handwriting for formal letters and for scribbling notes.

Found you via Author Karma.

Joseph Eastwood said...

Hi, Elizabeth! I'm here from the Author Karma group!
I loved this post, it was very true and honest! Glad to be a part of such a beautiful blog! I hope you can come and stop by mine (: