Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Author Voice--Shannon Style

Okay, ever since I talked about Finding Your Character's Voice in last week's Shannon Style post, I've been trying to figure out how to talk about the vague, indescribable concept of Author Voice, and how I found mine.  And I'm still not sure I've really figured out how to properly cover the topic, but I'm going to give it a try. (heh--not exactly a ringing endorsement for this post, but go with me here) :)

So, first of all, what is author voice, and how is it different from character voice?

Basically it's your style of writing--the way you put words on the page and the way you tell the story that is uniquely yours. It's something that will cross over from project to project, regardless of whether you're using the same characters or writing in the same genre or POV.

Some projects will showcase it more than others, but it still has to be there to some degree. And if you've ever read a draft that fell a little flat, I guarantee you it's because that writer hasn't quite figured out how to inject their voice into the story. For me it's the single most defining element of "good writing," and is the reason writers are able to become career authors. If they have a good "voice" their readers will keep coming back for more, no matter what the story.

Which is hard, because voice isn't something anyone can teach you. It has to come from you. You can learn all the tools of writing: plot fundamentals and grammatical rules, and whatnot. But in the end, the way you use and consciously break those is your voice, and no one can tell you what your voice is. You have to find it on your own.

Think of it like learning to draw. You can study rules of proportion and learn how to play with line and shading and color. But the way you choose to use those tools when you draw is uniquely your style. Van Gogh didn't draw the same way Picasso did. And no one should put words on paper quite the same way you do.

It took me five or six drafts of my current MS to find my voice, and each of the many revisions I've done after that has refined that voice. And I can tell that my voice will continue to evolve with every word I write. Which really is the plain and simple secret with voice. You have to write.

There's no shortcut. No exercise you can do to quickly and easily find your voice. No questionnaire that will lead you straight to it. They say every writer has to purge a million bad words to get to any halfway decent ones, and that is mostly because it will probably take you at least that many to find your voice.

That being said, I do think it *helps* to study voice in other books. I can't say this enough: writers need to be readers. Pay attention to the different "voices" authors use when you read. Which ones are you drawn to? Which ones remind you a little of the way you write? Then analyze them, break them down to figure out what gives them their particular voice. Understanding how they do what they do can help you find your own voice.

Really, it comes down to your own personal taste and preferences. Going back to the art analogy, my style of drawing is very precise, very dramatic, and extremely detailed. Why? Because that's what I personally find appealing to look at. I'm not about loose, rough, free lines and muted colors. I like, clean, sharp lines, dark blacks, extreme whites, and lots of meticulous detail. Does that make me right and other artists who do the opposite wrong? Of course not. But it's my taste, and that's what I strive for when I sit down to draw.

When it comes to writing, I have my own tastes and preferences as well. Personally I love the rhythm of words. So I love to break up sentences into fragments--or to connect sentences with em dashes. I love shorter paragraphs. Single sentence paragraphs. I like to avoid dialogue tags whenever possible, because they feel like they interrupt the flow of a conversation. And I like to give the scenes plenty of emotional "beats." I'm also a HUGE fan of humor--I'm pretty much incapable of taking a scene 100% seriously--and I'm not a fan of heavy description so I tend to break it up and scatter it around.

I'm sure there's more to it than that, but those are--to me--the most defining elements of my "voice." I never consciously sat down and said: I'm going to write with fragmented sentences and use a lot of humor and write around dialogue tags. It's just the method I fell into as I wrote and rewrote and rewrote again and again.

And you'll find yours the more you write, write, write.

It also helps to do what I just did in this post. Find the right words to describe and define your voice. The more you analyze your writing and think about your style, the more you'll figure out what you do and don't do when you're writing. Take a few minutes and try to come up with 2 or 3 sentences that describe the essence of your voice. Then reread a couple of your chapters and see if you're really doing what you think you're doing. Can really show you where you need to polish.

I have heard of a couple of other exercises to help you find your voice, but I've never done them so I have no idea if they really help. One is to write in present tense for a while, because apparently it's easier to be "voicey." I've also heard it can help to rewrite the same chapter in an opposite POV (switching from 1st to 3rd or vice versa) and comparing what stylistic elements stay the same in each version. You are welcome to try them--and if you do let me know if they work.

But personally I don't think you can short-cut your way around this. Sure, some people just have a natural gift for having a very strong voice, and have it in even their earliest MS's. (It's hard not to hate those people...) The rest of us have to write and write and revise and rewrite and repeat with project after project until we finally figure it out. But it's worth the effort. Nothing makes your book stand out more than a spot-on voice. Push yourself and don't give up until you find it.

What about you guys--any tips for finding your author voice? And how would you define your own "voice?"


  1. Great post, Shannon. I never thought about the differences between author voice and character voice before - thanks for making it clearer.

  2. It took me two novels to figure out my voice. I remember a time when I was ridiculously frustrated with people talking about voice because I had no idea what that really was. Now, though, it seems like it's so obvious. It's definitely one of those things you can't fully comprehend until you can do it.

  3. I think you made a fantastic analogy here. It's the words we choose to use, how we convey the thought, picture. I like to think of it as our personality in words. With my WIP I just went through first round of edits and noticed so many dry sentences and paragraphs where my voice wasn't clear. They were bland and boring. So I went back thru focusing on each sentence to see if I'd have a more personal way to say what I just said. In many places I tweaked it to make it my own and my voice is much clearer.
    I totally agree with you that voice is what reaches out and grabs the reader and keeps them reading. :)

  4. This is a great post. You are right, it takes practice.
    Have a wonderful holiday!

  5. I'm amazed that you're able to go into so much detail about this S, you're one sharp cookie.

    For me this is the kind of thing I cannot define, but I know it when I see it.


  6. Great post. And just shaking my head when I read this :

    "The more you analyze your writing and think about your style, the more you'll figure out what you do and don't do when you're writing. Take a few minutes and try to come up with 2 or 3 sentences that describe the essence of your voice."

    Huh, FANTASTIC suggestion...and I've never done it. Will do it now.


  7. I've always thought of voice as just that--your inner voice on the page. We all have different ways of expressing ourselves, different modes of communicating with one another. What I choose as a metaphor is different from what you may choose, or what I think is the heart of the paragraph, and therefore needs to be built around.

    Voice is something that can be developed outside of just novel-writing. Your voice resounds in academic writing, poetry--everything. I got a good handle on my voice in college, since as an English major I had to write about two papers a week (yay). And when I'd sit down to think about my paper, the inner monologue would fire right up, twisting all my words into the exact way that they always twist.

    Blog posts, emails, letters to friends and family--each one is an exercise.

  8. Outstanding post. It is very difficult to define one's own voice, but reading and writing are key. I totally agree about the importance of rhythm. The beats, the way words are put together, can be hypnotic—as important as the words themselves. My voice is all about rhythm and a slight cynicism which I can't contain even when I try. Those same elements are there when I speak. When my writing seems flat, it's nearly always because my voice has "gone missing."

  9. Finding your voice is such a tricky process! I tend to do a round of revisions completely dedicated to my author voice to make sure it's consistent and engaging, and it's taught me a ton about the way I write. I'm going to try your 2-3 sentence exercise this afternoon--thanks for the advice!

  10. Great post!

    Voice is based on the words you choose and how you arrange those words into sentences, paragraphs, a page. It's what makes your writings YOURS.

    I tend to have different voices that I use depending on the genre. Since I'm a genre whore, I write lots of genres. :)

  11. For me, the hardest thing about starting a new WIP is finding the voice in which the story wants to be told. Once I find it, everything flows much more easily.

    Sometimes it's more than a bit elusive....

    Great post!


  12. Excellent explanation. Sometimes I think it's easier to understand voice in terms of film. Many directors have their own "voice." The feel of a Tarantino film is different than a Michael Bay film, which is different than that same film directed by Darren Aronofsky. It's the language we use to describe a story.

  13. I agree with Shelley, once I have the voice and tone of a story figured out, everything else comes much easier. I've found that much of my sense of humor is part of voice from words I use to how I structure sentences and paragraph and chapters. :)

  14. I love this post. I love discussions about voice anyway, but I totally agree with the art analogy.

  15. Thanks for the great post. I struggle more with the character voice than the author voice, though I'm not sure that's so great either. You've got some great tips for figuring it out.

  16. Thank you, Shannon! I needed advice on this. I'm still trying to find my own voice.

  17. Thanks for this post! It's encouraging to me to read that you had to write and write and write to find your voice. This is what I'm having the most trouble with, so I just keep on writing and revising!

  18. I had wondered about author/character voice differences before, but I hadn't seen a post on it until now.

    I agree that you just have to write to get the voice down. Great post!

  19. You know you could almost ignore everything else and just read the blue parts and have some really insightful blurbs.

    I find my voice in the good old fasion creepy way...a character pops into my head and they don't get out till I get their story on a word document. Okay, I lied, actually the voice just seems to stay for forever and then people think I'm crazy talking to my "characters."

  20. Write write and write!
    Took me awhile. I probably picked up a lot from my favorite author, Anne McCaffrey. I like flow and proper sentences, but simplistic.

  21. WRITE. There are no shortcuts, not really.

    I know I say this a lot but I love Stephen King, he has the most distinct voice of anyone I have ever read. You could pick up a book of his with the cover ripped off and within two pages, just know it was his.

  22. Yes, it's definitely easier to be "voicey" in present tense. My current WIP is past tense for some very specific reasons, and I realized recently one of the reasons why I was having more difficulty with voice was because of the tense. Like you said - all I can do is keep writing, keep fine-tuning, keep working at it!!

  23. Oh, and hey, in case I don't "see" you again before this weekend, Merry Christmas Shannon!!

  24. this was a great post!
    its funny because, of my favorite writers, shannon hale and rick riordin, i love them because of the WAY they write, while as brandom mull, i love him because of his STORY. i mean all three are really well rounded in both aspects, but its interesting what will draw you to one writer as apposed to another.

    thanks for writing this. definitely something to think about. 'my' voice is something i've been struggling with as of late. i re-read what i write and find my writing repetetive and tiring. i don't want it to be that way, so i'm seeking out a new voice. good luck, me!

  25. Voice definitely can be a natural talent, and like you said, can be developed with writing practice (whether natural or not). It's the writer's personality oozing through--his/her inner self, the "flavor" or style of the writing. Way cool! Probably like a snowflake...no two exactly alike.


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