Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Voice Lessons ...

Have you ever written a memo or e-mail to your boss? A letter to a spouse or your kid? Or a five-paragraph essay for a teacher?

I would wager that in each of the cases, you wrote in a different voice. You automatically adapted your voice to the situation. 

I often say that I can write for anybody, as long as I know their vocabulary. I don't need to know how to perform heart surgery to write about it. I just need to be able to decode the language. Same with tropical orchids or pet turtles, local politics or the pharmaceutical market. Each of these corners of the world has its own language rhythms, its own code. You break the code and you're in.

I see writers all the time on the Internet worrying about this thing called voice: "What is it? How do I get it? Why does it matter so much?"  

My advice is simple: relax. Anybody who writes anything ALREADY knows how to adapt their voice, because you do it subconsciously every time you open a new file or e-mail. You think about who you're writing for and what you need to say, then you pull up the necessary vocabulary in your brain, and you get to work. 

I think it's the same with novels. Each genre, each audience, has its little mysteries and codes and lingo and slang. As a novelist, you don't need so much to plumb the depths of YOUR soul to discover your voice. No. You need to plumb the depths of YOUR READERS' souls and tap into their inner dialogue. This means, if you're writing for kids, you read what they're reading. You listen to kids. You absorb their experience, their vocabulary. If you're writing police procedurals, same thing. And same thing with women's fiction. 

That's where you'll find your voice.


Mark Terry said...

Yeah, I think people can worry too much about voice. I also think that it's a hard thing to force. Within a certain genre or subgenre or style of writing, I can often write that material--and still use my voice, or perhaps some aspect of my voice. But I got it by reading a zillion books and writing a few million words.

Jude Hardin said...


I've always thought of voice as more of a literary fingerprint, an author's unique and identifiable way of telling a story.

Erica Orloff said...

I have consistently (Booklist, Kirkus a time or two) been reviewed and had the reviewer say the book had my fingerprint on it (in so many words). Booklist said "Orloff's trademark snappy writing and lovable characters"). But Booklist has read me writing as a gay man, writing as an insecure biracial woman, writing as a 40-something white woman with breast cancer, as a gambling addict, and writing as a 20-something Mafia princess. So which is my voice?

In the end, I DO think I write my dialogue in a distinctive way. But I also think that you're right. There are expectations in genres and from readers . . . and you learn to navigate the waters and tell stories that are all utterly different, written in different styles, unique, but has some flavors that you retain. And I can honestly say none of the characters I wrote as posed any problem. Schizophrenic maybe? Or just that you do relax and settle in.

You find a way to tell your story your way in the language of the story, which I why again, I appreciated you asking me questions to find my voice versus heavy editing where I would lose my way. The best editors pull it out of you. YOUR voice but with the expectations of story.


spyscribbler said...

I tend to worry about my reader's attention spans first, LOL, then making sure I have a different and distinctive voice, and then put what you said, last.

I'm not saying that's the correct order, but those are my priorities. :-)

I guess it comes down to: how different can you make your voice and get away with it, LOL? And still connect with your readers?

LurkerMonkey said...


Me too ... I spent years growing up consciously (and sometimes unconsciously) imitating other writers ... eventually, I had borrowed tidbits from so many that it became me.

LurkerMonkey said...


Yes, that too. It was funny -- after I wrote this, I got myself all wrapped up in the question: where does your voice fit in with writing for different audiences. I mean, it's pretty indisputable that a magazine article and a newspaper article and a novel will all sound different -- even if the same person wrote them. You're a Hemingway fan, no? Have you ever read his newspaper stories? It's interesting.

Anyway, I'm not sure I've still resolved this question in my mind. So, yeah, voice can be identifiable, but perhaps that's because we are trained by certain writers to expect certain things from them. Again, it's an audience thing, but this time, the author creates his own box ...

LurkerMonkey said...


It's funny ... at this point, I could probably pick up almost anything you'd written and know it was you. BUT is that only true for novels you've written? If I read a literary criticism essay, would I know you wrote it? And how much of that is because of the themes that run through your writing? Is a cohesive philosophy part of a unique voice?

Eeek! Mercy!

One thing, though, that I totally agree on: there's no sense in editing or even commenting with a heavy hand. Ultimately, all of us could tackle the same exact plot and come up with very different books. As an editor, I'm always more curious to see what you'll do with it, as opposed to what I would do with it. So, yeah, I'm really curious to see where you're heading ...

LurkerMonkey said...


Now I'm intrigued ... how different CAN you make your voice and get away with it?

Erica Orloff said...

My theses (and did I tell you when Demon Baby goes to kindergarten I am pretty sure I am going to go get my doctorate?) sound like some brainiac. My magazine pieces have "a style" that is uniquely me . . . the way I coax questions and my transitions, but no . . . do I sound like my fiction? Nope.

However, I think when I write nonfiction personal essays, I sound like my fiction, so somewhere there's a natural voice.

And yes, yes, yes . . . when I write my nonfiction magazine pieces, you can BET you are going to see similar thematic threads. Definitely.

JC Lamont said...

You have a blog -- yea! How you been?

LurkerMonkey said...

Hey, JC! Yep, I started a blog ... How is things in your corner? You've been busy!