Talking about voice

Suddenly everyone’s airing their views on voice!

Here at Terrible Minds is Cassandra Khaw:

Voice is interesting. Voice isn’t just your go-to vocabulary, your understanding of grammatical structure, your knowledge of rhythm. Voice is more ambiguous, more ethereal. I’ve never quite figured out how to categorize it. But it is that thing that makes you you, even when someone else has channeled your style. It is an echo of your soul, your thoughts, a piece of you that strings itself through your words, immortalized in the cadence of your paragraphs, the poetry of your observations. …

And here’s the point I’m trying to make: voices can be silenced. It’s no secret that writing can be an incredibly raw act. The decision to put yourself out there for public scrutiny? That’s a terrifying choice to make. Now, imagine being that afraid and being told, “Hey, by the way? People aren’t going to like you.”

Khaw is responding here to one of those standard moments where you see a general piece of writing advice being handed out like it was carved into a stone tablet by God, in this case advice to simplify your writing. You’ll remember that we saw a similar comment at Anthemeria Rampant recently, where Dan Layman-Kennedy rolled his eyes at the idea that limiting yourself to the very simplest possible punctuation makes your writing more authentic.

As always, the take-home message is that it’s important to disregard writing advice that doesn’t work for you. Khaw provides multiple passages with contrasting writing styles, very interesting to read through — I haven’t read any of the works with which she illustrates her post, but Catherynne Valente, mmm. I don’t always like her stories, but I love her writing.

Anyway, here at Kill Zone Blog is another post about voice, this one by Sue Coletta.

When we first begin our writing journey voice is one of things that’s nearly impossible to define, never mind discover. For years I kept hoping to find my writer’s voice, but I had no idea where to look. Deep within myself? Through hours and hours of practice would it suddenly appear? What was this mysterious “voice” everyone spoke about? And why didn’t I have one?

Perhaps what agents and editors were referring to was that perfect blend of style, rhythm, and cadence that make up the mysterious writer’s voice. Maybe it’s like trying to define the difference between graffiti and street art. I may not be able to put it into words, but I’ll know it when I see it.

Yeah, I have to say, I never worried about this. I kind of think I might not worry about random stuff quite as much as some writers. I wanted to write as well as I could, and I figured the rest would take care of itself.

Here’s Coletta’s conclusion:

Today, I would describe voice as the combination of syntax, diction, punctuation, dialogue, sentence rhythm, and character development within one story or across many novels. It’s unique to you. Just as a flute doesn’t sound like a clarinet, neither does one writer from another.

While I don’t think this is wrong, I suspect that you could add “theme” as a component of voice. I remember when my brother pointed out that all my books were about trust, that I kept coming back to that theme. I hadn’t even noticed, but this is true. I’ve seen this with other authors — a preoccupation with identity, with autonomy and free will, whatever. If an author has an identifiable theme that runs through their work, I think you could call it part of their voice.

Another component of voice, or actually perhaps an even deeper quality of a writer’s work, is possibly “tone.” By this I don’t mean the sound of the language the writer is using — Coletta gets at that, obviously — I mean the overall feel of the story — optimistic, pessimistic, gritty, light, warm, chilly, life-is-meaningless-nothing-matters nihilism, whatever. Maybe I should call that the author’s worldview? Or say that tone is what reveals an author’s worldview, maybe. I think tone is actually more invariable than voice, though possibly not absolutely invariable.

For example, Sherwood Smith just posted a review of Mark Lawrences’ PRINCE OF FOOLS in which she noted that:

I had no success with Mark Lawrence’s first book, Prince of Thorns, whose protagonist in the opening chapters proved to be a vicious, rapey jerk. Not for me. I donated the copy unfinished, mentally consigned Lawrence to the grimdark category, and moved on. Well, a recent birthday gift was Lawrence’s Prince of Fools, which at first I thought was the previous book—similar title and cover. But the giver insisted I take a look, I was sure to like it, etc. Still mistaking it for Prince of Thorns I dutifully read the first page or two, and found a different book—and a different voice.

Interesting, yes? I’m not sure I can think of many authors who seem to switch tone dramatically from one book or series to another. That’s why when I read one grimdark book from an author, I’m usually not going to try anything else by that author. Life’s too short, the TBR pile too overpowering already. And then you get an observation like the above.

This makes me try to think of authors whose voice and/or tone has changed dramatically over the course of their career, or from one series to another. I believe I can think of a couple.

Tamara Pierce fans, I don’t want to step on your toes, but her first and most famous books are maaaaybe not as good and definitely not as well-developed as her later work. I haven’t read all of her titles, but the contrast between the Alanna series and the Beka Cooper series is enormous. The former is more likely to appeal to young teens, imo; the latter to all kinds and ages of readers (as long as they don’t mind a slower pace). I liked both, incidentally, but the reading experience is very different and I suspect that to fall really hard for the Alanna books, it helps to read them for the first time when you’re about fourteen.

Steven Brust’s Jhereg series compared to his 500 Years After series — they’re deliberately so different. Same voice? I would say no. Same tone? Maybe.

Patricia McKillip has clear periods in her work, with the books from her early career being distinctive when you compare them to those of her later career. I would put the dividing line at THE CHANGELING SEA. — I love books from both periods, mind you, but I think you can see a definite shift in her voice and style there. But again, not necessarily her tone.

Seanan MacGuire / Myra Grant has written books that I personally would swear were not by the same author. The InCryptid series is nothing like FEED and actually not a whole lot like the October Daye series, which on the surface looks like it ought to be similar. I still can’t really believe she actually wrote both DISCOUNT ARMAGEDDON and FEED.

Anyway, voice, tone . . . lots to think about, and it was interesting to trip over three different writers discussing voice all in the same day.

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3 thoughts on “Talking about voice”

  1. As far as your last point, Sarah Monette? Her themes are similar but the tone with which she engages with them varies pretty dramatically.

    (also, hi! Life has been busy & stressful & I’ve fallen out of the habit of commenting.)

  2. Allan Shampine

    A few years back I came across a posthumously published novel by Roger Zelazny and gave copies to all my friends for Christmas. Unlike most posthumously published novels, this one was complete and was done years prior to his death. He’d put it in the back of a drawer and never submitted it. That wasn’t because it was bad, but because it was a noir novel – completely unlike his usual fantasy / SF niche.

    You mentioned Seanan McGuire / Myra Grant. I suspect there are many other authors who use multiple noms de plume to write in substantially different genres or voices. Did Isaac Asimov publish his Black Widowers under a pen name initially? I can’t recall.

  3. Rachel Neumeier

    Maureen, hi! Hopefully your summer will settle fown; busy is one thing but who needs stressful?

    I haven’t been commenting much either, but btw you did make me pick up a copy of PEAS AND CARROTS. Despite that silly title.

    And I totally agree about Monette! MELUSINE was too dark for me, but THE GOBLIN EMPEROR was perfect.

    Allen, I didn’t think of that, but 9f course you’re right! Wouldn’t it be interesting to look at voice, style, and tone in authors who write in very different genres?

    But I did recognize Barbara Hamby almost at once when I read NINTH DAUGHTER by “Barbara Hamilton”. So even switching genres doesn’t necessarily affect voice.

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