Thursday, January 31, 2013

Authors, Stay Off the Page

Last time I spoke of character voices. This time, I'd like to look at your voice.

After  a presentation I gave for a local book club, one member said she'd read one of my books. Her comment was, "You write the same way you talk." And, after I sent a chapter to my critique partners, one said, "This sounds very Terry." That, I think, sums up "voice."

Any author starting out tries to write what she thinks a writer should sound like. She might work hard to make her characters sound unique, and true to their backgrounds, but all the other stuff—the narrative parts where the character isn't speaking—sounds stilted. It sounds "writerly." 

But what the characters say isn't the same as "Voice." It's all the other words, the way the sentences are put together, how the paragraphs break. Can anyone confuse Suzanne Brockmann with Lee Child? Janet Evanovich with Michael Connelly? Even Nora Roberts has a distinctive voice that is recognizable whether she's writing a romance as Roberts, or one of her "In Death" futuristics as JD Robb.

Your voice will develop over time and (one hopes) will become recognizable. It's important to learn the 'rules' of writing before trying to be distinctive. In the art world, we recognize artists by their style. But they, too, can change. 

Before many create their own recognizable style, they learn the basics. Before your voice will develop, you have to write. And write. And write some more.

Try looking at your manuscript, or the book you're reading. Find a passage that's filled with narrative. How does the author deal with it? Is it in the same vein as the dialogue, or do you get jolted out of the story because all of a sudden there's an outsider taking over? If it's a funny book, the narrative needs to reflect that sense of humor. If it's serious, the author shouldn't be cracking wise in narrative. If your character speaks in short, choppy sentences, then he's likely to think that way, too. Again, the narrative should continue in that same style.

You want your voice to be recognized, but not intrude on the story. If you want the reader caught up in the story and the characters, you, the author have no business being on the page. Every word on the page should seem to come from the characters, whether it’s dialogue or narrative. You’re the conduit for the story and the characters. You’re there so they shine, not the reverse.

It takes practice—and courage, because you have to put "you" on the page, and not the "writer." But when you finish, you should have your own special work. You won't be a cookie-cutter clone. Rule of thumb—if it sounds "writerly", cut it. When the words flow from the fingertips, that's probably your own voice coming through. Let it sing.

Terry Odell


  1. Good advice, Terry, and written with your voice! It does take courage to "speak through the page," particularly for anyone whose voice has a smoky resonance or a penetrating squeak or whose speech might be at odds with current fashion.

    Not many of us "are probably family with" Pablo Picasso, but you can count on many of us reading this column to be incurable editors.

  2. What attracts me to a book is the author's voice. It's something difficult to define, but when it's there, a reader can tell.

    Morgan Mandel

  3. The first time I heard a recording of my voice I said, "That's me?" I hope my writing voice doesn't sound that bad.

  4. I love the visual arts reference, Terry, because I use it myself when teaching. You have to be intimate with the rules before you break them well, and that takes practice. Hmm, I'm not family with Picasso either, but I am familiar. Thanks for the typo heads up, Larry. Very delicate you are. ;)

  5. Amazing pictures! By the same artist. That's astounding. :D Great article.

    I'd add...sometimes, an author has no idea what that means or what her "voice" sounds like. I just write...and I'm sure there are nuances that mark it as mine, but I could not--for the life of me--point them out.

    You ever listen to yourself talk on a tape? Ew!!! That's not me! Or, it doesn't sound like me. I sound way better in my head. But everyone else says I sound normal...I guess they're right.

  6. When I was editing, a writer would occasionally say to one of my suggested fixes, "I would never use that word" or "I would never say it that way." The writer had a sense of her voice. She knew who she was, and she shared that with her readers.

    I love your point that narrative needs to flow seamlessly with dialogue. So true! This can make a story, or its absence can break it. Excellent post for encouraging writers to be themselves in their narrative, not who they think the reader wants them to be. It's also a great reminder for us who've been around a while.

  7. Voice is difficult to define, kind of like art: "I know it when I see it." But it is so important! Thanks for an informative post.

  8. True, Terry, a character might not use a word suggested by an editor. However, I think the words in question in the case of my writer were in the narrative rather the dialogue.

  9. Great Picasso example. Since I'm late to the comments I'll focus on your last paragraph, about deleting "writerly" passages not in keeping with the rest of the prose. I've always felt this was the true meaning of "kill your darlings"—to rid yourself of language that is just a tad too precious. Unfortunately writers have extrapolated from this phrase that they should get rid of all the parts of their ms they really like. Your thoughts?

  10. Sometimes it's readers who discern your writer's voice. My books have been said to contain "wry humor" and some even call them "hilarious", and yet I am serious minded in real life. Go figure.

  11. What a great summation of voice. It's important to find voice and to stay true to it. I often find the reason my story feels like its run off the rails in the first draft is due to a voice issue.

    I love your review - nicely done!


  12. Some of my favorite authors are those who have a distinctive voice. Even if the book had no cover, I'd know who had written it.

  13. I was offline all day yesterday, so I missed this one, Terry. I think you made an excellent point when you said if your fingers are flying over the keyboard as you write, it is probably your voice coming through.

  14. Great post, Terry. I love the comment in the review about your writing lets the reader be in the moment. I think that's what we all strive to do. Really enjoy your style and therefore your books.

  15. Hi Terry, another Terry here. Ah, yes, voice, how important it is. Right on target!


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