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The Author's Voice

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While at a recent writing seminar, I met several people who had attended the presentation I gave for a local book club. One of them said after hearing me speak, she read one of my books. Her comment was, "You write the same way you talk."

And I think that sums up my author's "voice."

I've discussed voice before, and since Hubster and I are taking off for our "official" anniversary celebration today, I'm going to repeat some points from other posts I've done on voice several years ago.

From what I understand, voice develops as an author writes. I judge the growth of my voice with the increasing ease of writing narrative. Not dialogue, because that is someone else's voice on the page—the character's.

Cowboys don't talk like artists, who don't talk like sailors, who don't talk like politicians. And men don't talk like women, no matter what job each has. When I write my male characters' dialogue, I always go back and cut it down by at least 25%.

But all the other words, the way the sentences are put together, how the paragraphs break—that's the author. And that's where the intangibles lie. When I was starting, and I'd enter contests, I'd get very disparate feedback from judges. Another author told me it meant I had a strong voice, which might or might not appeal to a reader.

One exercise we've done in workshops is to choose a picture from many provided by the instructor. Based on the picture, each person writes a brief paragraph or two based on what they "see". Then, everyone swaps pictures with someone next to them and repeats the exercise. As participants share what they've written, the different voices become clear. One will find something humorous, one will see the same picture as dark and ominous. No two "voices" are the same.

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.

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.

Which brings me to another thought. When I was in high school, we were required to discuss the "style" of all the books and stories we read. A student asked the teacher to define "style." He said, "It's the words the author chooses to use." Which sums it up pretty well for me. Perhaps we should use that term for the author's voice, to differentiate it from the characters' dialogue.

Elmore Leonard points out that the essence of being a good writer is keeping yourself off the page. So if it sounds 'writerly' it needs to be cut.