Have you fought the feeling that your authorial voice keeps eluding you?
Me, too. For years, my deepest frustration has been trying to find my voice as a writer. I needed to know so I could figure out which genre best fit my stories and style; that is, I wanted to determine where to place myself in the large writing and publishing milieu before I spent a year writing the wrong novel, which . . . I did.
I tried using different pseudos. I tried writing historical mystery, romantic and contemporary suspense, creative nonfiction, and . . . you get the idea. I fought with my characters, who would start out as mean, hard-nosed antagonists and end up being edgy protags. Ah! It was a daunting struggle.
Finally, I realized that the conflict could be resolved if I accepted who I am, where my stories are coming from, that deep, repressed core. Yep, it sound easy for those of you who've done that, or had no problem doing that, but for the rest of us . . . Argh!
I've come to think that voice can described based primarily on two things:
1. What's inside, what you feel you must express; simply stated, your voice is based on who you are. It can't be contrived and, if it is, it's easily recognized by readers as such. I don't imagine Picasso would have painted water the same way as Monet.
2. The literary tropes and schema you select to make the desired expression, which also must not be contrived, are telling. Picasso and Monet used techniques, just differing ones.
So I won't be writing the next great noir novel: It's not a genre in which I can find expression, although I read and enjoy it. On the other hand, I've stopped denying (for fear of critical reprisal) the gritty, sometimes . . . yes . . . nasty irreverent heathens that my characters tend to be. They are SOB's, and I LIKE them. I've also stopped worrying about whether my story is didactic; it is. All stories are, in one way or another. Mine is just a little more heavy handed because, yes, damn it, I do have a message I wish to express.
The tropes? Oh, you better believe I know my writing tropes, and I pick and choose the ones that best elucidate my message and help me find expression. It's been an exercise in self discipline, but I've turned the critical eye I use to evaluate others' work on my own (www.buzzardbone.blogspot.com). It has helped considerably. Why not? I have the skills, I know the tools of my craft. I've just not consciously made myself use them.
So my question is, What about you? Do you . . . have you struggled to find your voice? How did you cope with the frustration? What have your successes been? What . . . are your favorite tropes, and do you use them consciously?
Tannis, I'm finishing The Lock Artist, and I have to tell you that I've never seen so many ellipses used in any novel - ever! It drives me crazy, too, just like your friend who writes paranormal romance (which by the way my critique partner writes). But the ellipsis does qualify as a schema (you're right, not a trope), so I'm adding that to my review.
Yep, I agree, too. Narrative changes when switching POV characters. One of my biggest problems is differentiating characters, but it's a labor of love.
Actually, I didn't mean sentence fragments using ellipses, I mean dropping pronouns (for instance), literally incomplete sentences used for stylistic reasons.
She only spoke to me once about her private life and that's what I've told you. As I remember it.
- G. Greene, 1980
I think it's particularly suited to narrative describing fast moving action sequences, and dialogue, of course.
Oh, and apparently I use 'up' as a modifier on a frequent basis (not for stylistic reasons). I'm working on that one.
I agree with Tanis completely. Few things take me out of a book faster than characters who speak in complete sentences using perfect grammar. People just don't talk like that.
I also agree with her and Jack about changing the narrative voice in multi-POV stories. I just finished a novel where the POV moved from a small town cop to a mob boss to a black drug dealer. No way was I keeping the voice identical for each, though certain elements of my voice (style?) remain between the lines.
Right, Tannis, I got your point about using sentence frags, and I'm with you there. I use them when they feel right for the character speaking. I once was critiqued pretty severaly because I used them (not that I paid any attention to that critique: I didn't).
I was off on a tangent discussing the ellipsis and how I find many of them distracting, as in The Lock Artist.
I'm truly fascinated by the interest that each one of us is showing in our voice. It is, for me, a very tough but fascinating thing to understand, but I'm enjoying the journey as I learn.
Hi Mary, May a reader weigh in here? Because what you are struggling with is something that every writer, poet,or visual artist must contend with. (With painters you might say it's a "vision," or a "style," but the distinction is not so important. It's still a variation of "voice." I.J.Parker found her voice when she discovered a fascination with ancient Japan, and through that developed her characters and plots. She started out with a short story, (which won a prize) and from there she launched her Akitada series.
Her novels may not be as commercially successful as she'd like, but they are memorable, and unique. And clearly she loves her subject. She has researched it thoroughly, but she also lets her intuition guide her---even though her detective is a man of the medieval period, she presents him like a contemporary: His actions are entirely appropriate for their time, but she makes him 3-dimensional through his thoughts and feelings. She has researched the period, but she also understands human nature, which is timeless. Her "voice" is what permeates her books, even when other characters are speaking. They fall into place because they are exactly the kinds of people who would naturally surround her character.
You have tried out different periods, types of novels, etc. If I were you I might approach voice by first creating a believable main character, through whom you can speak convincingly. But to do that you have to know that character---base him or her on someone you've known, on observation. Once you have established that character, let him or her "talk' to you. If it's easier in the beginning, try the first person POV. Get to know that character before you ever start writing. Seems to me that if you know the elements of your book--- if you focus on character, setting---and begin with what you know best---you will be on the right road to finding a voice.
Caroline, hi, and you're really polite to ask if you might join in because, hey, I invite anyone (but especially readers) to speak!!!!
I.J. has most certainly found her voice, and I wish I could say I have read her work, because those novels and, especially her characters, sound interesting to me. You can bet reading her books is high on my "to do" list. And . . . just thinking about her novels, it sounds to me like she will - over time - develop a devoted audience. I know, as a reader myself, that I look for mysteries set in different periods, and I'm crazy for the Medieval period.
Yes, I am still seeking my voice: I'm not sure I'll ever know (maybe it could bite me and I wouldn't recognize it - ha!), but I feel the drive to search, to look at my writing and to critique it, to keep reflecting on the tropes and schema I use to bring my characters to life in the novels I'm writing. I'm not angst ridden over my search; in fact, I'm having a wonderful time learning about myself through my search for my voice. But I am interested in learning how others contend (as you say) with this struggle.
May I ask you a question? If you think as a reader about your favorite authors' voice, what attracts you to certain ones? Give me an example of an author you read because you love his or her voice.
If you think as a reader about your favorite authors' voice, what attracts you to certain ones? Give me an example of an author you read because you love his or her voice.
Hm. Well, before I answer that question....and there are many writers whose work I admire...I'd like to try and get a little closer to that elusive quality we are calling "voice." It's a rather general term for something that's actually quite difficult to quantify, yet we seem to recognize it when it's there.
It's not style, entirely, yet style is certainly an element of "voice." A protagonist may embody a writer's voice, but a good character is not merely a mouthpiece. The author is a bit like an actor creating a role, and all characters should be equally convincing.
We often hear, of one writer or another, "he has found his voice." That says to me that we think of voice as something that comes through the writing, the thing that is greater than the sum of its parts. A moral stance, perhaps. The writer's humanity. His or her persuasiveness. It makes little difference whether the novel is set in urban New York or the Middle Ages.
Anyone who has read my posts on this forum knows that Ruth Rendell is at the top of my list of favorite mystery writers. Perhaps because she was one of the first I ever read--- I have been reading her books for more than 30 years, and she has never disappointed me. Even though she writer three different kinds of "mystery" novels, her voice always seems to me to be distinctive. But what is it?
For one thing, she is an excellent writer. Her prose is economical, never forced, never frilly. (She was a former journalist---they have to learn how to be concise). Her literary background is impressive, but it's not as though she flaunts that. But it stands her in good stead in constructing her own mysteries, the play between good and evil, her insight into human nature. Because she has an almost uncanny ability to take you into the mind of a killer---or, for that matter, into the mind of any character.Her murderers are most often haunted, obsessed beings, and their stories are haunting.
Her sense of place is unerring. Sussex is her home territory, and she knows it intimately.Setting always has a very important place in her novels, and it anchors the reader. She didn't have to research this---her descriptions of London and the Sussex countryside are drawn from experience. She convinces me that she knows what she's talking about, that the events she's going to describe actually happened, or could have.
I like her detective, Reginald Wexford. When she first created him, she said he wasn't as cerebral as he later becomes---he's well read, and sometimes quotes poetry or Shakespeare. He ruminates a good bit, but he is a happily married man with a family life, and he is not angst-ridden except about his diet :) , in the later books, where he is supposed to be watching his weight and cholesterol levels. He seems like someone real, someone I would trust to uncover the truth no matter what. He is unimpeachable---and that is part of Rendell's moral position. Although she can treat her "murderers" with compassion and understanding, they don't go unpunished. She understands social stratification and its impact on human beings, but she is always more interested in human psychology than in political agendas.
I don't know if what I've talked about here is "voice," but as I said, "voice" to me is not just words that come out on the page---it's made up of many other elements.
When I read any book, I will look for the same qualities that Rendell has. That's kind of my standard.
I hope this is of some help to you---from a reader. :) Listen well to the writers, though! Keep reading, and keep writing!
Caroline, thanks so much. Your thoughtful reply is quite helpful. I really enjoy the way you analyze Rendell's voice. I also like it that she's the one writer who sets the standard for you. I honestly don't have anyone like her that I read, which is my misfortune. Thirty years of writing is a long time: Rendell has much more than longevity on her side.
The most important thing I'm gaining from your wonderfully detailed post is that readers expect certain things from those whose works they admire and continue to admire over a long period of time. You, for example, like Rendell's spare and natural sounding style of writing, the settings she describes that "anchor" you in her stories (and also are clearly familiar to Rendell), and of course, you like the marvelous sounding Reginald Wexford, who represents Rendell's moral position.
I cannot stress how helpful your reply is, Caroline. Thanks for taking the time, but (like Columbo) . . . just one more question . . . . Do you also write and, yes, I'm checking to see if you have any novels listed. Just sensing that you, like Rendell, have a distinct voice, too, and that you've used it to write. :-)
I'm glad you found my reply helpful---after I previewed it I realized how long it was!
To answer your other question, Ms. Colombo...
Well, yes, I write, sort of ---and perhaps by now I have a voice---but not mysteries, not novels, so you won't find anything like that. If you google me you might find the illustrated books I have on the Blurb website. Actually, I am a painter, and one of the side effects :) of my love of both literature and painting is the illustrated books I create with my original artwork and text (based on tales from Greek mythology). They are "print on demand" books, so you won't find them on Amazon, either. Best sellers they ain't. But it took me nearly as long to write the narratives, brief as they are, as it did to do the illustrations. I felt that every word had to be right. I went for economy & rhythm, and because the illustrations were going to tell their own story, I didn't want any redundancy and almost no description in the text---just the bare bones of a story. That's not quite how you'd write for a novel, of course.
I don't even have a website---yet. Soon. Let's say it's in the works and I'm struggling to find my Website "voice." :)
What is a "visual artist " doing on a mystery website instead of an art forum? Because it's more fun. I have no vested interests here, no insecurities, no needs. I just like reading mysteries and chatting about them. I suppose when I was about 12 I may have considered actually writing a Mystery---along the lines of the Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden books that I devoured---but I was too busy drawing the girl detectives for the cover to get on with the plot.
You have hit on a very important point: readers DO expect certain things from the writers they admire. Of course the generous reader will also allow a writer to experiment--but once you've got a good series going, readers will want more. Still, you could have more than one "line" of mysteries, as Rendell does. Even Agatha Christie created more than one detective series, each with its trademarks.
It's not so long, Caroline, your post (well, er, okay, 'tis a tad), but the fact that you took that much time impressed upon me how earnest you were in answering.
I have to thank you for giving me my best laugh ever: "Website voice." Ahh, I LOVE that. Now, we can really get down to business, talking about our site voice (or in your case, your "sight" voice, since you're an illustrator). Argh! See what happens when I write all day? Digression and insanity.
Seriously, I hope you get your Web site soon, and yes, I could not find you on Amazon, so this is helpful. And I'm enraptured that you're here because I don't see any boundaries between visual and literary art. Ideas and expresson and form are all sort of relative terms for me: I only wish I had one tiny iota of visually artistic talent. Sigh, I do not.
See? See, Caroline, I've gained a lot from your post (and now mine's becoming quite lengthy). I have always believed that audience is all, at first as a platitude (I was young, okay?), but later on as my understanding of how to analyze audience. But you've pointed out the best lesson anyone could get: readers have expectations, and we'd best meet them. It's really simple, isn't it?
I am creating more than one line of mystery, but as I write book II in my upcoming decology, I'm gonna paste your post right above my computer. Ya think I'm kiddin'? I'm not.
Thanks, and have a wonderful evening.
Readers have expectations, but it's important to remember that you, Mary, are your FIRST and most important reader :) and you also have expectations of yourself. When you write, think of that internal reader, and what SHE expects. Trying to satisfy an imagined audience of "others" is nearly impossible---so you do write for yourself, but when you've made that internal reader happy, your writing will appeal to others as well. Most of us imagine an "ideal" reader or viewer, one who helps us set our standards, our criteria for excellence.In the real world, of course, that reader may not exist---or may be someone entirely different from the one we envisioned.
I'm glad you liked my comment on Website Voice. I am trying to make light of this, because it is actually driving me crazy. My paintings ought to speak for themselves, but some people expect an "artist's statement," and I don't want one of these pretentious rambles that goes on about what should be obvious.
So I write something, go away, go back and read it, delete most of it and start again. I will probably end up with something fairly minimal. Which would not be bad.Good luck with your writing! I'm glad to have been some help. Why else are we here? Also, I have to remember, sometimes to take my OWN advice! :)