When two writer friends meet their first talk is of editorial revisions. You don’t risk a word on that unfinished book in case it stays that way. And you don’t talk about horrible reviews until you’re on at least your second glass.
But revisions are common to all writers and moaning about them – or sometimes sharing the joy – is a truly bonding experience.
This is the season when reports from the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers Scheme start to come back. Many of them will contain suggested revisions. Welcome to the club, guys!
But sometimes the report (or a book doctor or even an experienced reader friend) may say: “I don’t think you’ve found your voice yet.” “Inauthentic” may even be murmured.
What does it MEAN? And what can you do about it?
First Possible Inauthentic Voice – Mimicry
I suspect that when everyone writes their first story, they mimic beloved authors, mostly without realising it.
In my case, the first story I finished was for a friend in hospital. I sent her a chapter every other day. It was a Georgian farce – think She Stoops to Conquer – and its tone wavered between Georgette Heyer, P G Wodehouse and possibly Winston Graham or even Baroness Orczy.
Well, I can see the now. Didn’t realise it at the time. It had some good bits, I think. But they didn’t fit together, the authorial tone was horribly inconsistent and precious little of it was me. A reader would have stumbled between worlds.
Second Possible Inauthentic Voice – Self-Consciousness
This one is a terrible trap The plot works, the characters’ motivation is sound, you just have to get it down on paper. And it’s lifeless.
When it happened to me I was trying to live up to an image of myself that was wrong, or at least incomplete. I was thinking about me, not the book. Worse, I refused to let any surprises through the cordon.
This voice wasn’t inconsistent. It’ was so damn consistent it’ was like being hit with a hammer, again and again and again.
I had to leave that book a good long time before I could read it with a clear mind. And that’s when I realised the writing had no life at all.
I might have rescued the plot of the Georgian farce and returned to it later. But when a book is a dead phone, there’s nothing to salvage. I binned it and, to be honest, it felt like a huge relief.
An author’s voice on the page is a spell made up of vocabulary, syntax, timing and so much more: imagery, attitudes, habit of mind, cultural background, favourite objects. A voice:
- doesn’t have to be unique. We can’t all throw out ideas like “She was a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.” Though it’s wonderful when someone does.
- doesn’t have to be original. PG Wodehouse started writing classic school stories indistinguishable from dozens of others. But what fun they were even before he became a Master of style.
- shouldn’t be set in stone. People change over time – Heyer went from mannered Georgian to the pure Augustan tones of Johnson or Austen.
- will change with subject matter and genre. The voice for a novel of romantic suspense will be different from an Arthurian Saga, even from the same writer.
Writer’s Voice and Spontaneity
I really do think that a writer’s voice comes naturally, once you relax and stop worrying about it.
When Mills & Boon published my first novel, I had worked very hard to study the genre and gauge reader expectations. I didn’t think about my authorial voice (well, except to clean up my language a bit, to be fair).
If you’d asked me, I would have said that it was by far the least personal story I’d ever written at that time.
But when you’re committed to your characters, that alchemy of voice takes place, without you having to do anything about it. Without you even noticing.
I was writing economic reports at the time in my day job; it never occurred to me that I changed voices between the two. It just happened spontaneously.
The book was serialised in a magazine. I accidentally let it out to a mate at work when I signed the contract. And, bless her, though she kept my secret conscientiously, she bought the magazine every week thereafter, without telling me, just to see if she could guess which story was mine.
And on publication day of the second week, she telephoned me at my desk. “I thought it was you when it started,” said Val. “But when I got to the golden syrup sandwiches today, I was certain of it.”
She was, of course, right.
Crime Fiction Weekend at St Hilda’s
I am grateful to Jean Harker for pointing out to me that it is still possible to sign up for the replay of talks given at the St Hilda’s Crime Fiction gathering last weekend. But hurry, it’s only available until 15th September.
This year the theme was All Our Yesterdays: historical crime fiction. Speakers included some of my favourite crime writers: Andrew Taylor, Mick Herron, Elly Griffiths, William Shaw, Andrew Wilson, Anna Mazzola, Sarah Hilary, among many others. Mostly, too, they were talking more about books they had read than books they had written.
For the purposes of my argument here, I was particularly cheered by comments from Val McDermid and Alison Joseph. Both were talking in the context of what an historical crime author owes to history and what to their own story. “You have to start with yourself in a way,” said Alison Joseph, discussing Daphne du Maurier’s House on the Strand.
Val McDermid went a step further. “Where the magic comes in,” she said, “is in what you bring to it.”
All so true. My first efforts at a novel were pale echoes of Georgette Heyer. As I wrote on, I developed a voice and didn’t realise it until I tried other genres. Even though you change style, your own particular spin with words still comes through. That’s the magic of voice to me. As you say, it changes and develops but the nuances of what makes you you are still very evident in your writing voice.
Beautifully put, LIz. Thank you.
Alchemy is so right, Sophie. Sometimes the words flow effortlessly and the voice is there, loud and clear. Other times one has to work at it, writing oneself into it the story until the voice takes over. Either way, it’s a kind of magic.
Very good point, Melinda. Writing yourself in is a good way to point it. It must be like a runner, getting into his stride.
There are some writers whose voice is so clear and bright that it is instantly recognisable. Pure joy.
Oh yes, that is so true. But also, I think, it’s sometimes a matter of chemistry.
I remember sharing a contemporary romance by an Australian author with one of my very good friends, who loves a lot of the same books as I do. I thought the Australian’s writing was note perfect and re-read it slowly to savour it. My friend Jane just didn’t hear it. She was OK with the book, just didn’t love it like I did. Sheer chemistry.
I’ve never really understood “voice”. But I understand style. I probably confuse the two. By the way, Sophie, which was that first book?
I think voice embraces things like plot points, character choices, use of the senses, as well as pure writing preferences. But maybe the two are interchangeable and that’s just me.
The first book was Beware the Hunstman. I’ve got the rights back and ought to reissue it. I’m still as nervous as a kitten about every launch, though, even a re-launch!
“a writer’s voice comes naturally, once you relax and stop worrying about it.” I so agree with you on this. I’ve found that I can tie myself in knots about how to present a scene or a piece of dialogue, but if I just relax and let the words flow without bursting a blood vessel, the result is natural and more ‘me’!
It’s a really good feeling when you find that out, isn’t it Sheila?
A most interesting post, Sophie. I agree that at the beginning a writer probably tries voices on to see if they fit. I have not forgotten my 16-year-old self writing ‘The Sound of the Sea’ (19th century Cornish smugglers) which started off as Daphne du Maurier – with a whiff of Anya Seton – and ended up as Georgette Heyer! Still, one has to learn somewhere.