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.
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?
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
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 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
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.
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.”