Voice in the novel – finding yours

It is sinful, I know, but I think this blog has been running for years without discussing – properly and in full – the essential question of the author’s voice. Countless agents will talk about voice, or something similar, above all other assets that an author might bring. One agent we know of, for example, offered representation for a book having read just one sentence of it. So – what is a voice and how do you get one.

The author’s voice: a definition
Voice is to writing as personality is to humans. You can be handsome, but bland. Or you can be plain, but alive. Likewise a writing style can be perfectly competent, but completely pedestrian, or it can vibrate with its own particular timbre.

Sometimes that timbre announces itself through a particular first-person narrator with a very marked style. Think Philip Marlowe in the Raymond Chandler novels or Humbert Humbert in Lolita. But it doesn’t have to be third person. Jonathan Franzen is noted for his voice (which sometimes overwhelms any first-person narrator foolish enough to compete) and Annie Proulx, Hilary Mantel or Marilynne Robinson would be worth reading for their voice alone.

At the same time, there are commercially successful authors who have no voice to speak of at all. Do Stephen King, John Grisham, Stieg Larsson or Stephenie Meyer, for example, have any interesting personality in their style? I think not. Dan Brown does have a certain personality, but it ain’t necessarily easy on the ear. Of the recent mega-sellers, we’d have to name JK Rowling and Suzanne Collins as being the ones with the most distinctive and attractive prose-personas.

After competence
Voice is often left until later on in writing courses (for example our own how to write a novel course or even the self-editing one). That’s emphatically not because the concept doesn’t matter, but because you only get to deal with matters of voice once the basics have all been properly dealt with. That certainly means that your prose style will read competently. Basically, you will need to have ticked these boxes.

But it goes beyond that. It would be exceptionally rare for a writer to have a wonderful voice without also having a certain minimum level of competence at matters such as plotting, handling points of view, and all those other things that go to make up a technically proficient novel. In short, if you’re uncertain whether you are yet entirely competent as a writer, you probably still need to worry at your technique as your first priority.

(Oh, and I should be clear that I’m not using ‘competent’ here in a dismissive sense. Rather the opposite. A professionally competent carpenter is a wonderful and skilful thing. Being able to lift a hammer or a cut a piece of wood doesn’t make you a carpenter. Likewise, a majority of first time novelists still struggle with aspects of technique – which is fair enough: you haven’t done this before.)

Faking a voice is not the answer
A lot of thriller writers, for example, knowing that Raymond Chandler is famous for his prose style and flashy images (for a selection, see here) will seek to do likewise, and jam their prose full of over-the-top imagery and wild similes. Which could work, yes, in principle – but by golly it seldom does. And the trouble is partly a mis-reading of Chandler (who was carefully selective about when to pick an over-the-top image out of his toolkit), but mostly a lack of authenticity. The typical sign is a prose style that judders from the bland to the excessive and back again.

Character, character, character – and story
To achieve authenticity, you need to NOT start off by worrying about voice. If you do that, you will end up imposing some excessively designed voice over the head of your character. Really, it has to work the other way round. You find the style that suits your character and work with that. I’ve put a chunk of my own first-person prose down below (so you can look at it and laugh at me), but character can influence voice even when it’s not first person.

For a remarkable exercise in third-person character determining voice, try Brooklyn by the wonderful Colm Toibin. What you notice in that book is how little the author appears to do. How much is not said. But that’s because the protagonist is herself from a limited background without much range of personal expression. The intensity of the novel arises from what Toibin called – only a little pretentiously – a system of silences. Character determining voice: a wonderful example.

And if character is mostly paramount, then story matters too. The voice that Toibin used for Brooklyn would not work well at all for (say) my own Fiona Griffiths detective stories and vice versa. If you start with character and story, then write as well as you can, you’re most of the way to doing what you need.

Imagery yes, but also everything else
When it comes to ‘fine writing’, a lot of people have some strange idea that it’s all to do with some biff-baff-pow quality images. And sure, if you have those in your armoury, then why not. But other elements of voice abound. For example:

  • Rhythm
  • Length of sentences and paras
  • Vocabulary (broad or narrow, both can work)
  • Vocabulary as a palette – for example, a book might cleave very tightly to agricultural and natural images, colours and allusions
  • Lyricism vs stony realism
  • Humour
  • Warmth
  • Irony
  • Does the book stick close to one or more characters, or does the narratorial voice sometimes protrude?
  • Descriptive or terse?
  • Minute dissection of moments, emotions, thoughts? Or very sweeping? Intimate or wide-angle?
  • Does the writer tease the reader? Are mysteries left to linger unsolved?
  • Present tense or past? And how are those tenses deployed?
  • Preference for Anglo-Saxon vocabulary or Latinate/French?
  • Smoothness or unexpectedness? Does the voice remain very consistent in tone, or does it move around to surprise the reader?

I daresay if you think a few moments, you’ll be able to extend that list a good way yourself. All these things can go to make up voice. You need to pick the bits that matter to you.

It’s not a competition in technique
And also, you don’t get points for some show-off technique like, for example, writing a novel in the first-person plural. You get points for writing well. That can be by doing the basic things very well indeed. Don’t seek to flaunt some exotic piece of technique unless the book really demands it.

The same, but a little bit more
And for a last hint, I think that as you start to understand your own style, it can be worth doing the same thing, but just a little more. Taking your existing ingredients and cutting out anything that doesn’t quite mesh and emphasising your signature notes a little more.

It would be exceptionally easy to overdo this, of course, but it never hurts to nudge the reader, just a little, with what to look out for.

My voice – or the one I share with Fiona Griffiths
And there’s no use in talking about voice without showing it on the page. This is me, talking as my detective character Fiona Griffiths. Fiona is working undercover, is currently in prison, and is hoping to uncover some secrets from a fellow inmate, Anna Quintrell.

Quintrell is brought to the cell when the light is dying.

She looks rough. Not injured and knocked about, like me, but exhausted. Defeated. She’s still in her cutsie little summer dress, but someone has given her a grey fleece to wear over the top.

We stare at each other.

She sits on her bed. There are four blankets in the room and I’ve got them all.

‘What happened to you?’

‘Resisting arrest,’ I say. ‘Except some of it happened after arrest.’

She draws her legs up on the bed. ‘Can I have my blankets?’

I give her one.

‘And another?’

I tell her to fuck off. Say I’m cold.

‘So am I.’

I shrug. Not interested.

There’s a pause. A pause sealed off by steel doors and concrete walls.

‘They bugged my house. My phone. They’ve got everything.’

I shrug.

Light dies in the ceiling.

She tries to make herself comfortable. Twitches the fleece and blanket, trying to get warm. A losing game.

There’s a call button by the door which allows prisoners to ask for help from staff. She presses it, asks for more bedclothes. Someone laughs at her and tells her to go to sleep.

She stands by my bed and says plaintively. ‘You’ve got my blanket.’

I tell her again to fuck off. She’s bigger than me, but I’m scarier. She goes back to her bed.

The light fades some more. I try to sleep. The aspirin has worn off and my head hurts. Quintrell starts crying. Quiet sobs, that tumble into the blanket and are smothered. Down the corridor, we can hear more suspects being brought in and processed. Doors slam through the night: church bells calling the hour.

I sleep.

I won’t comment much on that except to note that the style is unusual in combining two things. First its clipped quality (very short sentences & paras. Lots of sentence fragments or verbs missing their subject.) That in itself is not so uncommon in tough-guy thriller writing, but then you have an almost lyrical quality as well (“church bells calling the hour”, “Light dies in the ceiling.”) The combination of the two – plus that intense, up-close present tense – go to create a lot of what we experience as Fiona’s voice. She’s also an odd combination of highly intelligent (hinted at here only) and very, erm, blue-collar in her speech. It’s those dissonant ingredients that go to make our Fi.

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