Monday, May 23, 2011

The Author’s Voice

Beth Anderson, author of Raven Talks Back and other novels, is my guest today. She has some interesting insights into one of writers' great conundrums.
Voice. What do editors mean when they say something like, “This author has found her voice,” or “This author’s voice is strong”? It’s a hard thing to describe, but easy for an editor to spot.

Voice, to me, means writing with complete inner authority. The author who has found her voice writes as if she really knows what she’s talking about and doesn’t have any visible problems expressing herself. She’s talking straight to you and you understand her with no effort at all. You get what she’s saying and how she says it. You’re truly hearing her voice, even though you’re only reading what she wrote.
There are several things that contribute to the development of Voice. The first thing is a great command of grammar. I can’t tell you how many brand new writers I’ve tried to convince, some successfully, some not, that the first thing they should do is take a course in grammar, whether it be signing up for a night college course or buying, so they’ll have full-time access to it, a good book on grammar. Sometimes both. One of the first books on grammar I bought when I was just starting out was GETTING THE WORDS RIGHT by Gary Provost. He’s been gone a long time now, but his book still sells and I highly recommend it. It’s very basic. I still have my copy and I never lend it out. It’s pretty beat up, but it did its job. Provost definitely had voice. SOL STEIN ON WRITING is another good one, also still selling. I have that one too. Stein has voice. He talked to me and I understood him.
One of the first things the head editor (at the time) at Harlequin Superromance said to me when I met her at a Romance Writers of America conference and they were considering my submission (which they subsequently bought) was, “Your book is on my desk right now. I’m reading it and I’m loving it. You have very strong writing, great voice.” She didn’t know it took me eight years to find that voice, because even though I had just graduated from college when I first started to try and write a book, I knew nothing about fiction writing. But I took the time to learn all I could about good grammar. It was one of the best things I ever did for myself as a writer. Today I couldn’t recite a single grammar rule to you, but it all stuck somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind. I knew I had to learn what I was doing and then do it without having to think about it. I didn’t know this yet, but I was developing my voice.
I always tell students I’m teaching, or just people who ask how to get started writing fiction, that good grammar is your core weapon. You can’t do without it, because when push comes to shove, you are responsible for the way your book reads, and therefore, sounds. If you don’t have a good command of grammar, how are you going to spot it if you happen to get a bad editor? There are such things, you know. Good grammar is your job as much as it is the editor’s. It’s your book. Your name goes on it. It’s your voice the reader is going to hear when she reads your words. And if you think the editor is going to spend a lot of time editing you, think again. They don’t do that anymore; they don’t have time. A few booboos, maybe, but too many and you’ll get your book shot back to you faster than you could ever imagine, especially now that they often do it by email.
Think of it this way. Every time you submit a novel anywhere, you’re competing with authors who have found their voice and do have a great command of grammar. You’re competing with Janet Evanovich, Tom Clancy, John Grisham and all the other writers out there who have done their basic training. Without the basics, nothing else you do is going to make any difference in the end result, because today, editors are looking for writers who already know how to write. This is all very basic to developing your voice.
By voice, I’m talking about creating a story that can pull the reader in and not let go until the last page. The author has to be able to do that so the end result looks effortless. But how does she do that?
For one thing, the author who has developed her voice is almost always someone with a great vocabulary. She doesn’t have to stop at every other sentence to figure out how to say what she wants to get across. She just knows. It’s in her head and it flows from her fingers. Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, she’s able to write what she means. If she hasn’t said what she means first time around, she recognizes that fact—nobody has to tell her—and keeps at that same sentence or paragraph until it does say what she wants. She’s able to do this with complete authority, page after page until she’s finished writing her book. She has developed her voice, and the reader can feel it without realizing what she’s feeling.
That reader is feeling the effects of reading something an author has, maybe over years, worked hard to perfect. Her voice. Generally, all readers know is that they love what they’re reading. They know they’re reading something that looks like it came straight out of the author’s head and fell down onto the page, like stardust. And it all looks so easy.
The author who can cause you to think that has found her voice.
Now, I’m not implying that a book just happens. Far from it. I’m talking about all the separate sentences that make up a book. How fast can you write a sentence, knowing it’s structurally sound and the grammar is correct so it’ll need only minor editing, if even that? Do you have to stop in the middle of a sentence to look in a book somewhere and try to figure out if the word “went” is what you want, or is it “gone”? Is it “she went” or is it “she has went” or is it “she has gone”? Well, which is it? What are you trying to say? Can you, with absolute authority, type “She has gone back to Kansas and she’s never coming back to Oz” and KNOW you have the right word, the one you really want? Or do you have to struggle, looking it up every time?
Commas. They have a LOT to do with voice, believe it or not, because it’s all part of the overall work an author does to create a really good book. Correct or incorrect placement of commas can make all the difference in the world in the way a sentence reads. Do you know where commas go? Commas cause a tiny hesitation in a sentence. Where do you want your reader to hesitate? That’s all up to you, because your job as an author is to make each sentence read smoothly. The reader’s eyes are going to go where you, the writer, tell them to go. If you put a comma where it doesn’t belong, you’ve caused a short blip in the reader’s mind, just for an instant, and you’ve disturbed what I call “the music of the words.”
Listen to the music of your sentences and then your paragraphs. Will the reader’s eyes travel where you want them to go, the way you want them to go there? Or do they have to stop every few seconds and recalibrate? If you listen to the music of your sentences, really listen, you’ll be able to pick out where you have misplaced or missing commas and fix them so the reader’s eyes can travel effortlessly through the pages. You can’t learn that by blasting through it at top speed, by the way. This requires careful thinking while you’re learning, and even after that, because you have to be able to hear the music of the words as they form sentences.
The author who listens and responds to the music of her words has found her voice. She writes with authority, and you love to read what she writes.
You can see even by just these few examples that the word “voice” isn’t just a buzzword that editors and agents toss around to describe some mysterious, ethereal thing that only they can see. In the context of “author’s voice,” what they’re looking for is an author who writes/speaks to her readers with complete authority, so that the words look as if they just flowed from her mind straight to the pages of the book, and you can hear every nuance as you read.
The author who can do that has “voice.”
Visit Beth's website at
ISBN #: 9780982144398 Publisher: Krill Press.
Raven Talks Back: Raven Morressey is living the good life. Nice home, husband, three healthy children, and it's finally summertime, when life is again lovely in Valdez, Alaska. All this explodes one morning when builders, digging up her back yard, uncover a recently murdered headless, handless female body covered with scarification—hundreds of colored designs cut into the skin to resemble tattoos. As if this isn’t enough, where the corpse’s head should have been is a large rock with a face painted on that resembles an Alaska Native mask.
Raven's eight year old son, Timmy, is the first one to see the body and is suddenly unable to walk or respond in any way. On that same day, Raven hears the voice of her long dead Athabascan father coming from Timmy, who is unaware of the ancient hunting chants he sings in his sleep and the words he suddenly speaks in Raven’s native tongue—a language he does not know.
Jack O’Banion, Valdez’s Chief of Police for the past few years, faced with his first murder case in Valdez, begins his official investigation. Everywhere he goes he finds nothing but deception. The town seems to have closed into itself and nobody will tell him anything that might help him solve this case. Then one murder quickly morphs into two, then three, and the Alaska State Troopers are hot on his back to find the killer now.
Between Raven’s voices and the visions she develops, and Jack, whose career as well as his contented life in Valdez are on the line, they both feel they have to find the killer and restore some sanity to the town—not to mention their own lives, which are quickly unraveling out of control.
Written by Beth Anderson


Polly said...

Wonderful post about voice, Beth. I know you're talking about an author's writing voice--that which defines a writer's work, sets it apart, and makes it recognizable--but I'm a firm believer in "hearing" my voice, so I always finish a book by reading it out loud. I hear the cadence and rhythms and false notes. I've started your book and love the beginning. I'm looking forward to reading the rest.

Barbara Monajem said...

What a different and refreshing take on voice! The part about commas rang particularly true for me, because I've been reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, which has WAY too many commas! I'm at about page 500, and I've finally learned to ignore the commas and just enjoy the story.

I have two voices -- contemporary and historical -- and lately I've been increasing my working vocabulary in the hope of improving my historical voice. It's one thing to know a word and what it means, and another entirely for it to pop up at the right moment during the writing process. :)

Anonymous said...

This is a great commentary on voice and embodies all the qualities the author has mentioned. Thanks for teaching us what voice means.

Beth Anderson said...

Polly, I do the same thing, read it out loud, only I do it chapter by chapter as I go along. I also edit as I go along, in part according to what I hear when I read it out loud. I know some authors don't do the editing as they go along thing, but somehow I'm compelled to do it, I've always done it. It's just the way I work in my own comfort zone. If I did it at the end, after I've read and re-read a zillion times, I know myself and I'd miss a lot because I'd find myself skimming. But we all work in different ways, that's what keeps reading new books and authors interesting, I think. ;-)

Barbara, thank you so much! You get what I'm saying! And thank you for stopping by, I really appreciate it!

Beth Anderson said...

Anonymous, thank you! It's always nice to write something, trying to explain the often unexplainable so that people can understand it, but I gave it my best shot. ;-) If it helps you, I'm happy.

Anonymous said...

Ellis, thanks for inviting Beth to participate on this very important topic. Beth, I tried to leave a comment last night and Blogger's mad at me right now. But you explain brilliantly why we must write for clarity, using all of the writing tools at our disposal. They make up our voice. They can also defeat brilliant storytelling if we don't use them.

Interesting that you mention a book called "Getting the Words Right." I have that one also, but it's written by Theodore A. Rhys Cheney, and it comes with a subtitle, How to Rewrite, Edit & Revise. It's also a brilliant book and the pages are dog-eared.

In this book, there's a few words from Hemingway in an interview he did with George Plimpton of the "Paris Review." It reads:

Paris Review: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending to "A Farewell to Arms," the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.

Paris Review: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.

Anonymous said...

Ellis, that last comment was from me (Donnell) Blogger is not happy with me for some reason. Thanks to you and Beth!

Ellis Vidler said...

There are days when Blogger hates me too, Donnell. I like that Hemingwy quote.

Barbara, I'd never thought of having more than one voice, but it's interesting.

I do believe Beth nailed it with writing till you don't have to think about it. I know we all think about when going back over, but that first flow is where the voice comes through. It's great if you don't have to stop and think initially.

Beth Anderson said...

Exactly, Ellis! I could not have said it better myself. Thank you!

And Donnell, thank you for your comments, too. Love the quote by Hemmingway. That's probably where those book titles came from. We're all learning something today, YAY! (Now off to the pet food store for a few minutes. My cats are nagging me half to death because I ran out of treats. Sigh.)

Betty Sullivan La Pierre said...

Hi, Beth,
Great article on 'voice'. You made it so understandable, and the comment on commas, a battle of mine constantly. I also read my stories aloud and if I stop..I rewrite...something isn't right or it would have flowed.
Thanks for this great've obviously found your 'voice'..gotta get your new book...

Hugs, Betty

Beth Anderson said...

Thank you, Betty. I just wrote what I thought and apparently everyone's getting it, so I must have done something right. I hope you do read Raven Talks Back, I think you'll love it. Hugs and thanks for stopping by and commenting. I'm like a puppy, I'm grateful for every little pat. ;-)

Warren Bull said...

This is a very good description of voice. Knowing grammar makes writing dialog for characters with irregular use of grammar easier. Sort of like an artist who knows perspective can violate it for effect.

Melissa Bradley said...

Very good advice and interpretation of that magical element, Voice. Grammar is something writers tend to forget as they forge ahead with their story, more concerned with character, plot and other , bigger things. But, it's the little foundation things that will trip you up every time.

Ellis Vidler said...

Warren, I absolutely agree with you. You have to know the rules to know when you can break them and how far to go.

Melissa, yes, voice is the magical element.

You seldom hear grammar mentioned in connection with voice, but it should be. I'm so glad Beth brought it up.

Beth Anderson said...

Thank you, Warren and Melissa! I actually am sure that Voice IS the magic element that editors are looking for, always. Other things can be fixed, if the editor can see the author has her voice and knows how to make magic with her words. I had to do a lot of revisions--about six pages worth--for that first book, an unforgettable experience, but I benefitted from every one of them. I cringe when I see or hear anyone say they'll never let an editor touch their work because I know I'll never enjoy what they're writing. But it has to be a GOOD editor, I've always said that (just ask my long suffering crit partners.) Thanks for stopping by!

Sloane Taylor said...

Excellent advice, Beth. I see a night course in my near future.:)

Congratulations on your new release! Raven Talks Back is a fantastic book. Your "voice" kept me spellbound through the last page.

Ellis Vidler said...

Hi, y'all. Beth asked me to tell you she'll be back soon. They're having storms and she has to offline for a while. I hope she's not in the path of last night's storm system, but we should hear from her as soon as it's passed.

Beth Anderson said...

I'm heeeeere! Thank you, Sloane, for the nice words. Storms passed, but more coming late tonight. I'll try to pop in later on. Meantime, Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Hi Beth!

Great advice about voice. There is a difference between telling a story and writing a story. Grammar is the key to writing a great story and drawing the readers in with a strong voice.

Cannot wait to read Raven - I need to know who the killer is!


Beth Anderson said...

I'll love to hear if you guessed who it was, and where in the book you were sure you knew who it was according to the clues dropped here and there in the book, and they are there. ;-)

Thanks for stopping by here at Ellis's blog, Erica. I really do appreciate it. And I really do appreciate being invited here to 'speak' at Ellis's very, very nice blog. It's been a lot of fun this week, so thank you, Ellis!

Ellis Vidler said...

It's a great piece on Voice, Beth. I'm so glad you did it. And best of luck with Raven--I'm really enjoying it. I don't have a clue to the killer yet, but I'm not very far along. It's really good though. Thanks for visiting,