Monday 13 December 2010


Two people recently asked me similar questions about voice. One was, "How do you recognize your 'voice'? How do you know when you've found it?" The other one asked me to say something "that discusses/explains that every writer should have his or her style, and aim to define that, opposed to aiming to be like someone else or write like them? ... a new writer with a new style is always better, isn't it?" Then, just as I was about to write this post, the organiser of an event I'm doing for the Edinburgh Writers' Club on January 10th asked if voice could be the topic of my talk. Yes!

I have blogged about voice before, mostly in this post here. Please go there if you're not sure what voice is.

But to answer the two writers of the questions at the top of this post, I need to say something a bit different from that post. I admit to being a little concerned by the implication behind them: that your voice is something you ceate in some kind of deliberate and contrived way. I don't think you can or should. Let me explain, briefly. I'll say more about it in my EWC talk and in my first Write to be Published workshop on March 22nd.

There are two sorts of voice: the voice of the book and the voice of the writer. (There's also the voice of each character, certainly when you write dialogue. But that's obvious, no?)

The voice of the book is what I was talking about in that earlier post. Lynn Price has a post about it here, but she's talking about both the voice of the book and the voice of the author at the same time. She actually means the voice of the book. (Obviously it's the author what writted it... but it's still the voice for that book.)And the voice of the book is what's important, as you'll see in a minute.

The voice of the writer - your voice - is the thing which might allow a reader to pick up one of your books and say, "Ah, that's a Nicola Morgan." This seems to be the thing that both my questioners mean. They believe, because they've heard it said, that every author must have a distinctive voice.

Nope. If you write different sorts of books, you will need different voices. Do I have the same voice in all my books? No. Granted, you'll find some similarities, but that's not enough to be my voice, just mannerisms, accents. I shapeshift with my voice and I do it on purpose. The voice you get from me in any of my books is the voice for that book, distinctive for that book; yes, perhaps with elements that you might find in my other books, but only tiny elements and I defy you to pick one of my books that you haven't read and judge it as a Nicola Morgan.

Some writers do have a voice that shines throughout their otherwise disconnected books. Kate Atkinson is an example. Bernice Rubens is another. Ali Smith is probably another. But they are not published because they have a voice that links all their books: they are published partly because each book has a great voice, quite regardless of whether it's the same voice as their other books. Me, I prefer the variety and freedom of being able to shapeshift and make myself sound different. And I'm sure you'll agree that any of those writers would be perfectly capable of writing something very different. Except Bernice Rubens, who is, sadly, dead.

As for the other question - "How do you know when you've found your voice?" - well, I don't think you should be looking for your voice. It's not something you have to find. Absolutely you must find the voice for THIS book, but it could be quite a different voice for your next book. So, yes, search for the voice for your book, but don't bother about whether it's going to be "your" voice in the sense that it will be in your next book, too. If that happens, great; but it's not important enough. I think "finding our voice" simply means finding what we're good at and what we're comfortable with. And it could be voices, not just one voice. Don't fret about it in terms of some elusive and abstract voice - just look for what sorting of writing works for you and suits you.

Yes, you'll hear that agents and editors are looking for a "fresh new voice". What they mean is a book written in a "fresh new voice". Your second book can either be written in that same voice or another one, depending on what suits the book. Everything depends on the book. Nothing is more important. If you're too consciously thinking about "your voice", you're thinking about the next book. The reader and your publisher only care about this book. (Unless it's part of a series, which is different.)

I have a voice for this blog. Then I wrote a book of the blog - Write to be Published - and its voice is slightly different, with big echoes of this one but different nevertheless. I wrote Thomas the Tank Engine books and I write home learning books; I wrote Chicken Friend and Wasted, all hugely different voices; I wrote the two Highwayman books, in the same voice because they are meant to be together; and Fleshmarket and Deathwatch, which are different. I'm writing another YA novel at the moment, and it's different from them all. I have many voices and there's only one thing that matters: that this book's voice is perfect for this book.

OK? So, please, stop being hung up on "finding your voice"? Just believe in your writing. Just tell the damned story, yes?

PS: Booking for What's Wrong With My Manuscript? workshop on March 22nd is open. Don't delay!

PPS: Thursday this week will be end of term at Crabbit Towers and I have presents for you - one each day from then till Jan 1st. God, I'm good to you. Try to deserve me, yes?


Sarah Callejo said...

Thank you so much. Somehow, you have turned my concept of voice upside down, but by doing so, you have made the pieces fit. (Sorry, won't make sense to you, but it does to me.)
I was really mistaken by thinking there should be a constant voice in books defining the author and I felt that it couldn't fit all the different stories, so this is both enlightening and reassuring.
The voice in Wasted stands out from all other books I've read. I can still hear it in my head when I remember the scenes. I think it's the perfect example for understanding voice after reading this.
Thanks Nicola.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Oh what a brilliant brilliant post. Thanks Nicola - you explain it so concisely. perfect.

If I can ad the analogy I use when trying to explain one facet of this - when writers ask me 'how do I know when I've found my voice' (usually because some crap CW course has told them they must... I tell them they won't, necessarily.

I write in hundreds of different voices. But as you say, each story, each novel, each piece of work will have their own distinct voice - totally different from that of the writer.

My mad analogy? Your 'writer's voice is something other people can 'hear' and you can't. It's like BO. Apparently, if we don't wash for a few days, we can't smell ourselves...nor can we change our own distinct odour...'


J.M. Larson said...

Wonderful post! You know writing and very wise to help young writers know the voice comes when our work is a proud piece, it will flow like its own personality. Very well written and informative piece, thank you.

Sulci Collective said...

Wait, you wrote Thomas The Tank Engine books? I didn't know that!

I don't actually care about my (the "author's") voice. Like you say, only the voice of the character of each book. Having said that, people keep telling me they can recognise my language a mile off so whatch gonna do?

My voice only matters when I'm doing a live reading.

Viva les characters!


marc x

Dan Holloway said...

First, this is a super post and I absolutely agree you can't go looking for your voice - that's putting the cart before the horse or some other ill-fitting metaphor to express that you're focusing on the wrong thing. I think it's slightly disingenuous but utterly understandable when agents and editors say they're looking for a fresh new voice. I think what they mean is "I will have chosen [it's a long time since I got to use a future perfect] my next book because of its wonderful fresh voice" but of course because we're always eager to learn and for that book to be ours, we try and turn all such statements into nuggets about what we should be doing, which leads not just to ill-fitting metaphors but tortured logic.

I've heard lots of arguments about whether it's books or writers that have voice. You give very few examples of writers as opposed to books where there is a thread running through, which is very much the opposite of my experience - possibly because of the books I read, I don't know, but I went through my favourite writers after reading this post – I got through Murakami - of both Haruki and Ryu flavour; Banana Yoshimoito; Elfriede Jelinek; Marie Darieussecq; Brett Easton Ellis; Ginsberg; Bolano; Kundera and still hadn’t found anyone whose writing I wouldn’t feel confident of identifying from a couple of sentences.
Of course there is a question as to whether these writers *seem* to have a distinctive writerly voice because they always write the same kind of book, but that too seems to me to be putting the ill-fitting metaphor before the whatnot, and we get into all sorts of issues over verification/falsification and counterfactuals about books they haven’t written and why they haven’t written them.
I’ve always talked about voice to people who ask by relating it to music (film would do – the Coen brothers and Kubrick are really good examples – the style always suits the film, but you’d be hard pushed not to identify the director within a minute – and people largely turn up [which is a *whole* other but equally important – and applicable to writing with the question of reader expectation and pigeon-holing] because of who the director is, and because they expect something wonderful and unique but with a certain feel). On a basic level the question “what is voice?” could be answered by playing someone the first chord of Tristan and Isolde and leaving it at that. On a more nuanced level, a lot of gigs you go to where there’s a big band, and several supports, you listen to the support bands and they’re good, but most of the time you hear a patchwork of influences and references. The first bar the main act play, you know it couldn’t be played by anyone else – and that runs across albums.
I don’t think any of the writers or bands I’ve mentioned has gone out and looked for their voice (I think we’re agreed, even if not about what the something is, that voice is the result of something else) but I think what’s true of them all is that they have something to say (for Murakami Haruki it’s that life is built on the most seemingly ephemeral choices; for Jelinek it’s beware of keeping your passions chained too tightly; for Ellis it’s the utter superficiality and disconnectedness of modern life) and have gone out and said it, and their voice has ended up so distinct because in their writing/music/film they have been absolutely ruthless in cutting out the material or structure that doesn’t get their message across.

And the converse applies. Amost all the work I read by people who don't find a publisher/agent/editor on sites like Authonomy has in common that either the author doesn't know whatthey want to say, or has nothing to say - and the result is that both the writing and the way it's subsequently edited may be beautiful but is ultimately directionless.

C said...

Thank you a-plenty for this, Nicola. Good to know it's ok that an author doesn't necessarily have the same voice in every book.

You say that one should not look for one's voice. Indeed I agree there is some natural-ness in one's voice, but is it something we have to accept as it is, or is it possible to refine it, or in fact alter it? Like, you say you shapeshift your voice - do you do that consciously (which I think you do as you said 'on purpose') or does it naturally adjust to suit the book you are reading? Sorry to bombard, just wonder if you'd ellaborate a little on that point.

But it's a very helpful post, thank you :)

Iain Broome said...

This is dead interesting, especially the bit about different voices for different books, which is something I think a lot of budding writers don't think about (actually, I'm not sure budding writers remember to plan that far ahead at all).

I wrote about voice recently and compared it to design, in the sense that at some point, you have to make a conscious choice about what your voice is. You have to make decisions.

By that I don't mean you have to go in one direction blindly because it's what you want to do, more that once you've messed around for a while and figured things out, you eventually have to be comfortable with your writing. Assume an identity. Or something.

Like I say, all very interesting and a smashing post.

sheilamcperry said...

I've just annoyed myself by comparing this to art (I've worked in an art gallery for 20 years and as a non-art historian deeply resent the way I seem to have absorbed art through my pores while actively resisting it!) and wondering if the analogy works and whether having a different voice for a different book is comparable to an artist who works in different media - although their underlying style may still be recognisably the same, eg Leonardo's drawings vs his paintings. Or to an artist who develops over a long career, eg Picasso, who worked in lots of different styles and media.
I'm just trying to get to grips with the idea of a different voice for each book. It obviously isn't the same as having a different viewpoint character - or is it? If the viewpoint char. is using his or her voice, is that it?

Nicola Morgan said...

Sheila, I think the anaology does work but only in as far as anaologies only work so far. I think that a visual artist's work is much more likely to contain much more recognisable aspects even when he/she uses different media or styles. With writing, it's generally much more subtle and can be quite indiscernible.

Iain, I kind of agree but not completely. Actually, I rather don't! I don't think you ever have to decide, as that implies you've fixed on something and i definitely don't think you do have to. And I do maintain you don't necessarily have to do any of this actively and consciously - and that it's quite hard to do so. Better to recognise it when it happens (which is perhaps what you're suggesting?) I do think you have to be conscious about the voice of the book, because in the first draft their will foten be things that are inconsitent, voice-wise, and you'll have to decide then. But I don't think you have to decide on one kind of writer to be.

Sarah - thanks. Glad it helped.

Vanessa - charming!

Sulci - oh yes, indeed I did. But, re people recognising one's voice a mile off - yes, it's possible, and people have said it about me, too but they'd be wrong because they'd never recognise me in Thomas the Tank Engine books!

Dan - I did mention some writers but I didn't feel the need to list more. Of course, your examples are correct, but that was my point: that you can have writers that do that, if they're writing within the same or similar genre particularly, but you don't have to. They happen to. And i do agree re knowing what you want to say - that's what creates a strong voice.

Catt - v good question. I'm going to come to it separately. Maybe even a separate blog post. Thanks!

dalerobertweese said...

Thank you, this is helpful.

The first novel I wrote started with a chase scene, and the hero was running from circumstances for most of the book.

My second novel started with a guy trying to have a peaceful existence and suddenly things were happening to him.

Until I read this post, I was concerned I was still looking for my voice. I now realize the books a different so the voice is different.

I can think of published authors, whom I won't name, whose voice did not change from book to book and should have.

Liz Harris said...

Brilliant blog, Nicola.

What you've said makes perfect sense. I wish everyone would read it - authors, agents and editors, alike.

Liz x

Kath McGurl said...

Great post, and thank you! I've been writing a historical novel lately which necessarily means using a very different voice from my womag writing voice. But even within womag stories, I'll use a different voice in different stories, depending on the subject and target market. I agree it is essential to find the right voice for each piece - and you know once you've found it, because your writing suddenly flows!

M Louise Kelly said...

Found this really liberating. I'm finding it hard enough to get my voice set and then maintained in one book let alone worry about where this is my voice as a writer - and now I don't have to worry. Hurrah.

And I'd love to see a post answering Catt's questions. Are there tricks/shortcuts to help refine your voice in a book? (And I know these 'shortcuts' might involve hard graft - i'm not a complete lazer!) It feels like I'm doing it all by instinct at the moment (which maybe how it has to be done) but I have a hunch that there are stylistic tics, (or something) that I could check over to see if they all pointed to the same voice.

Anyway, thanks. Off to 'voice coach' my latest WiP.

Leila said...

I agree with you totally! I think I have three or so different voices that I tend to write in, but the books I've had published are all in the same voice because they are a series. It is true that some writers seem to have a recognisable voice through all their published work, but I wonder how much of this is down to pre-selection: i.e. the publisher rejects any but books that are written in a voice similar to that which infused their first successful novel. If you are attending to the needs of the book rather than to your own desires (as I think writers should), then the voice will be distinctive to the book.

Nicola Morgan said...

Sheil - by the way, I forgot to pick this bit up: "I'm just trying to get to grips with the idea of a different voice for each book. It obviously isn't the same as having a different viewpoint character - or is it? If the viewpoint char. is using his or her voice, is that it?"

No, viewpoint / POV is NOT the same as voice. There is an overlap, but it's not the same. POV (Point of View) is simpler and more a matter of some rules and techniques. I've blogged about it (check the POV label). POV is about "through whose eyes do we see this story or this section?" Voice incorporates that, and must be true to it, but is much subtler, wider, more pervasive, and harder to pin down. It's not technique so much as instinct, feel, writerly gut.

Leila - no, I don't believe an agent or editor would reject a book because it was too different from the author's previous successes, unless the book was bad!

Lousie - will do.

Womag and Liz - thank you.

Dalerobertweese - glad I helped. But I'm interested in the idea of writers whose voice *should* have changed. Not sure I know what you mean - do you want to elaborate? (You don't have to, if you don't want to!)

authorsoundsbetterthanwriter said...

This is a really good post. I think having a consistent voice and never stepping out of your character's voice is one of the hardest things to do in a novel.

David John Griffin said...

Another excellent post Nicola, thank you, I enjoyed reading that.

Voice is so important, I agree. A good voice can heal quite a few "min-sins", I think. Though there's nothing worse than an author's voice getting in the way of the words, i.e the voice of the book.


Carolb said...

That certainly got me thinking Nicola, thanks.
I remember realising one day that I'd found my voice without looking for it.
Perhaps the problems I've been having this year- trying a different style to what I usually write-is because I haven't developed that voice yet.

David John Griffin said...

Interesting comment from CarolB about finding her voice without really looking for it. I think this unforced, unconscious way is more often or not the best way, I'm sure you'd agree.

Erm, in my last post, I meant to write "mini-sins" not "min-sins"!


amber colleen said...

Really good points. I think, personally, when I get caught up on "my writing voice" it overshadows the characters, who are the ones really showing you what's going on in the story. Finding what your characters sound like and think like is more important. Sure your *writing style* will be consistent - you're going to like using some words and phrases better than others and you have your own unique ways of saying things, but that's not the same as your "voice."

none said...

Well, that's a relief. It bothered me that some of my books were in one voice and others in another. Now it won't. I shall be free to worry myself to death over something else instead! ty Nicola :).