“If You Build It, They Will Come…”
“Find your voice and you’ll find success…”
This is what an old creative writing professor told me years ago. And even though I did have some vague understanding of what “voice” was, she was so mystical and secretive about it, she might as well have been telling me, “If you build it, they will come,” while staring blankly off into space from her ivory tower.
Creative writing and old, pigeon-holed professors behind me, I think she was actually on to something. Because the best way to keep your readers coming back for more, or to snag them to begin with, is to make them fall in love with your voice.
But what the hell is “voice”? This sounds like the pompous, hoity-toity “theory-speak” only encountered in stuffy colleges. There are many definitions for voice. Every agent, author and editor has a different way of explaining what it is, exactly. I think we all mean the same thing and we’re using different words to define it. Here’s my explanation:
It’s the feel, the sound, the atmosphere that surrounds you when you’re reading that author’s work. Maybe it’s a distinctly English voice—very prim, and proper and as comforting as hot tea and crumpets, maybe it’s a very bachelor-esque, casually and drily funny voice like Jonathon Tropper’s.
Stephen King has an extremely casual voice. I always feel like I’m sitting in a crappy diner listening to Mr. King when I’m reading his novels. If he started using prim-and-proper speech like, “Dag-nabbit! You’ve made me cross!” we’d wonder if he was joking, and then when he discovered he wasn’t, we’d feel very disconnected. That would not be Stephen King’s voice and then whose is it? If these swings happen too often, it is hard to feel comfortable within an author’s voice and we start to dislike reading that book. Personally, I think this is because we don’t feel secure, we don’t feel like we’re heading in a defined direction. Who are we getting the story from?
Another example: Lauren Weisberger, who wrote The Devil Wears Prada, has an extremely youthful, fast-paced and hilariously funny voice. She can write this:
Attempting to drive this $84,000 stick-shift convertible through the obstacle-fraught streets of midtown at lunchtime pretty much demanded that I smoke a cigarette.
“Fuckin’ move, lady!” hollered a swarthy driver who chest hair threatened to overtake the wife-beater he wore.” I raised a shaking hand to give him the finger and then turned my attention to the business at hand: getting nicotine coursing through my veins as quickly as possible.”
But even though her skill-level might allow it, she cannot then also write something like this, from Stephen King’s Just After Sunset.
“Night came on and the stars unrolled across the sky from east to west like a rug with spangles in it. A half-moon rose between two peaks and sat there, casting a sickroom glow over this stretch of the highway and the open land on both sides of it. The wind whistled beneath the eaves of the station, but out here it made a strange open humming that was not quite a vibration. It made him think of Pammy Andreeson’s hopscotch chant.”
The difference in voice is so obvious its almost palpable. Both are excellent, I loved both books—differently. When somebody says you must find your voice, they mean you can’t write parts of your book in King’s more literary, more meandering and casual voice and then other parts in Weisberger’s laugh-every-other-line, fast-paced jaunty voice. When you mush different voices together—because you don’t yet know yourself as a writer—the result is always just as yucky as when you mush foods together.
Some authors have or use more than one voice. Jodi Picoult is a great example. All of her books are told from the points-of-view of several very different characters. She happens to have great skill in pulling this off. She can allow us to inhabit the mind of a child just as comfortably as that of a cynical grown man going through a tough divorce—and the voice in each section is different, necessarily. But there is still, even though the voices in the sections differ, an overarching Picoultian voice. It’s very calm, and very poignant, no matter who is telling the story for the moment. And that, I believe, is Picoult’s true voice—the calm, poignant, slightly literary sound that overarchs all of her books.
Some authors use different voices for different books. Jennifer Weiner is one of these. Good in Bed, which was chick-lit that I absolutely loved, had a voice similar to Lauren Weisberger’s in The Devil Wears Prada, above. Funny, down-to-earth, fast-paced, etc. But when chick-lit supposedly died, Weiner switched over to a more women’s fiction-y voice. I won’t speculate on her reasons for making the switch, but sadly, I haven’t bought a single book of hers since. Her voice just went away and that was what had kept me reading.
In sum, and perhaps what I should have said to begin with: the voice is what you hear in your head, the feel you get when you’re reading a particular book. You can’t see, hear or feel a story, so the author’s voice in a book becomes as meaningful and critical as aesthetics in a movie.