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Rick Treon on finding your writing voice

Rick Treon is the author of two Bartholomew Beck books, and his latest stand-alone thriller, Divided States. You can read more about him here and see his books here. This is his debut post.

I made two terrible writerly decisions during the 2020 pandemic.

Divided States by Rick Treon

Despite everything, I attempted my first sequel to complete a two-book deal signed in 2019. Then, while I was struggling through that, I signed another contract for a high-concept speculative thriller due in early 2021 — a project for which I’d completed exactly one chapter and a rough synopsis.

These were the two proverbial wrongs. But, in contrast to the oft-referenced phrase, they ended up making a right.

The standalone novel, Divided States (June 10, Black Rose), was my fourth manuscript. And because I took too long to write the third (which releases, somewhat confusingly, in August), I had to produce Divided States quickly.

That meant pounding it out in my most natural writing “voice.”

Before that experience, I did what many authors do: emulate the style of my favorite authors and call that my voice. In my case, that meant trying to write the kind of dark characters and use the kind of prose that made Gillian Flynn’s career.

And, like many new novelists, I had an amorphous idea of what “voice” is.

Plot? Easily defined. Characterization? Difficult to execute but not a hard concept to grasp.

But I hadn’t put any effort into developing my voice. A decision made, in part, because the following Google definition made it seem impossible. “In literature, ‘voice’ refers to the rhetorical mixture of vocabulary, tone, point of view, and syntax that makes phrases, sentences, and paragraphs flow in a particular manner.”

Sure. Let me get right on that while creating interesting characters and formulating a plot that’ll keep readers intrigued.

But in trying to set a personal record for finishing a manuscript, I found that those things only fall into place after writing a metric ton of fiction.

I’d incorrectly assumed that my decade in journalism had shaved off some of the necessary work. But, though I honed many writing skills while working for daily newspapers, I’d been actively pushing against developing a voice — in the same way a network news anchor takes out the unique qualities of her voice to sound more palatable to a national audience.

Another hindrance for new writers is the list of Internet “rules” that govern prose. You know the ones, usually accompanied by bold-faced superlatives such as NEVER do this and ALWAYS delete that word.

Yes, you strengthen prose when removing the words “very” and “that.” But a southern character would sometimes use those words, either in direct dialogue or inner monologue, and to remove those and other phrases would detract from a writer’s voice.

Rick Treon, left, and fellow author Andrew J Brandt during Brandt’s recent launch party.

Rick Treon, left, and fellow author Andrew J Brandt during Brandt’s recent launch party.

Before finding mine, I also confused voice with literary conventions, such as Cormac McCarthy’s preference against commas and quotation marks. I’m not speaking out against this (though my news editor’s heart can’t stand reading it), but quirks like his are not a substitution for voice.

So, what do we talk about when we talk about voice? In my opinion, after typing a few hundred thousand words, your voice comes out through the unconscious choices you make with every word you write and re-write.

Your voice shows itself when you read a sentence from your first draft that hurts your ears, so you change it to something that makes you smile. Or, as will hopefully happen more frequently, your voice will be honed when you read through your draft and smile at something already on the page.

Your writing voice will likely end up being quite different from your speaking voice, with one exception: After enough practice, your prose will tell a story as clearly, casually, and with the same flair you would while cutting it up your best friends at a class reunion.

For me, that means utilizing active voice, declarative sentences and paragraphs, consonance and assonance (with just enough alliteration), and folksy phrases that make reading about death fun in the most macabre way.

So, how can you achieve this sought-after literary nirvana?

Unfortunately, the only way to level up and find your voice is to keep writing — which is why those two words the most over-stated but under-followed advice novelists dispense.

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    Yup, voice is found through practice and through the profound faith in your own ability to communicate. I find in working with new novelists and screenwriters that they forget to just be themselves, to relax, and just talk on the page. New writers will often interpret suggestions as “rules,” which dismays me. Words like “that” are over-used sometimes and are part of a list of common clutter words, but to get rid of them all is NOT what any writing teacher or coach wishes for a writer’s prose. I’m glad you found your way toward feeling more comfortable with your voice. I, too, have a background in journalism and found it was super helpful for leaping into writing fiction for many reasons. We journalists love deadlines and that helps a lot when a 300-page manuscript is on the line and barely started. Congratulations on your successes! Thanks for a great post filled with honest reflection about your process.

    1. Avatar
      Rick Treon

      I appreciate it! I feel the only way writers can help each other is by being honest about what doesn’t work (or didn’t work for you) as well as what does work. People often learn more from failure, even second-hand, than they do from success.

  2. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    Well said. My first two books and many, many articles and monographs were non-fiction. It was quite a shock to discover that writing fiction was, well, a whole different story (sorry, couldn’t resist). As you’ve pointed out, it takes time and many words to develop your own unique voice, and even then it changes over time.

    1. Avatar
      Rick Treon

      Thanks! Now that I am comfortable with my voice, I am a bit curious what future-me will sound like in the novels he writes, haha.

  3. Avatar

    I agree, Rick, voice is a very difficult subject to define yet it permeates the novel. I never gave much thought to developing my voice. I suppose it varies from series to series, genre to genre.

  4. Joy Ann Ribar
    Joy Ann Ribar

    Hey Rick! Great blog post about the elusive device called “voice.” I agree with your advice and am reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers in which he reiterates that being good at anything takes 10,000 hours of practice. I’m not sure how many words you can write in 10,000 hours but hundreds of thousands seems about right!

  5. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Hi, Rick! Great debut post. It took me back to my elementary school teaching days. I defined “voice” for my students as their personality or style coming through in their writing. I would ask, “Could I/we (the teacher or students) tell it was your (the writer’s) paper if you left your name off it?” The discussion usually generated comments like, “Yes, because that sounds like something XYZ person would write.” To which I’d ask, “What makes you say that?” And the students would reply, “Because XYZ is funny, and so are his/her characters,” or “Because ABC person uses a lot of dashes in his/her writing.” So, since no two people have the exact same personality, no two writers will have the exact same voice, even if they’re emulating others. That’s my take on it.

  6. Margaret E Mizushima

    Thanks for this great post, Rick! When In the second book for my series, I tried to imitate one of my favorite authors in two paragraphs of description.I thought they sounded pretty great. Interestingly enough, my editor cut both paragraphs. She didn’t say, but I think she could tell they weren’t in my voice and they probably stood out like sore thumbs. Great learning experience, and I’ve never tried to do that again. 🙂

  7. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    Great post, Rick! I remember my first writing conference where the best-selling author implored us to “develop your voice!” The thing was, she didn’t tell us how. Not a single tip. I looked around the room, panicked, watching others take notes. What are they writing? How do I do it? Help! The answer, as you discovered, was “practice and it will come.”

  8. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    Having just finished reading one of your books, I can say that you definitely found your voice!

  9. Tracey Phillips
    Tracey Phillips

    Nicely put, Rick! Thanks for your humorous take on finding your voice. I’ve always suspected that it took a metric ton of writing to actually find that hidden gem. Your post confirms it!

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