I made two terrible writerly decisions during the 2020 pandemic.
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.
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.