Monday, January 04, 2010

Does a Writer Need "Voice"?

Several weeks back, Sex Scenes at Starbucks had a post on "voice". My comment was the following:
I heard a song once with the lyric, "I'm not beautiful like her; I'm beautiful like me."

If your voice isn't flowery, then don't try to make it so. Be beautiful like you, not like someone else, or you'll always be a poor imitation rather than the real deal.

If you're worried about injecting more beauty into what you do, one tactic would be: Rather than going pretty, try going deep.

You can create something that can resonate with a reader--choke them up with emotion--using very simple language. Guy Gavriel Kay does this well. He writes clean and simple prose, but holy crap, he can drill right into your heart.

And the impression he leaves is one of beauty, but his prose remains un-flowery. The trick is he goes deep, and makes sure the emotions his characters feel resonate powerfully in the reader.
Voice is a bit of a nebulous concept. Agents say they're looking for voice; informed readers often cite voice as the one thing that will or won't pull them into a story; an editor at SiWC 2009 mentioned she could fix plot problems and SPAG errors, but if the writer hadn't developed voice yet, she couldn't help them.

But what is voice? It seems to be having the confidence and competence needed to give your written words a particular flavour--a personality. Characters can (and should) have voices that are distinct from one another, and writers develop a voice that's as unique and recognizable as the one that comes from their physical mouth.

I agree with the editor who said you can't teach a person voice. But is voice necessary?

(I think it is, however...) I think some writers get away without one. The only rule for your prose is it should be invisible--it shouldn't ever get in the way of the story blooming in the reader's head.

Does Dan Brown have a voice? His prose strikes me as workman-like, which is perfectly acceptable. Did Stephenie Meyer in the first Twilight book? With the exception of the passages describing Edward, I think her prose was also fairly invisible, and that works just fine.

Also, I've read books where I thought the voice was so distinctive it became intrusive. Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson, and Gossamyr by Michele Hauf, both struck me that way. That's obviously a matter of personal taste, but I think it shows it's possible to have too much voice--at least for one particular reader.

All the same, a great writing voice pulls you in. It gives you enough confidence in the writer's abilities that you're willing to trust they'll do something wonderful to you in this story. And from the writer's point of view, absolutely anything that keeps you reading is a powerful tool in their arsenal.


How important is voice to you when you read a book? Have you ever stopped reading because of (either too much or too little) voice? Have you ever kept reading something that wasn't engaging because of the great voice?

What would you describe voice as? And what do you think goes into a writer acquiring their voice? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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