I’ve always been a lousy joke-teller. But anyone who hears me talk about what’s happening in my life usually ends up rolling on the floor clutching his or her stomach since I make people feel better about themselves without them pitying me too much. It is this ability to laugh at myself that creates my author’s voice.
An author’s voice is that mystical, interplanetary thing that you can’t buy in Walgreens or find on the Internet. But every best-selling author has it. So where did they get it? And better yet, where do you find it?
Your author’s voice is actually already with you. It’s found deep inside you, but it doesn’t take any money or a clinical psychologist to help you get it out. All you need is to know who you are, and accept that who you are is what you are.
By this I mean that you need to know your own personality. Authors use personality all the time in their work. There are the archetypes and stereotypes that we can draw from. However, who are you? Are you the embittered divorcee holding out for true love? The young virgin with the future so bright? The overworked father with the nasty boss? The parent of fifteen kids and not a minute to yourself? Are you a codependent? An independent? An ISTJ? ESTJ? Or another of those Myers-Briggs personalities?
Whatever or whomever you are, you are unique. Your combined experience gives you a personality and a life that is similar, yet different, from everyone else. And what makes you unique helps create your author’s voice, which is how you create dialogue that sounds real, settings that readers visualize, and plots that come alive.
Ask yourself some basic questions:
1. What movies and books do you reach for? You’ll occasionally find me with a mystery, but my voice doesn’t lend itself to Kinsey Millhone or Hercule Poirot. And speaking of Agatha, look at how different Miss Marple is from Mr. Poirot. That’s voice.
2. What do you like to eat? I disagree that foods make the man, or I’d be able to live on nothing but chocolate and Oreos and never gain an inch around my waistline. Most of my characters hate coffee. I don’t drink it, and couldn’t describe it if I tried. That’s voice.
3. What magazines do you read? If you are a serious person with subscriptions to Time and Newsweek, your characters may appear more serious or may read more studious things. If you are a home-and-hearth type who reads Better Homes and Gardens, you may find these little tidbits coming through in your wording. That’s voice.
Voice occurs through word choice. Your vocabulary isn’t limited, but the words you choose to use more often than not are. Soda versus pop? Where you live, your background, and your experiences determine your voice. They all come together to determine who you are, and how your words will sound on paper. If you’re setting a book in St. Louis, and where you live that fizzy beverage is called pop, you’ll want to do some research to make sure you’re using the correct term for the area. Here we call it soda. I’ve heard that in the South everything is Coke, you just specify the flavor.
So, how do you get a handle on voice? You begin to look for it. You analyze yourself and your writing. Is your voice active or passive? Do you love adverbs? Adjectives? Prepositional phrases? Pronouns? Look for what makes your writing work—that unique element in the paragraph you really love. Then you eliminate the stuff you overuse or that makes your prose sound flat. I love to use the phrase “she shrugged.” During my edits I make sure my heroine isn’t shrugging throughout the entire book. I also look for “be verbs” and replace them wherever possible with action words.
If you write love scenes, your voice will allow you to be sweet, sensual, steaming, or anywhere in between. My ex-husband always wanted me to use the phrase “pink, pulsating bazooka of love.” You can see why I divorced him—this article is the only time you’ll ever see that particular piece of purple prose in my writing.
Seriously, though, if you are uncomfortable writing graphic sex words, you might not want to write for the hotter, more erotic lines or imprints. You may discover your voice speaks easier writing something sweeter, and which keeps the love scenes behind the proverbial closed bedroom door. Embrace your convictions and personal beliefs. They dictate your voice, and what that voice says as the words leave your fingertips and plant themselves onto paper. Readers can tell when you are forcing something that you shouldn’t, or when you aren’t being honest or comfortable with your writing.
Just as your fingerprints are original, so should be your voice. Write what you love, characters you can love, and your readers will love you. Your voice is what sets you apart from everyone else; it’s what adds that special sparkle to writing that editors are looking for when authors recycle the same basic plots over and over. I mean, what makes your amnesiac bride with the cowboy’s secret baby unique? It’s the way you tell the story, and the way you make your plot come alive through your voice.
Think of some top authors and their voices. Stephen King’s voice is horrific. He can suspend reality and make us cringe as we visualize the langoliers when we board an airplane or think of pig’s blood come prom time. He can also take us along the green mile and make us think about living forever and the consequences of being different.
John Grisham takes us into the courtroom and the world of lawyers. Sue Grafton gives us Kinsey in first person, as if we are reading her report of the crime. Jackie Collins gives us Hollywood and its excesses; Dick Francis connected most everything to the horseracing world; and the incomparable Nora Roberts takes a reader from murder to suspense to humor all with a happy, romantic ending. James Patterson can go from thrillers to sappy sweet. J. K. Rowling made us cheer for wizards and wish we weren’t muggles. Each book an author writes has distinct tone, which comes from the characters, who come from the people we as writers must see or hear inside our heads. Bestseller Stephanie Meyer saw Edward in a dream. Don’t be afraid of hearing your characters speak.
What scares me is when they are silent.
Your voice is what gives your characters life. Talk to them. Listen to their answers. Write down what they say—for they cannot come alive until you breathe life into them. When you do this, you will realize you have found and discovered voice. Once that occurs, take your vision and go forward.
Michele Dunaway found her voice early, it just took her a long time to appreciate it. When she’s not talking to herself (without answering, of course, because that’s a sure sign she’s crazy—wait, she teaches high school, she already is), Michele is busy writing for Harlequin American and Harlequin NASCAR. Her next book is Out of Line, and is followed by Tailspin in September.