Finding Your Voice

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Yesterday I read a great piece by Lev Grossman (author of the Magicians trilogy) on finding his author voice through writing fantasy fiction (‘Finding my Voice in Fantasy‘). He admitted that he felt something was missing in the two ‘literary’ novels he had published and that, when he was producing those works, the writing came slow and hard as if he hadn’t quite found his ‘voice’ yet. For Grossman it was writing fantasy, and the liberation of writing against the literary expectations he had imposed on himself, that gave him the chance to discover his true ‘voice’ in his writing.

For Grossman “it was the most profound, intense writing experience I’d ever had. The icy grip of reality on my fiction cracked, and a torrent of magic came rushing out”. I love that line – for it encapsulates beautifully the experience of truly being in the writing ‘zone’ when your author voice takes over and allows the story to emerge. 

I’ve recently delved into the writing world of YA and middle grade fiction and what occurred to me was most surprising. I expected my YA voice would be an easier one to access (I still feel most days like I’m 16 after all…) but instead, it was the middle grade world that set my voice free. Maybe it’s because I feel attuned to my nine year old twin boys’ world, perhaps it’s because I still read aloud to them each night and these books tend to be for the most part middle grade fantasy novels…who knows? Whatever the reason I felt the exact sense of liberation that Grossman describes. 

I remember when I was writing my first book, Consequences of Sin, I certainly felt as if I was channeling the voice of my heroine Ursula Marlow – and when I returned to writing the third book in the series, Unlikely Traitors, that voice was inside me, ready to be channeled once more. I hesitated before deciding to write a middle grade book because I wasn’t really sure I’d be able to access that kind of ‘voice’ within me.  To my surprise the voice that emerged was just as strong as Ursula’s. 

The upshot of all this, is that I think many writers need to dabble in different genres to explore aspects of ‘voice’ which they may never have expected. I know plenty of writers who consider themselves ‘literary’ and, by default, superior to those of us who write commercial or genre fiction. For many of them the act of writing is a struggle (sometimes I wonder if they feel that the angst of it all somehow adds to the mystique). I wonder, if they allowed themselves the freedom to explore other genres, whether they would discover a new and more accessible ‘voice’ within them. I can only hope that others take Grossman’s lead and realize, as he did that: 

“Writing about magic felt like magic. It was as if all my life I’d been writing in a foreign language that I wasn’t quite fluent in, and now I’d found my mother tongue. It turned out I did have a voice after all. I’d had it all along. I just wasn’t looking for it in the right place.”

Isn’t that great?!

So tell me TKZers how did you discover your writer’s voice?

23 thoughts on “Finding Your Voice

  1. Writing YA was a voice opener for me, Clare. It also gave me the courage to try different POVs and tenses, plus add the fanciful paranormal. My comfort read had always been crime fiction, but YA books have broadened that.

    This year I’ve ventured into a couple of different subgenres to expand my voice and found the bridge easier to cross. I’ve grown fond of writing challenges, because as I tackle them, I gain confidence AND it’s fun.

    Love this post, Clare. Thank you.

    • Jordan – I think expanding your writing horizons is really important – as you never know what you might discover about your own ‘voice’.

  2. I love writing in different genres, for just this reason. It’s like letting other sides of my imagination come out to play. It’s pure enjoyment for me to write the Irish jimmy Gallagher stories, for example. Readers tell me they love the “voice,” but since it’s 1st Person POV, it’s the narrator’s voice they’re talking about. Hmmm…

    I’m not sure about calling any of this my “voice.” I think if the style suits the story, that’s the thing. And if you’re free and having fun, “voice” comes out naturally. I wrote about that once.

    I may have to revisit this whole concept of “voice.” Could it be a chimera? Shouldn’t we just say, Choose your story and then tell it for all it’s worth?

    • Good point Jim – sometimes I think your ‘voice’ (whatever that might be) comes through loud and clear when you love what you are writing and are having fun.

    • It seems to me that writing in first-person is liberating and can really help develop a quirky, appealing, authentic voice. I can think of lots of examples, starting with Huckleberry Finn.

      If you’re not crazy about first-person POV/narration, you could then switch it to close third-person.

  3. Clare,
    I read the Grossman article and had the same reaction as you. How wonderful when a writer cracks out of that cocoon of artificial ice and finds his true voice. I found it interesting that Grossman felt so false in his literary attempts and that it was only when he turned to a “genre” did he feel liberated. We get so hung up on expectations.

    • I found that interesting too – and I think sometimes writing groups perpetuate the ‘you must be literary’ mystique. I read another article by a romance writer who went to the Iowa writers workshop and then ‘lost’ the very voice she loved because of those expectations. I have to dig out that article link.

  4. My voice came pretty quickly, actually. I’m a male, but my protagonist is a female, a U.S. Marine MP who is the all-American girl. I opened with her charging across those sands of Helmand Province–parts of Afghanistan being frequently described as a huge beach in search of an ocean–yelling that she is going to kill the sumbeach who is beating his wife. With that emotion pent up in my writer’s soul, I instantly knew who my protagonist was, and what my novel sounded like.

  5. I found my “voice” by writing for myself. It wasn’t to be read by anyone so I felt I could let that voice come through. I was surprised and please when I used that voice for a story I wrote for publication and got a good response.

    • I do think that you need to write for yourself and enjoy the freedom that it brings to your writing. If you get too hung up on a perceived audience/reader I think it sometimes blocks your writing.

  6. Actually, I used to write a lot of poetry and found some very different ways to express myself. Either through love poetry, absurd poetry, or just short stories written kinda like a poem I realized there is no limit to the different kinds of story voice that can be evoked if you’re willing to open yourself up to it.

    Those same variations find their way into my books. While all my published stories are adult military/espionage thrillers thus far, I’ve been chatting with my agent about doing a YA version of the new series solely through the eyes of the teen characters. And boy would I love to write something like my favourite literary author, Frank Delaney…awesome stuff his. It all comes down to time.

    • Basil, I learned about story voices not by writing but by listening, specifically to Robin Williams.

      Do you think all your audio work helps?

    • Very much so, Paul. Acting gives me a chance to be people I would never have imagined, and to see through other writer’s eyes.

      In the past year I have been (in my voice and mind at least) the founder of Vanguard Investments, a distraught Russian woman trying to find her brother’s body in Afghanistan, King Arthur’s son Medraut (Mordred), and a werewolf hunter…not to mention our own John Gilstrap’s Jonathan Grave and his giant sidekick Boxers. But in each of these characters, as I try to find the author’s intended persona, I also feel like I am gaining a new perspective, a different voice. It is almost like I have absorbed a soul. And the mixture of the souls I have absorbed morph into a new being altogether, that combines with my own voices to a hybrid creature that is unique in its own right, digested and transformed in my writing to something wholly my own.

  7. I love writing in different voices, which, of course, has little to do with my own authorial voice (or at least not individually), but each different voice I’ve chosen has evoked different degrees of that magic. Sometimes the character and his or her voice are so strong that it feels as though they are writing the scene, and I’m just transcribing what they say, think and do.

    I’m considering using first person POV in the next novel, to challenge myself, but I need to ensure that the character’s voice is one that is very strong for me, because it if it’s as strong as I want it to be, she’ll write the whole damn novel for me, and I can sit back and relax.

  8. I loved writing scifi romance during my start as a published author, but when the market took a dive, I had to change genres. I’d never considered writing straight mystery, but as I had been putting a mystery into my romance novels, that’s what my agent suggested. Now I am on book 13 of my series. But I have also been able to go back to my first love and create a new romance series with fantasy/scifi elements in a modern setting. It’s like having two identities.

  9. I like to use references to other folks when I’m trying to make a point about one thing or another, especially when I’m trying to mimic an accent or a particular mannerism.

    Using things like “in the voice of” or “like Joan Rivers coughing through a puff of smoke” before making my notes is often a ploy to get the reader to hear those things when reading my next words, or actually visualizing my thoughts.

    I’m not saying it’s effective, it’s just that I notice I do it a lot in my regular writing on my blog.

  10. I found my voice when I started writing my new crime fiction series. I don’t know if it was my protagonist who brought it out in me or what, but my true writing voice has finally emerged. I’m thankful for that.

  11. Fascinating topic, Clare!
    I’m curious about the true definition of “literary” writing as defined here in relation to a writer’s voice.
    What exactly did Grossman mean by “literary”?

    I write Fantasy Fiction from a first-person POV. (I know this blog is geared mainly to Thriller and Mystery, but there are some very desirable insights/advice to be found here, so I lurk nonetheless.)

    As the writer, I can “see” the story from other secondary characters, of course, but the main character of my series has always driven the story. She IS my voice, so to speak. Although I have written a book in third-person, it did not feel as powerful to me. Now, I couldn’t imagine writing in anything but first-person.

    And yet, I’ve had multiple beta readers and critique sites tell me that I have a “literary” style. (Perhaps they mean “voice” when they say “style” but the two terms seem interchangeable to me.)

    Does having a strong main character in first-person POV mean that my voice/style is not truly literary? Or is it because I write fantasy fiction?

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