Those of you who have been hanging around this blog for a while may know that I became a fiction writer somewhat by accident. Back in the 90’s, I started writing Nancy Drew mysteries when a college buddy-turned-editor invited me to submit a story proposal for the series. When my editor friend moved on in her career, I stopped writing. I remember having vague notions back then about trying to write a manuscript on my own, but the idea seemed too intimidating. Without my editor friend as a Spirit Guide, I was at sea.
In 2003, I got RIF’ed from my job as a corporate writer. In retrospect, being laid off was the best thing that could have happened. With the blessing of a supportive spouse, I used my copious spare time to write the manuscript I’d been dreaming about.
I had a main character in mind for my story and a rough outline, but I struggled to find a “voice.” Writing in the Nancy Drew voice had been relatively easy, because Nancy already had a voice. My first attempts at finding my own voice failed miserably. Everything I produced sounded dry and flat, like it had been written by the journalist I once was. My main character came across as angry and slightly bitter. Completely unappealing.
For inspiration I started binge reading mysteries. Like Ariel’s song in The Little Mermaid, I hoped to hear a voice that would rescue me from the sea. One day I pulled a mass market mystery off the shelf and started skimming. This book sounded different, I discovered. It sounded funny. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just discovered the world of cozy mysteries and “chick lit”.
I can write like that, I remember thinking. From that moment on, writing in a brand new voice flowed smoothly. My character Kate became a little bit like Nancy Drew, if Nancy had gained weight and developed a potty mouth.
Nowadays I still struggle to find the right voice for any new project. The first time I tried to write something darker than a cozy mystery, I floundered around again in search of a new “sound” for the narrator.
I wonder if developing or changing voices is as much of a challenge for other writers as it is for me. Please share your experience in the Comments.
Oh yes! Genres have different voice expectations. When I write my urban fantasy books, I get to use an easy, slangy, snarky voice that’s pretty much just me talking on paper. But for the Regency romances I’m tinkering with, I have to channel Jane Austen–long sentences, bigger words, thoughtful narrative. It’s a challenge, but it’s fun, too.
I had literally never heard of chick lit or “cozies” until that day in the bookstore. I still don’t read them for pleasure, but I found I could channel the voice! Thanks for commenting, Kessie!
Kathryn, I struggled for four years, four books, and forty rejections before I finally found my “voice” and got a contract for my first novel. I even (shudder) tried writing cozy mysteries. Of course, every time I start writing another book, I wonder if I’m straying from what worked previously–but after reading your post, I’m beginning to think that’s not uncommon among writers. Thanks for sharing.
That not being sure one can write another successful story–I’ve heard many writers mention it. Not that it makes it any easier thanks, Richard!
New kid, here. Glad I found this wonderful site!
I started my mystery in third person specifically to keep my MC from sounding too much like me. It didn’t work. She sounded dry and flat, like your early effort.
I was totally stuck, until I switched to first person and she came alive. She’s not me at all — she’s got a mind of her own and a voice to match.
Welcome, InkSW! Whenever I switch to third person POV, I have to struggle all over again with voice. And for it not to be obvious to a reader that the prose was written by a female.
Welcome to TKZ! You are among some great real folks!
Hi Wren! Thanks for stopping in today!
My experience was similar to InkStained’s. My heroine was flat in 3rd POV. Changing to 1st POV gave me better access to her inner world.
I’m struggling with another concept that I’ve been writing in 3rd person. A short story based on a small slice of it has been rejected twice. I may go back to 1st to also get into his head.
Bottom line – try switching POV for your new book and see if you can find the thread. Keep us posted!
And my bestie, a very successful non-fic writer, has the similar problem of being able to turn off AP style and other non-fic conventions to go for it in fiction.
It seems like it would be such a natural progression to go from journalism to fiction, but it’s such a different way of writing. Thanks, Terri!
Oh, and excellent advice about switching POV to pull out of a wrong-way writing turn, Terri. I had a short story in the Fresh Kills anthology that I am currently rewriting at full length. I had never written a short story before, and wasn’t happy with the results. I was recently inspired by GONE GIRL to approach the story again from the POV of two completely unreliable narrators. We’ll see how well it works out!
Thanks for the post, Kathryn. It will be interesting to hear other writers describe their journey in search of a voice.
I have sold only one manuscript, a thriller. When I wrote the first draft I used third person POV, but I fell into giving my MC my voice, with all the joking and smart aleck comments that are me. I thought that would be cool. I’d seen movies like that. My first editor ripped me and used the word “ridiculous” more times than I care to remember. So I went back and rewrote the manuscript four times to rid it of humor and to acquire the appropriate heart-racing, dark, serious voice I was told I should use.
I sold the manuscript. It won’t be published until October. I’m certain there will be some more “adjusting” before the editor is satisfied.
Congratulations on your sale, Steve! I love that kind of Bruce Willis snark-dialogue in the movies, but I can imagine it’d be hard to make it work as effectively in a taut thriller. Thanks for visiting!
I’m going to tell a tell on Kathryn here:
A long while back she came to SleuthFest (our MWA conference in S. Florida). She wasn’t yet published but as she said, was struggling to write her first original novel. She won a bid for our author critique and I got to read her very first effort. I had done a lot of these partial critiques for SF and well, most are pretty raw. But Kathryn’s was the exception. I wrote to my sister Kelly to share and said, “she’s going to get published.”
Kathryn had already learned the basics of craft but here’s what I saw that told me she was going to break through: Her character, even in that first rough draft, had an utterly engaging voice. And the author herself had a voice. I knew I was hearing Kathryn’s quirky and funny way of looking at the world.
This is, I think, what editors and agents mean when they say they are looking for “something fresh.” It is what readers love as well. Yes, you can learn the craft but I am sure voice can be taught. You either have it or you don’t.
Make that: I am NOT sure voice can be taught. Still have my left hand wrapped up in tape today.
Wow, I’m honored by your kind words, Kris! I still have the notes you Kelly gave me on those pages. They were as precious as gold to me, because until then I had no idea whether I was on the right track at all! Your notes and encouragement helped me enormously.
One more comment on voice: I have tried to write a lighter character. I have failed miserably. Twice. Like Jessica Rabbit sez, it’s just not the way I’m drawn.
I grew up w/Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie…so when I decided to write mystery, I sort of knew what TYPE I wanted to write (more traditional). But I love writing in first person and I find that’s the type mysteries I migrate to, so that worked well for me with my psychological mystery series. One mystery voice I enjoy is the Kinsey Milhone first-person series by Sue Grafton. Thanks for sharing how you found your “voice!”
Thanks for stopping in for a visit today, Heather! I also love psychological suspense tales.
I’ve written in a few genres now, from romantic suspense, to edgier mainstream thrillers, to young adult, to sexy humor under another pen name. I read whatever genre I want to try, but I don’t go there until I feel a voice or character I can hear in my head, and a story I believe in.
I like pushing myself with my comfort zone. It’s fun for me to feel slightly out of control. When I pull it off and sell, it’s very rewarding and a confidence builder for me to try something new.
My common thread is crime fiction (and all its subgenres), with the exception of my sexy humor novels, hence the pen name.
From a business perspective, it’s not easy to stretch a brand and the cost to promote should be a consideration, but for me, pushing my limits in a controlled way is fun. It keeps me challenged.
I love writing in different voices, and sometimes the magic happens and the character’s voice takes over while I’m writing the first paragraph in that character’s voice. Other times, I struggle to find the character’s voice, and have to make too many intellectual decisions about it so that it ends up being inconsistent and I need to edit, edit, edit.
Generally, however, it’s relatively easy for me to switch voices, just not as magical as I’d like it to be every time. When the magic happens, the character writes the story or scene for me, and that’s what keeps me writing.
I admire the ease with which you can switch a narrator’s voice, Sheryl. I don’t know why it’s such a struggle for me. Nancy Drew was such a distinctive voice, and my cozies have that as well, I think. But it’s always a challenge to develop a new voice from whole cloth. I’ll keep trying!
A new voice is always a challenge and I struggle with ‘darker’ tones. Often when I just let myself go, that new voice emerges. When I try too hard (which sometimes happens with darker stuff as apparently I’m not that dark or complex!) then I flounder. Now i accept I just have to have fun with it.
Sounds like I should just let go, and let the Muses fly!;)
This will be interesting to a lot of aspiring writers, including those who have been successful as nonfiction writers and who are struggling with how to make the switch! Thanks for this, Kathryn! I’m sharing! 🙂
Oh yes – working for the first time on a single PVO, cozy without a romance. Currently reading all the cozy’s I can get my hands on. Am looking for ones with 3rd person POV. Also laying down the scenes and sequels with 5 sentence markers as I get ready to write in full.