Evocative Suspense Author Sue Coletta on VOICE

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

WingsOfMayhem

I’m proud to have longstanding TKZ member, Sue Coletta as my guest today. This is her first time here as a featured author. Not only is she usually one of the first to comment on each post, but I’ve seen her grow as a writer. I enjoyed her first book MARRED, with its strong voice and dark eerie tone, and I’m currently reading WINGS OF MAYHEM and thoroughly enjoying the voice of her protagonist, Shawnee Daniels. Take it away, Sue, and welcome!

Sue Coletta on VOICE

When we first begin our writing journey voice is one of things that’s nearly impossible to define, never mind discover. For years I kept hoping to find my writer’s voice, but I had no idea where to look. Deep within myself? Through hours and hours of practice would it suddenly appear? What was this mysterious “voice” everyone spoke about? And why didn’t I have one?

Perhaps what agents and editors were referring to was that perfect blend of style, rhythm, and cadence that make up the mysterious writer’s voice. Maybe it’s like trying to define the difference between graffiti and street art. I may not be able to put it into words, but I’ll know it when I see it.

When I look back on those days I wish someone would’ve told me, with a clear definition, how to develop my voice. And then one day something magical happened. I was reading the most amazing craft book I’d ever encountered, the book that transformed my writing life in an instant. I’m referring to Story Engineering by TKZ’s own Larry Brooks.

When I learned about the three dimensions of character I found my writer’s voice. I couldn’t believe it. Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?

Today, I would describe voice as the combination of syntax, diction, punctuation, dialogue, sentence rhythm, and character development within one story or across many novels. It’s unique to you. Just as a flute doesn’t sound like a clarinet, neither does one writer from another.

How awesome is that?

We all use the same 26 letters, and yet, no two authors will write the same scene the same way. One writer might use run-on sentences that go on for miles. Whereas another loads the story with short, punchy fragments. Neither is wrong; it’s a matter of personal style.

But style isn’t the only thing that makes up the writer’s voice.

By knowing our characters intimately, by understanding their hopes, their dreams, their backgrounds, scars, flaws, nervous ticks, religious beliefs, world views, what they fear, what they strive for, what they want more than anything else…we can slip into their skin and write using their voice. Not only in dialogue, but in the narrative as well—also known as narrative voice.

Take, for instance, my protagonist in Wings of Mayhem. Shawnee Daniels is a wise-cracking, snarky chic who was raised on the city streets. The way she views the world is much different than her librarian best friend, Nadine. Shawnee is overly cautious. She swears, has huge trust issues, and in a lot of ways, she’s her own worst enemy. Where Shawnee might see danger, Nadine, who was raised in a loving and often sheltered environment, would see an opportunity. Nadine never swears. Instead, she uses words like “ship” and “fleakin’”. She’s a glass-half-full type of girl. Shawnee’s glass barely has a drop in it.

Nadine’s dialogue is filled with words like “Woot!” She waves jazz hands and bounces on her toes when she’s excited. Shawnee is her polar opposite. She would never be caught dead waving a jazz hand in the air and she certainly would never use the word “Woot.” Because she’d never do these things in the dialogue, I can’t let her do it in the narrative, either, or the story would lose its narrative voice.

In Wings of Mayhem I alternated chapters between Shawnee, Detective Levaughn Samuels, and Jack Delsin, my antagonist. Each have their own way of viewing the world around them and, more importantly, the situation they’re in. I couldn’t write the narrative in the same way or it wouldn’t be unique to each character.

Where Shawnee believes everyone is after her, Detective Levaughn Samuels is more level-headed. In his narrative I used contractions like I did with Shawnee, but the tone is different. He views the world with a calm, rational, detective’s perspective. When he looks at a crime scene his stomach doesn’t scream in protest. But Shawnee’s does.

While examining a murder victim, Levaughn would narrate the facts, the wounds/injuries, his theory of the case, etc. Shawnee would be too distracted by the blowflies. She might gape at the victim’s smeared mascara, or narrow in on the thick, bluish film veiling the victim’s eyes. But Levaughn wouldn’t mention that because all corpses develop corneal clouding. It’s a natural occurrence that develops 2-3 days after death, depending on the environment in which the body is found.

By remaining true to our characters in dialogue as well as narrative we breathe life into the story. Thus, filling it with voice.

For Discussion:
Over to you, TKZers. What tips have helped you develop your writer’s voice?

Sue Coletta

Suspense Author Sue Coletta

BIOMember of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is always searching for new ways to commit murder…on the page. She’s the author of Wings of Mayhem, Marred, Crime Writer’s Research, and 60 Ways to Murder Your Characters. She’s published in OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive, Murder, USA anthology, InSinC Quarterly, and in the upcoming dark fiction anthology, RUN. The founder of #ACrimeChat, which takes place every Wed. on Twitter, Sue also runs a popular crime resource blog, where she shares her love of research…forensics, police procedures, serial killers, and true crime stories. You can learn more about Sue and her books at: www.suecoletta.com

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Print and audio coming soon from Crossroad Press!

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

37 thoughts on “Evocative Suspense Author Sue Coletta on VOICE

  1. Sue, I’m tracking with you. I wrote about voice some time back, because the “definitions” I heard were never satisfactory. The gist is indeed knowing your characters intimately, but also putting your heart into the characters (via empathy, etc.) and using all the tools of craft to render it truly on the page. You rightly mention both dialogue AND narrative. The latter aspect is often missed.

    Good job, Sue. Thanks for being part of our community.

    • I’m so proud of you, Sue. I am thoroughly enjoying WINGS OF MAYHEM and loving your voice and the humorous banter between your characters. Welcome to TKZ!!

        • I was so excited I forgot to thank you. I’m over-the-moon happy that you’re enjoying WINGS OF MAYHEM. Shawnee cracks me up, too. While writing some of her scenes I was laughing so hard, I was crying.

          • That’s when you know you have it right. If you can make yourself cry or laugh or be afraid, your readers will feel it too. I keep tissues on my desk for that reason.

  2. Welcome, Sue! Great post. I love the comment about all of us using the same 26 letters yet no one writes the same scene the same way. It’s one of the reasons I love reading so many books by so many different authors. Thanks!

    • Thank you, Joe! Totally agree. It’s one of the many things that make writing and reading so magical. I’m so thrilled to be featured today. I doubt this smile will leave my face anytime soon.

    • I loved the way Sue described this too, Joe. It reminded me that every storyteller is unique because they filter their stories through their life’s experiences and their way of expressing themselves. Good stuff.

  3. An excellent and most helpful post.
    “Today, I would describe voice as the combination of syntax, diction, punctuation, dialogue, sentence rhythm, and character development within one story or across many novels. It’s unique to you.”

    This resonates with me as I have struggled to find voice in writing in a new genre. The contemporary characters lead entirely different lives from those in my historic work, the voice is much different and this explains why in way I understand. I could never put my finger on the reason.

    • I’m so glad you found it helpful, Susan. One of the most important aspects of characterization are the three dimensions.

      1st dimension: The person they show to the world. We all want to show our best selves in public.
      2nd dimension: The person we show to our family and close friends.
      3rd dimension: Our true character. If there were a fire in a crowded theater, would we help others or trample over them to get to the door?

      Thanks for stopping by The Kill Zone. It’s so nice to see you here!

      • That’s a great way to think about our characters. I hadn’t seen it stated that way before (or perhaps lost it in the years’ long deluge of writerly articles and books I’ve read. 😎

  4. Hi Sue – Great piece and perspective! I know you’ve seen this quote more than a few times but I thought I’d share it with others on Kill Zone. It’s from Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, who summed up voice like this:

    “Voice is the distinct personality, the style, or the point of view in a piece of writing or any other creative work. Voice is what Simon Cowell is talking about when he tells American Idol contestants to make a song their own and not just do a note-for-note karaoke version. Many musicians have played The Star-Spangled Banner, for instance, but there’s a world of difference between the Boston Pops’ performance and Jimi Hendrix’s, even though the basic melody is the same. In writing, the New York Times and the New York Post may cover the same story, but their headlines are likely to be quite different. For example, when Ike Turner died, the New York Times had a straightforward headline: ‘Ike Turner, Musician and Songwriter in Duo With Tina Turner, Dies at 76’; whereas the New York Post went for a bad pun: ‘Ike Beats Tina to Death’.”

  5. Hi Sue – same circles!

    Voice. Still working at it. I’m constantly in fear that my characters will sound and seem too much like each other or me. Voice is definitely part inspiration, and part crafting and revision.

    • Hey, Penny! It can be frustrating, huh? Been there. It’s not an easy thing to develop. I feel your pain, but I also have no doubt that your voice will develop as you hone your craft. JSB has an excellent craft book where he speaks about assigning each character a roll. For instance, one character takes on the mother role while another is more childlike. The technique works really well, too. The title escapes me. Hopefully, he’ll see this comment and let us know.

  6. There is “voice” and there is “voice.” It’s not only nailing the characters–what they’d say, how they’d say it — which is almost “easy” relative to the author’s voice. Nora Roberts has her voice, and it shows whether she’s writing as Nora or JD Robb. You’d never confuse Janet Evanovich with Lee Child.
    I’ve done workshops where I hand out pictures and have the group choose 1 and write a couple paragraphs. Then they swap with their neighbor. When you hear the totally different results, you start to “hear” voice.
    For me, if it sounds writerly, then it’s not your voice. When the words flow from the fingertips, when the writing seems to come ‘easy’, it’s likely your own voice shining through.
    I took it as a compliment when a reader who’d come to one of my library talks came up to me and said, “You sound just like your books.”

  7. Great post.

    I think honestyand bravery play a role in discovering your voice. You have to be brave enough to say what you really want to say via your characters and the story regardless of what others may think (e.g., your mother.) You have to search inside for the things you’re passionate about (either positively or negatively.)

    You have to have opinions… without giving all your characters the same opinions, but making those opinions theirs and consistent with who they are.

    I guess another thing is to trust that if you’re brave and honest, and assuming you know the craft and have a well structured story, you’ll eventually find your readers.

    If you tiptoe around, the reader can feel the lack of commitment AND you bury your voice.

  8. Great post, Sue. And I so admire you for taking on this subject, which is like trying to grab air. (or something…metaphor part of my voice not working well this morning).

    I want to add just one thing on the subject, a link to one of my favorite writer bloggers Chuck Wendig. http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2012/01/10/25-things-writers-should-know-about-finding-their-voice/

    WARNING: Don’t go read this if you are easily offended by blue language. It is very much a part of Chuck’s particular…ah….voice.

    • Thank you! When I posted to Facebook that I was guest posting with voice as my subject everyone told me to chose a different topic, but I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge.

      Thanks for the link. I’m a fan Chuck Wendig, too.

      • Wow. Amazing post. He really nailed it.

        Here’s one of my favorite lines: “Writers are at the outset a scared species. It’s not our fault: we’re told that it’s a bad idea and unless we want to prepare for a life lived inside a palatial piano crate we should just buckle down and become accountants. And so I think there’s a lot of bad psychic voodoo that clogs the works, and until we start to clear that out, it’s really hard to find out who we are on the page and what our voice looks and sounds like. Finding your voice is then synonymous with losing the fear of not just writing but of being a writer.”

        • Yup, I like that passage as well. You gotta believe in yourself. Which is one reason I hate that phrase some folk use “pre-published writer.” No…you’re a writer, period. Don’t add some wimpy qualifier. Own your dream.

          By the way, kudos on “Wings.” What a creepy cover, and I mean that in a good way!

  9. Once again PJ adds a great view on the subject… “it’s like trying to grab air.” From an instructional standpoint, it’s like trying to teach someone to grab air. After they’re herded a bunch of cats into a room with no doors.

    Voice is one of those know-it-when-we-read-it facets of craft. The trick is, I suppose, to know it when we write it, as well. A great starting point is to recognize solid voice in what we read, and then acknowledge what resonates, what appeals, what seems to echo our own voice preferences. Your book may strike many readers on that note alone, among many other virtues.

    Your new novel, “Wings of Mayhem,” is a great clinic on voice (among other virtues). Not only for your hero, but for other primary characters, as well. They are distinct, each with their own edge. You demonstrate the skills you’ve developed on your writing journey, other writers can certainly learn from you. Like so much relative to learning, though, the trick is to know what you’re supposed to notice, which many writers don’t (yet). One of the quickest routes toward developing voice is to notice and avoid the “clunker moments,” which aren’t all that common in published novels (their editors claw them out). Someone could make a killing offering a “Let me edit your voice” service, because when a writer isn’t “there” yet, it’s obvious, and quickly.

    Thanks for the shout out, too, Sue. Your addiction to craft is serving you well, and will take you higher.

    • Thanks, Larry. That means a lot coming from you. Hmm…you may be on to something with the “Let me edit your voice” service. I can envision writers lining up for miles.

      LOL My craft addiction. It sure is!

  10. Good post, Sue. Voice is so difficult to define, but you’ve done a good job. And a strong voice is one reason why editors buy books.

  11. Thank you! You have added more depth to my understanding of voice. And thanks for reminding me to keep it going in the narrative voice.

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