By John Morgan Wilson
Not long ago, when UCLA Extension asked me to teach a weekly class called “Developing Voice and Craft: The Keys to Successful Fiction Writing,” I immediately said yes. I’ve always felt that “voice” plays a crucial role in effective writing, and I’ve heard countless writers and editors say the same.
Only later, as I put together my ten-week program, did I realize how difficult it would be to identify and define voice, let alone teach it.
“You know it when you see it,” says mystery writer Margaret Maron, via e-mail, “but to describe and explain it is like trying to pick up quicksilver. Voice is what differentiates in the very first paragraph a Marcia Muller from a Sue Grafton, a Donald Westlake from a Craig McDonald.”
Whether you write in first or third person, the narration still needs an intangible quality – voice – that is confident and convincing. Just as each of us has a unique way of speaking and conversing aloud – developed from childhood – as writers we all have a way of “talking” to our readers, reflecting who we are and how we feel. Finding and strengthening that voice will be easier for some, more challenging for others.
“How does one discover and develop his or her writing voice?” Margaret asks. “I believe this is the hardest – if not impossible – thing to teach. You can teach plotting, you can teach characterization, you can teach pacing, but voice is too individual a quality. It arises out of the writer’s unique personality.”
Put another way, writer and narrator are inseparable, fused through voice.
“Voice is a reflection of the narrator’s personality,” author and teacher Naomi Hirahara suggests. “By the narrator, I don’t mean the writer or even your lead protagonist (even if you are writing in first person). Voice is your fictional prose persona, and it may differ with each non-series book you write.”
To author Denise Hamilton, voice is comprised of “the personality quirks that shine through the writing. It’s a fresh, original worldview. A voice to me is also the tone and mood you set, what you choose to zero in on and what you leave out.
“Unless you write a series,” she adds, “you will have to develop different voices. Some spring full-blown to me, others I have to tinker with and rewrite a lot. I try to see the world through [the narrators’] eyes, channel how they would speak.”
“I personally have been impacted by Chester Himes and Walter Mosley, two men who are masters of voice,” Naomi says. “Their prose style, their physical descriptions, dialogue, and metaphors are informed by the type of stories they want to tell.”
In my classes, I often cite a passage from Mosley’s Black Betty, the fourth in his acclaimed Easy Rawlins mystery series, as an example of an authoritative and compelling voice:
You could tell by some people’s houses that they came to L.A. to live out their dreams. Home is not a place to dream. At home you had to do like your father did and your mother. Home meant that everybody already knew what you could do and if you did the slightest little thing different they’d laugh you right down into a hole. You lived in that hole. Festered in it. After a while you either accepted your hole or you got out of it.
There were all kinds of ways out. You could get married, get drunk, get next to somebody’s wife. You could take a shotgun and eat it for a midnight snack.
Or you could move to California.
To me, that’s a narrator – and a writer – who knows who he is and what he wants to say, and says it in a powerful voice that compels us to keep reading.
“Good plotting and fast action can cover a multitude of sins,” Margaret says. “But a book that lacks an individual voice doesn’t entice me to pick it up again once I’ve put it down the first time.”
As with style, I don’t think you can force a particular voice on your work. If you write enough, it will eventually reveal itself to you. It’s like a muscle: The more you write, the stronger it gets. The less you write, the weaker it is.
Naomi agrees: “The only way to develop your voice is to write. And write and write. Through this process, hopefully a compelling fictional narrator will emerge. We all know storytellers who can make even the most mundane tales interesting. We need to identify that storyteller within our self.
“Most importantly, don’t try to imitate someone else’s voice or disparage your own style because you feel that it is sub par. Developing our voice is like raising children – we need to accept natural predilections.”
Denise suggests experimentation: “I would do exercises, writing from different points of view. A snarky teenager, a cop, a kid, a gardener.”
Ultimately, it will be your voice – the distinctive way your express yourself on the page – that will set your work apart from the rest.
“I recently read a manuscript by a beginning author,” Margaret says. “It will never be published. The plot is a mess, the motivation is flawed, he has a less than firm grasp of punctuation. But that voice! If he can get the other parts working, he will definitely find a publisher and a readership.”
John Morgan Wilson won an Edgar for his first novel, Simple Justice, recently reissued by Bold Strokes Books along with three other early Benjamin Justice mysteries. Spider Season, the eighth novel in the series, has just been published by St. Martin’s Minotaur. For details, visit johnmorganwilson.com.
This article originally appeared in InSinC, the national newsletter of Sisters in Crime (sistersincrime.org).