Friday, January 14, 2011

The Writer's Voice

In a recent blog post, Books & Such agent, Wendy Lawton, commented, "And reading good books, fresh books, starts to infiltrate your own writing. You develop your voice by osmosis, not by technique."

That statement resonates with me.

Many years ago I showed a story I'd written to the members of a writing critique group I was part of in my early twenties. The story had been an art class project I did in high school (at the time I was more concerned with the illustrations and the book binding process/design we were exploring in class, than in the story itself). Anyway, years later I showed the story to my critique group, who by then were familiar with my (ahem) serious adult writing. One writer after reading the first page said, "I can already recognize your voice in this."

That was the first time I'd encountered the term voice applied to writing, yet I instinctively knew what he meant. So, I thought, I have a voice. That sounds like a good thing to have as a writer.

Fast forward a few years and through discoveries of many favorite fiction writers (Diana Gabaldon, Ellis Peters, Stephen Lawhead, Francine Rivers, Laura Frantz, Linda Nichols, Susanna Kearsely, James Alexander Thom, Charles Martin, too many others to name), and I began to see how each of these writers had influenced that thing called my voice. Over time my writing has taken on a slight nuance of one writer, a certain sense of humor shaded by another, a rhythm of sentence structure faintly reminiscent of yet another. 

There were times I worried that I was letting other writers influence me too much, but I don't worry about that anymore. Here's why: if I'm reading Ellis Peters or Charles Martin, for a few days my writing might reflect their voice in a more noticeable way, but given time that influence is going to sink down deeper and have a far more subtle affect than if I were trying to write like Peters or Martin or whomever.

I liken the process of developing a writing voice to taking vitamins. The pill is there for a moment on the tongue, then it's swallowed and becomes a part of the body, strengthening and enriching where it's needed. You can't see the vitamin, but you can see, and feel, its influence.

Just like our bodies are either strengthened or weakened by the foods we give them for fuel, our writing voices are affected by what we feed them, in the form of recreational reading.

If you are a writer then I encourage you to feed your voice with intention, with writing that's fresh, that has substance, that energizes you. Think of the books you read as nourishment, and (as mom would say) make good choices!

photo: cover for Books are for Reading, by Suzy Becker


  1. Excellent post, Lori. Like your vitamin analogy:) It really does work similarly. I remember as a teen reading copious amounts of Victoria Holt (and all her pseudonyms) and being able to turn out a page or two that sounded very much like her. I see/hear echoes of her in my work today. Then I didn't know she was training me:)

    I've always thought by reading better writers than myself (not hard) that my writing would improve and reflect that. You spend a lot of time, like me, with the best of the best. I was shocked to find my name above and am thrilled. Thanks so much for that.

    I've been mulling "voice" over for the past couple of weeks so it's interesting to see you've been thinking of it also. I've read some books lately where the author's voice is weak. The book may be well written in that the author knows her craft, but the book's tenor is such that it might be written by anyone at all. I think truly gifted writers have such a strong voice that it leaps off the page. What do you think?

  2. Laura, Absolutely. A strong voice will hook me and keep me reading a book when nothing much else about it should interest me, given my usual inclination in choosing novels. Conversely, if a novel's voice is weak, there has to be several other aspects that keep me reading, setting, time period, theme or subject matter. A strong, unique, or compelling voice is enough to tip the scale in a book's favor with me, even when all those other aspects are different than what usually attracts me to a book.

    And I do think what makes up a writer's voice is something unique of themselves, blended with all the writers that have influenced them along the way.

  3. Lori, I'm eager for your books to be on the shelves so I can get a taste of your Voice. From what I've read on your blog, I know it's a beautiful one.

  4. Keli, thank you. Notes like this are encouraging during this long time of waiting (that sometimes seems as endless as an 18th century forest). I hope it won't be too much longer until I can read something from you too!

  5. It's interesting because I love reading different voices. Just finished Mary Connealy's Sharpshooter in Petticoats and followed it with The Girl in the Gatehouse by Julie Klassen. Talk about night and day in the voice department! But I think I would recognize either author in a single sentence. Can't help wonder where that leaves me. Kind of a jumble in between if it infiltrates into my writing. LOL.

    I love that you encourage writers to read. I've been reading a lot about writers who are too busy to read and that scares me. I think I love to read more than I love to write so if it came down to having to sacrifice one for the sake of the other I'm afraid writing would go out the window!

  6. Kav, I love reading voices that are nothing like my own. Mary's is one such, because of her great sense of humor. The tone of my work is usually more serious, though there's an undertone of self-aware humor, sometimes wry, or even a little dark, that some have noticed. But the laugh out loud hilarity... I love to read it, partially in the hope it might one day rub off. :)

    I hope I never find myself in a place where time is at such a premium that I can't find enough of it in which to read (and not just the tons of research I'm always reading, but good storytelling too). Not reading feels like starving my creativity, and after a while my writing suffers.