Your Novel in 13 Weeks, Part 6: How to Develop a Dynamite Writing Voice


I usually struggle with the “voice” of the novel at the beginning of it. I write and discard several beginnings before I finally find the way it wants to be told.

It’s not always true. The beginning of A Few Good Men came to me loud and clear while I was doing something totally different. The sentences were there, words and all:

The world celebrates great prison breaks. The French territories still commemorate the day in which the dreaded Bastille burst open before the righteous fury of the peasantry and disgorged into the light of day the innocent, the aggrieved, the tortured and the oppressed.

They forget that every time a prison is opened, it also disgorges, amid the righteous and innocent, the con artists, the rapists, the murderers and the monsters.

Monsters like me.

I knew who the character was at that moment, and what he meant, and the whole novel was right there in my mind.

I wish it were always that easy. My beginnings are usually so difficult that once I’ve got three chapters down I have done half the work needed for the novel.

And not only do I have a particular voice, composed of word choice, setting, and character, but each novel has a particular voice, a tone that brings it the most to life. Again, it is word choice, setting, character, and mood plus – in the beginning – setting the right hook to draw the reader in.

Imagine Tom Sawyer told in the tone of Wuthering Heights and you’ll see what the wrong voice can do to a novel.

Most books aren’t told in the wrong voice – not exactly.

My son is a singer. Not professional, but he sings around the house all the time.

If he knows we’re going to get upset at his singing – say I’ve already told him I have a splitting headache – he sings in a muted half-tone.

Most writing on the market is written in that muted half-tone.

The difference is hard to explain. Oh, the half-tone is obvious when my son is singing, but let’s step it up. Let’s say he’s singing while doing something else, not giving it his full attention. It still sounds pretty good. You might think that’s his best, until you hear him singing and putting his whole soul into it. And then you stand there in awe and go “oh, the other was a pale shadow.”

Writing is like that too, and until you see the real thing you might not realize the other is a ghost.

You get better at finding a book’s proper “voice” as you practice more. This is often observable in the writing of popular authors. (For this, it’s best to choose someone first published more than twenty years ago, when you were still allowed to serve your apprenticeship in print.) They were good enough – perhaps better than most people – when they first were published. But when you read early works, it’s like they’re singing through cloth. The voice you know and love is there, but somehow muted. It’s not till you get to their middle work, when they’re at their peak, that you get their full, glorious voice with no muting.

This process is normal. It’s also normal for the final books – particularly if the author was ill or very old – to meander or fail to “close” satisfactorily.

Of course, if you are the author, this can be a little more difficult to detect. After all, everything looks different from the inside.

So, how do you remove the muffling layers, and write in full volume and with full emotion?

I don’t know.

After 23 books published (and about 8 unpublished), I’ve learned enough that I can usually tell when I’m hitting full voice. Note the weasel word “usually.” Most of the time I know when the voice is doing what it’s supposed to do and hitting the right points to draw the reader right in. However, sometimes I’ll think it’s all wrong till I give it to one of my first readers, or else read it at a con. Every once in a while, the reaction to that “all wrong” book convinces me it’s in fact “all right.”

That mistake is more common in beginners. Kristine Kathryn Rusch once told me if you’re new to this and your voice seems bland and blah and is just sort of there, that means you’re writing in your full voice. Because it’s so normal to you, you don’t realize when you hit it.

This is why, if you’re struggling with a beginning, I recommend letting someone else have a look. They can see what you can’t. You can’t come at your own prose totally fresh. It’s just not possible.

But what if you’re struggling and you still can’t hit the right voice, and your readers confirm that “It’s okay but—” (which is normally how first readers explain “the voice isn’t quite right”)?

I am stuck there right now with Through Fire. I was trying to explain it to a friend, how it felt. “Imagine you’re trying to copy a classical sculpture – say the Venus de Milo. You know exactly what you’re aiming for, and you’ll know when you get there. But unfortunately the material you’re trying to use is melted cheese, and your only tool is a nail file.”

This metaphor works, because I know what “full voice” is supposed to sound like, I just don’t know how to build it with the materials at hand. It seems like I make a promising beginning, but the whole thing crumbles before I can shape it with the nail file. (This metaphor also allows you to say stuff like “I was stuck in the cheese again, today” at the kitchen table to confuse and amaze your family.)

So, suppose you are, so to put it, stuck in the cheese. What can you do to fix it, so your novel will properly hook the reader?

There are several techniques. The first and most common is to really try to put yourself in the place of your characters. And then change point of view. If you’ve been writing as an adult arguing with her spouse, try making it from the pov of the spouse… or of the child listening in.

I’m not recommending you change the entire way you want to do the novel, just try the experiment of writing the same scene from another pov. Facets will be revealed that weren’t there before, but, more importantly, it will show you what parts are needed and what aren’t, and how to go about pulling the two apart. Then when you go back to your real main character, you realize you can find the voice more easily. (And, of course, sometimes you find you had the wrong main character all along. Yes, it happens to plotters. Yes, it – still – happens to veterans who have been writing since even they were a toddler.)

The second most common technique is to begin elsewhere. Say your character is running from a serial killer. Wouldn’t it be much more suspenseful if you added a little prologue (I’m not one of the prologue-o-phobes. Just don’t call it that) or section with, say, someone discovering his last victim? Or just a short newspaper account of the crime scene? Knowing how bad the villain is will give your heroine’s escape more poignancy and help make the book more immediately accessible.

More common to beginning writers, though, is beginning too soon. You might think that you really need that dinnertime discussion of potatoes versus rice before the UFO lands on the roof, but do you really? Can the information on why the character is so hungry be given in mini flashbacks of a sentence here, a sentence there? Can you start with the crash as the UFO lands? Won’t that be more suspenseful?

Another thing you can do is change where the scene takes place. Say your novel starts with a marital argument. If your characters are arguing across the table in a restaurant, all the tension must come from the words, and the way they interact. But say you move it to a vehicle one of them is driving. Now, you can show the tension through abrupt (and perhaps dangerous) driving. It gives you one more tool to draw the reader in.

Other authors like to go in and cut out everything not absolutely essential: words, gestures, movements. In my case that is not always right. A lot of my books have a colloquial feel and need the few extraneous words or bits of setting. So be aware it’s not right for all books.begin, anyway!

Still, sometimes,none of this works. What then?

One of my friends suffers from first-chapter-itis. She’s been told so many times that first chapters are vital and how they must do all this work that she freezes on first chapters. Her first chapters tend to meander all over the place instead of getting to the point, and sometimes give completely the wrong impression what type of book this is.

I’ve learned not to say anything. I let her finish the book and then tell her, “Now, you see, the first chapter should match the book in this, this, and this way.” By that time she can usually also see it.

In the few times I couldn’t get the voice right till the book was finished, going back to redo the first chapter solved it. Well, almost every time.

With Darkship Renegades, on deadline, I let it go into the publisher still sure it wasn’t right. Three months later, as it was about to go to typeset, I realized what I had done wrong and sent in a new beginning. (Sometimes I wonder why my publishing house hasn’t set fire to me yet. I suspect the reason is that they’re either unusually merciful or I’ve driven them completely insane.)

In that case my difficulties were complicated by it being a sequel and my not being sure what the reader needed to know right up front to enjoy the book. Turns out it was far less than what I’d included.

So, if you absolutely can’t start a book right, do try to go past it. At some point you’ll relax and the voice of your voice in the particular version needed for that novel will come pouring out, and then you can go back and fix the beginning.

Most of all remember what a colleague of mine, David Weber, said at a science-fiction con back in 2007: You can make all sorts of mistakes, and your book can still be compelling. The most important thing is the voice. And the most important part of the voice is your confidence. If you’re sure that you can take the reader to the end of his journey and entertain him along the way, the reader will be too. If you waffle and hesitate, then the reader will think you aren’t very sure of your material. Readers want to feel they are in the hands of an experienced author, and will forgive almost anything if they are.

Now, as someone who often has to build her self-confidence daily, I can’t tell you how to acquire any, except by telling you, “If you don’t have it, fake it.” Put yourself in the mind of a really confident character, and let him tell the story. (Well, it works for me.)

Or just tell it anyway. You can always find the voice in revision.


image courtesy shutterstock / Aleks vF / Eric Isselee