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.