Business Musings: Serious Writer Voice

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I’ve been doing a lot of editing this past year. I’ve edited a collection of women in science fiction stories for Baen Books called Women of Futures Past, after I couldn’t find my favorite stories so that I could give them to my science fiction class students. John Helfers and I are co-editing the Best Mysteries of the Year (no official title yet) for Kobo’s publishing arm. With Dean Wesley Smith, I act as series editor for Fiction River.

I’m also doing several other, smaller projects and—oh, yeah—I read short stories for pleasure.

I usually don’t binge as much as I have in the past few months. I did so primarily because John and I started our project late. (It’s the first volume, and not everything got finalized right away.) So I read fiction magazine after fiction magazine, anthology after anthology.

I noted something as I read. Most of the stories had the same voice and tone. What do I mean by that? I mean they read like they’d been written by the exact same person.

It was always a joy—it is always a joy—to “hear” a new voice, a voice that doesn’t sound like anyone else. I could tell without looking at the byline when I hit a Joyce Carol Oates or Megan Abbot or Michael Connelly story. The Strand found an original F. Scott Fitzgerald story and published it last year, and Fitzgerald’s voice—unlike any other—came through loud and clear.

A lot of the stories I read this past year had wonderful plots. They had great characters and lovely twists. The stories were published, remember, and so they all had something unusual, something strong.

But that something generally wasn’t voice.

And now I’m reading manuscripts for an anthology that should be all voice. Every story should sound so different from every other story as to be unrecognizable. Think of it like accents or word usage: As I read, I should be seeing Texas accents and idioms in one story, Australian accents and idioms in the next, and Scottish accents and idioms in the next.

Instead, I get mostly what I call “serious writer voice.”

Serious writer voice is carefully bland. It will include a few setting details, some nice descriptions, maybe a few unique words. But mostly, it is indistinguishable from any other voice. Rather like the way we used to train broadcasters in this country.

When I started on the radio, I was fortunate enough to have the perfect accent, because broadcasters were trained to speak like a Midwesterner. (Middle Midwest, if you want to be specific—more Central Illinois than Northern Minnesota or Southern Missouri.) Now, if you listen, you’ll hear broadcasters with Georgia accents, and broadcasters with Brooklyn accents. They actually sound like human beings these days—with correct grammar (most of the time) but varied delivery.

Like broadcasters of old, writers have been trained to sound the same. Serious writer voice stories have paragraphs that are of uniform length, sentences that rarely have contractions, a lot of passive voice (!), and very few conjunctions. Things like dashes and parenthesis are used judiciously—as in so rarely that most stories don’t even have them.

All the tools that writers should have in their grammarian’s toolbox—the tools that make writers “sound” different—well, most writers don’t know they exist. It’s as if writers try very hard to build a house using a hammer, nails, some wood, and a saw. No screwdriver, no wrench, no metal, no PVC pipes, nothing. Just the same four things over and over again, whether they fit or not.

This new anthology that I’m reading for right now (and no, I am not accepting any unsolicited manuscripts. Don’t even ask) requires every tool in the toolbox. Writers should be using ellipsis and dashes. They should be misusing certain English words because these writers are supposed to be writing from the point of view of someone who either doesn’t speak the language or who thinks in a totally different way (as in thinks in colors instead of words). Descriptions should be varied. Perspective should be skewed.

Instead, I’m seeing the same paragraph length, a few commas, some periods, and the same words. Very few conjunctions, and almost no adverbs. The stories are good enough, I suppose, but they’re not exciting. Even the fresh original ideas I’m coming across feel like they’re old hat because the writers have learned to use “serious writer voice” instead of their own voices.

With some projects, voice doesn’t matter much. When I was reading for the mystery volume, the lack of diverse voices bothered me, but didn’t detract from the stories much. Would I prefer an actual voice to “serious writer voice”? Absolutely. I’m sure there were stories I didn’t include in the best-of list that I sent to John because those stories, while clever, had a coating of bland.

Think of it this way: imagine someone telling you a story. That person, who uses his own voice creatively—mimicking accents, raising his voice when someone’s shouting, using different tones for different characters—will hold your attention with his performance as well as his story.

Then think of the same story told like this: the person stands in front of the room, uses no gestures, and speaks in a monotone. Sometimes, you can hear the story anyway. But most of the time, you have to struggle to pay attention, because that monotone is deadly.

Most of what I read these days—things that are published, both traditionally and indie—are written in the stylistic equivalent of that monotone.

Is there a reason this is happening? Absolutely.

Writers workshop their manuscripts. They have their friends (usually unpublished or poorly published) writers go over the manuscript. Those friends impose really weird rules on the writers. I’ve seen lists of these rules. The rules tend to vary depending on where the writer learned them. (If you want to see more on the problems with workshops, look at my book The Pursuit of Perfection or read the blog posts for free starting here.)

If the writer went to, say, Clarion Writers Workshop, he’ll follow a slightly different set of rules than if he went to the Iowa Writers Workshop. Some of the rules are truly idiosyncratic to some local workshop, and some are governed by the Big Name Writer who started the workshop back when she was a lowly beginner.

The rules are usually couched in absolutes:

Do not use conjunctions in narrative.

Do not jump from one point of view to another without a line break.

Do not mix first person and third person in the same novel.

Every paragraph must have a topic sentence.

Do not list more than three things in a row.

Do not repeat a word (other than “the” or “and”) on the same page.

Avoid parallel structure.

Do not use clichés.

The workshops often have their own jargon. For example, many workshops say that writers should never use “said-bookisms”—meaning words other than “said.”

And yet, words other than “said” can be very valuable.

Look at the economy of this sentence: “I love you,” she lied.

Now compare that to “I love you,” she said. She was lying.

The first example has punch and verve. The second example is in “serious writer voice.” Yeah, it more or less says the same thing, but it also flattens the voice and mutes the power of the very idea—all because the writer is trying to follow some stupid rule, repeated by some teacher or workshop leader who had no idea how boneheaded that advice is.

At lunch today, Dean was telling me about writers who’ve been trained not to “head-hop.” That’s another workshop jargon term, one I recognize from Clarion. What it means is that the writer must follow strict point-of-view rules. The writer cannot change points of view in the middle of a narrative. If the writer changes points of view, the writer must white-space and make it very clear to the reader that now someone else is providing the story’s perspective.

I remember hearing that rule at Clarion and being told in no uncertain terms that writers who violate the head-hopping rules will never ever ever sell a book. At the time, I was reading a lot of Nora Roberts. She changes points of view in the middle of a sentence, sometimes head-hopping through three or four characters in one short paragraph.

She does it so well that most readers never notice. In fact, the readers appreciate the head-hopping, because Nora anticipates what the reader wants. Just as the reader is thinking I wonder what the hero thinks about this?, Nora switches to the hero’s point of view. And as he responds the events, and the reader wonders What’s the bad guy thinking?, Nora switches to the bad guy’s perspective.

No one ever told her to avoid head-hopping or if they did, she ignored them.

She’s not the only one. The best writers use every tool in the toolbox. If a scene calls for jumping from one point of view to another without a white space, the writer should do so. If the best way to show a character’s shallowness is to have the guy speak only in clichés, then the writer should use the clichés.

And so on.

But this training—this overworkshopping that writers have done over the years—has really destroyed individual voices. Without an individual voice, a great story idea becomes a good story. Just good. Not brilliant, not memorable, not even worth mentioning to other readers.

Usually, I accept “serious writer voice” as the price of being a voracious reader. I’m going to read competent published stories more often than I’ll read good published stories.

But I’ve been digging a lot into old anthologies, volumes of stories written fifty years ago, before the rise of workshops in every small town in the world. Those anthologies never have stories written with “serious writer voice.”

The voices are all different, and often quite powerful. There is no uniformity of tone, although the stories are sometimes ridiculous or the attitudes inside those voices often grate. I hadn’t realized how bland everything had become until I started reading the older stuff.

It takes a lot of courage to stand out as a writer. It’s easier to vet your stories through a workshop, even if the workshop is made up of people who know absolutely nothing about having a literary career. It’s safer to make sure that everyone approves of your story than it is to write something that makes people mad.

Because if you start writing in your real voice, if you start practicing different sides of the craft, if you figure out what every tool in the toolbox is, you’ll start making people angry. Particularly other writers.

A few weeks ago, some of the professional writers who meet every Sunday for lunch were laughing over Amazon reviews. You can always tell a review written by a writer who has swallowed the workshop Kool-Aid. Those writers will criticize Nora Roberts for head-hopping, or say that it’s pretty clear that a three-year-old Michael Connelly novel is “an early work” because he uses contractions in his narrative.

Writers are the only ones who care about that stuff, because they’ve learned to read critically instead of reading for enjoyment. If the writers were reading for enjoyment, they would know that what they saw as flaws were actually the presence of a master, using all of the available tools.

If you write in your own voice, you will discover one thing: readers will react. Some readers will hate your work with a fiery passion. Others will adore your work with equal passion.

That’s the great thing about original writing: it incites a strong response. No one will ever call your writing competent or bland. They’ll have an opinion about it, and that opinion will be as strong as your stories, as strong as your voice.

Here’s the thing about voice, though, folks. Your voice will seem bland to you. It will feel “obvious” or somewhat dull. Because it’s your voice. You’ve heard it in your head since the moment you became conscious. So it will seem normal to you.

“Serious writer voice” feels like a writing voice—something other. And if you’re writing something other rather than writing something that feels normal, then you’re writing competent to good stories. But you’ll never write something great.

You’ll never inspire the kind of passion that creates lifelong fans. You’ll sell. You’ll do all right. But you won’t write anything truly memorable.

And, speaking as a reader, I think that’s a shame.

Craft is part of the business. Craft is also something writers can learn. Dean and I teach advanced craft workshops for established writers, some in person here on the Oregon Coast, and some online. UPDATE 2/5: After seeing all the comments below, Dean and I decided to teach a workshop we’d been talking about. The Author Voice Workshop. More information here:

In my opinion, writing is like any other profession: the writers should always take continuing education courses. Whether those courses are actual classes, taught by writers farther down the road you want walk, or whether they’re classes in business or other aspects of the entertainment industry, or whether they’re something the writer compiles from a variety of TED talks and podcasts, they’re all worth a writer’s time.

Some of you use this blog as continuing education. I do too. I love hearing from people, and I appreciate the ideas many of you send in email.

I also appreciate the donations, which keep me blogging every week.

Thank you for all of your support!

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“Business Musings: Serious Writer Voice,” copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2016 by Canstock Photo/Forewer.

72 thoughts on “Business Musings: Serious Writer Voice

  1. I wrote a story with the voice of Lord Dunsany and, to a lesser extant, H.P. Lovecraft trying to sound like Dunsany. It’s fun to emulate the masters. I like to think that each of my stories has its own voice, Great article!

  2. I’m a forever writing, forever unpublished writer in the process of leaving the critique group route and planning to look for workshops and classes instead. Maybe not a great idea. I have two questions:

    When you break rules (I’m sick of looking for synonyms to avoid using the same word on a page) are you also limiting your chances of finding a publisher?
    My voice sounds boring and I can’t seem to write different voices for different characters. How do you know if your voice is just the one that was trained way back in school, is really boring, or just sounds that way because you are so used to it?

  3. Ann R. Allen, thank you for this wonderful article. Kudos to YOU.

    This is perhaps the BEST article on ‘writer’s voice’ I have read to date. You have put your finger on one of the BIGGEST problems in the writing world.

    “Conformity —to “approved writer’s voice” —pre-conceived, arbitrary, ‘rules’ insisted upon by so-called ‘editors’ and ‘people who MUST know because they say so; and ‘the self-righteous of the written word’…’Queen Critique and the court of jesters’ et al — you get the idea.

    With all due respect to the GOOD editors out there (because there ARE some) there are FAR too many people out there using ‘commandeered ‘authority’ –resulting in a population of arrogant, pre-formatted, cookie-cutter editors who not only do not understand the English language, dialogue, dialect or word usage, but some cannot even ‘get’ a story line or characterization. THEN they do a VERY poor job of editing and may actually introduce errors in their attempt to turn YOUR unique writing voice into a pale custard copy of commercial play-dough. Bland. Mild. Politically-correct. ‘Feel-good’. Like their own. Some are too lazy to bother with correct punctuation, and OH, MY, DON’T WE ALL KNOW it is a cardinal SIN to use ITALICS….

    It is little wonder there is so much pathetic, BORING writing being ‘produced’. YOUIR article, Anne R. Allen, should be required reading for all EDITORS and writers. Again, Kudos to you, I have bookmarked this article for reference AND encouragement for the future. Perhaps there is hope yet…

    pst…I have two published novels out there…

  4. I’ve been a non-fiction (mostly academic) writer my entire adult life. I just started a journey to fulfill a life-long dream to write fiction. I’ve spent the last two week devouring “rules” and trying to get up to speed on things like POV and other literary conventions. I’m drowning. The more rules I read, the more I feel like I can’t write. This just freed me. Thank you.

  5. I just had this problem on a non-fiction project. I intentionally used voice to try and make some of my dry subject matter more approachable. That doesn’t work so well when every “let’s” in the manuscript becomes an overwrought “let us.”

    Sprinkling some random em-dashes in some random sentences appeared to be another favorite past-time of this particular copy-editor.

    And don’t even get me started on the willy-nilly deletion of line breaks and other such nincompoopery, making key points that I was trying to punch out get lost in a morass of detail.

    My response to the publisher? Redact all of the changes.

  6. I don’t read much writing about writing these days — too much is online BS by people parroting bad advice, and I’m too busy writing and ferrying my kids around — so I came late to this dialogue. Kris is spot on with this, but I would still distinguish writers with style from newbies who break “rules” because they don’t have a clue and probably not a voice either. Or, perhaps, the voice of contemporary semi-literacy. I would also add a footnote about changing fashions. As someone who has been writing and editing professionally for over a half century, I have seen many rules and styles and rules about style come and go. What was preferred or acceptable in the 1960s when I sold my first piece is quite different from what is expected today. As an art and craft, writing evolves, which is not necessarily the same as progress, but it is part of the context in which we write. As Kris argues, continuing ed is part of the job of the writer. I have learned something from trying on some of the new “workshop wisdom” even when I am not convinced that it is always well-founded. For example, from the fashionable Elmore Leonard school of dialogue that minimizes speech tags and allows only “said,” I have extracted a fresh focus on the actual words and how they are strung together by my characters. So, the “rule” may be wrong or too rigid, but the exercise can still be useful in our ongoing evolution and education as writers.

    I think I have found my voice as a writer — five decades ought to be enough — but, just as I sometimes raise my voice or speak solemnly or flippantly with my teenagers, my voice on the page is not always the same. I believe that part of my continuing education is to keep stretching myself as a writer, to try other genres or new styles, experiment with POV, push into unplowed topical territory. At 73, I am comfortable with who I am as a writer, but I still believe in what might be learned or accomplished by stepping outside my comfort zone.

    For the younger or less experienced writer for whom the comfort zone is creative chaos, that might include walking the narrow line of “rules” that might not be right and might not last.

    –Larry Constantine (pen name, Lior Samson)

  7. That lack of contractions has become a pet peeve for me. Do you know where that came from?

    I was just telling a couple of friends what you said about not being able to hear your own voice (because it’s the voice you hear in your head). I gave you credit, but they still thought I was brilliant. Works for me. That insight is the best thing I was ever taught. Until then, I thought I had no voice, and it really bothered me!

    I don’t headhop, though. To me, it’s like, say, a ban saw. It’s a powerful tool. I recognize its utility. But I also know that my trying to use it is likely going to end in tears. It’s going to take some more skill before I wield that bad boy. And my stories tend more toward handtools. But if I find the story that needs it, I’ll stock up on bandaids and dive in.

  8. Don’t use conjunctions in narrative? What? I’ve never heard this. Is this a new thing — within the last 10 years or so?

    I’ve heard you’re not supposed to start a sentence with “And” or “But”, which I do all the time. 😉

  9. I don’t know. I’ve been in some fifteen writing workshops over the course of an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in publishing, and I’ve never seen the rules mentioned in this article. Not even once. I’m sure there are bad workshops out there, but the experience described above has not been my experience. In fact, I’ve had several that were the exact opposite with workshop leaders and professors who encourage unique voice and original writing. Maybe I’ve just been lucky.

  10. Well, I guess it’s a good thing that a) I’ve never workshopped anything, ever, and b) I always worry that my writing sounds bland. Theoretically, it really could be bland. Or maybe I’m just writing in my own unique voice all the time. 🙂

    Kris, forgive me if you’ve talked about this in the past, but what’s your stance on the number of drafts a writer does? I’ve seen some people mention doing ten or more (which I think is ridiculous!) while others say they do a rough draft, a quick edit of that draft, then put their writing out into the world. That feels like too little to me, but it could just be that I’ve internalized stupid “rules” from reading too many writing advice websites!

    1. I have talked about this, Natalie. Dean talks about it all the time on his blog. Take a look at Heinlein’s Rules on his blog. Generally, 3 drafts. Draft one–the actual draft. Draft two–add or remove some things, clarify things your first reader found (not a writer first reader–an actual non-writing reader). Draft three–spellcheck. Write and release. Writing is a craft. You can be the writer who has written one story over five years or you can be a writer who learns by doing. Doing isn’t rewriting. It’s writing new words. (That’s why I suggest the perfection book/blogs.) I hope that helps.

  11. What I try to do when I am writing fiction is to approximate how I sound when I speak. I think the more casual conversational style of the narration fits the style of my hero (my current WIP is a first-person novel). I have had some people comment on the fact that the style seems unsuitable for a written work, but I don’t want to sound like an academic paper in my narration. If I want to do that, I’ll write up a couple of research projects I have done.

    Of course, I am not sure that is precisely what you are talking about when you discuss “voice,” but I am deliberately violating some of the “must-nots” you have above. In particular, I use a fair number of contractions, even outside dialog, because it just seems stilted if I don’t.


    1. I think there’s a lot to that. My most successful stories all start as dictation during my commute (one hour each way). I have a story that will be in multiple year’s best collections this year, and it is almost a word-for-word transcription of one fifty-minute dictation session. I cleaned it up a bit and tweaked the ending based on first reader feedback, but other than that it’s exactly the story I told myself in my car.

  12. This was timely for me. I’m doing edits on a novel going to a “new to me” publisher and house style requires that I strip all semi-colons and ellipses, as well as a few phrases like “..and then…” (which they will allow in some dialogue.) All of those things affect the flow of the narrative so it stings a little to do it. Later, I may advocate for my semi-colons…

    Thank you!

    1. I’d run from this publishing company. If you can’t, then you should fight for every semi-colon and ellipsis. It’s your book, under your name. You didn’t sign away your moral rights, did you? If not, then I’d take my name off the book if they don’t allow you to put the book in your voice and style. In case you can’t guess, I think this is horrible. You need to stand up for yourself here. (And make sure you don’t sign with them again.)

    2. Indeed! I often claim to have semicolonitis, infected by reading too much Tolkien (as if t were possible to read too much Tolkien). In the future I shall more zealously defend my use of semicolons!

  13. Thank you for the cogent info. I read the “blurbs” carefully, for just this reason. If I’m looking at a physical book, and I’m unsure, I turn to a “middle page,” and read one or two. Fail to get my attention, and back it goes. (I skip 10-20% at blurb stage.) .Ut’s the PC books that usually fail the test, sigh. I posted this to my FB wall, and Fantasy and SF writers groups on LI. Should get a few more readers/contributors.

  14. Thanks so much for writing this – I’m bookmarking it to send to people because I swear I’ve tried to explain this concept to people a few hundred times (not like I do it successfully all the time, but I at least don’t sit and chant rules to myself under my breath while sitting down to write) …and I just can’t seem to articulate it well. Now I don’t have to. I’ll just send them to you. 🙂

  15. Great job on this, Kris. I’ve been in a writing funk lately, critical voice found a back door in my defenses. Little bit of a health crisis didn’t help much, either. This might get me typing again. Thank you.

  16. I always wanted to be the writer who produces the kind of story where the reader just has to go back and reread it again. I have a few of those books in my library, and none of them are later than 2000. It’s disappointing because I want to read books that make me want to stay up into the night to finish because I don’t want to leave it until the next day. I want a book where I get to the end, and I immediately want to reread it because I don’t want to let the story go quite yet. Even writers that I have previously enjoyed have seemed to fall into the same hole. There was one writer that I would have read forever. The voice–it just did something for me. I’d go down to the bookstore (before ebooks) and see if the next book was out, take it home, and read it from cover to cover. She still writes. The voice is gone. I’m not sure what’s in its place. I don’t even check her books out from the library any more because they just remind me of what she once was.

  17. Some of the best advice I ever got from you and Dean was to stop workshopping my stories. At that point, I was getting nothing but rejections, so I had nothing to lose. I was on the verge of giving up writing. So I gave it a shot. One shot.

    That story became my first Finalist in Writers of the Future.

    Since then, I have a handful of trusted First Readers. They make a few suggestions, and I adapt them or ignore them as I choose. And I’m selling short fiction on a regular basis. I don’t know if I have a distinctive voice or not, but I know that writing this way is more fun and more relaxing.

  18. Alle-effing-lulah! Finally someone’s got it. All these workshops, gurus, books on writing etc… have been choking the living crap out of writing, which is why it lags behind other art forms in terms of innovation.

    Writers should be guided by their guts not by a desire to conform. The number of times I’ve had ‘vigorous discussions’ with people who think their writing is beyond reproach because they’ve followed rules laid down for the most part by people who couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper bag…

    You rock. And long may you continue to do so.

  19. Once again, you hit the nail on the head (to use a cliche this daughter of a carpenter has always loved) and identified exactly what has always made me uneasy in critique groups and creative writing classes. Although I’ve made valuable friendships and contacts through the local writers group scene, I finally had to quit going to meetings. I credit your Pursuit of Perfection book with helping me kick the habit. I ordered a copy a few years back and re-read it whenever I have doubts about my writing.

    I think many of us (myself included, at least when I was younger) have an illusion of security when there are clear rules for activities, an illusion we don’t want to relinquish because the alternative, loss of control, seems too scary. It’s an ancient push-pull in the human psyche. Social psychology calls it the just-world bias, the idea that if you just follow the rules, whatever those rules are, nothing bad will happen to you. Which, of course, is hogwash. But very powerful hogwash. It explains why, when my mom had lymphoma, otherwise intelligent people would say stupid things like “Did you eat too much mayonnaise?” Because, of course, we all know over-consumption of mayonnaise causes cancer. If you just avoid mayonnaise, you will live forever.

    This is a particularly pernicious attitude to overcome when one attempts to become a writer or artist or musician or enter any field that doesn’t have the illusionary security of a 9 to 5 job, any field that demands subjectivity and individual judgment. We ponder the vast colorful chaos of our own imaginations, and many of us want to run screaming back to the false safety of objective rules. So we follow any voice that purports to have authority, even if that voice is leading us straight to the grinder to come out the other side in uniform patties, indistinguishable from the other little mouseburgers.

  20. This pretty much sums up why I avoided all writer workshops. I saw from my wife’s experience in workshops that writers ended up writing to satisfy the group. I had lots to learn, lots to develop, but not until I got my voice down. I recognized early on that my voices is the only unique thing that I’ve got. Maybe it’ll never be unique enough or strong enough or noteworthy enough, but that’s what I’ve got to work with.

  21. This is a large reason why I hesitate to read how-to-write books anymore. So many of them are chock full of these “rules.” It’s become like gospel.

    I just finished rereading Stephen King’s SALEM’S LOT. I first read it in high school, so it was neat to revisit. That man breaks every one of the “rules” out there. POV all over the place, including whole chapters in omniscient, dipping in here and there to report on the town’s various residents, its history, and the weather. It also reminded me of his UNDER THE DOME. There’s one point where King uses a floating point of view that includes the reader. It goes something like, “And then we float by the traffic light and down the street where we see an old newspaper caught against the curb…” (I made that up, but it’s pretty much exactly like that.)

    Could you imagine what a critique group would do to King?

    As far as Nora Roberts’ use of “head-hopping,” I read an interview with her once a long time ago where the interviewer asked about it. Her answer essentially was that when she started writing she’d never heard that she wasn’t supposed to do that, so she just went ahead and wrote it the way she felt it should go. Which, I think, kind of squelches that whole idea of, “Only do this or that if you know how to do it ‘correctly’.” Roberts didn’t have any kind of technique mastered before she did that. She wrote that way because it made sense and came naturally.

  22. Not using the same word twice is just STUPID. If I write a page on where I’m sitting now, do I have to say “couch, sofa, davenport, chesterfield” like I swallowed Roget’s?

    I do prefer new writers to start a new line when changing POV. Just b/c La Nora can do it doesn’t mean you can.

    Not using contractions is ridiculous. It makes the narrative seem like business or scientific writing (or worse, political!) and that’s dull. It also looks like English isn’t the writer’s first language, which comes across as stilted. If I don’t see “don’t, wasn’t, he’s, they’re”, I think the writer isn’t comfortable with the language, or is Cmdr. Data. 🙂 I mean, we all know what the narrative is, it’s the part outside quotation marks.

  23. Thanks for this, Kris, I’ve been looking for a good descriptive phrase for this. I was recently judging a contest and one of the titles really stood out. It was on the lower middle end of the spectrum for craft, but it had voice. It was a storyteller working their craft and I enjoyed it immensely, despite not particularly liking the sub-genre, and it received my highest score of the lot.

    I like to think of it as constantly doing my damnedest to make a “Matt-shaped hole in the wall” when I write. If anything drives me away from “serious writer voice,” it’s that phrase.

  24. What a great post. After pouring through Dean’s Sacred Cows series and taking James Patterson’s Masterclass I realized there are only two “real” rules to writing:

    #1: Write words
    #2: Make them interesting

    If someone tells me a rule but I can find at least one popular book that breaks that rule, then it was never actually a rule.

  25. My son picked up a copy of one of my books, saw a parenthesis and proclaimed it “Crap! Because parenthetical asides are juvenile.” Or something like that. (He’s a 24 year old philosophy major know-it-all. I do hope he’ll grow out of it soon.) I ignored him. The most frequent (positive) comment I get on my books is how much people like my narrative voice.

    I just finished re-reading Silence of the Lambs. It was the first time I read it as a reader/writer instead of just as a reader, and I was surprised to see how often he head hopped and switched tenses mid-paragraph. He made it work and it was always clear what he was doing and why. It’s not a bad book to look at if you want to see good ways to break those “rules.”

    Thanks, Kris. I always knew there was a good reason to avoid writers workshops and critique groups. My beta readers often ding me for my voice, and I do give their comments serious consideration to be sure I’m breaking rules for the right reasons as opposed to just breaking them because I can. Sometimes I make changes. Sometimes I just thumb my nose at them. 🙂

  26. I’ve been reading some short stories lately written in what I call “English major” voice. Either the flow of the narrative was fractured in what seemed to me an attempt to make the story really cryptic and hence more “literary” or it was so studded with imagery that the story was clunky and self-conscious. Now I could be projecting because I am a former English major, mostly recovered, and I used to write a bit like this. I thought then that if the story was easy to read or if it didn’t have evocative imagery in every paragraph than it wasn’t literary. shakes head

  27. Wow. Talk about turning “conventional wisdom” on its ear.

    I understand what you’re saying, but how do you get there from here? A writer has to learn craft, but every time I take a class or read a craft book, there are the “rules.” I’ve learned some are nonsense. (Adverbs are bad.) But some have (I think) improved my writing. (Avoid writing passive sentences. See if you can rephrase them as active.)

    You’re right about head-hopping. Some writers do it very well. As a reader, I’m never confused or jarred out of the story by their writing. (Unless it’s my writer self analyzing the fact that it is head-hopping.) But new writers often confuse me with it. So there has to be some “rule” that new writers can learn so they do it better. No?

    I think voice is one of the hardest things to develop. Yours is the best description of what it is that I think I’ve read.

    I think I’m at the awkward teenager stage of writing. I’m no longer a beginner. I don’t fit in with critique groups because they’re mostly filled with new writers trying to enforce all the rules. But I’m not an advanced professional, confident enough in what I’m writing to just put it through a copyedit. I don’t have a trusted reader and can’t seem to find one.

    I’ve re-read all your workshop descriptions on Dean’s site, but nothing seems to address this issue of Voice and style. Do you have any suggestions?

      1. Just because, I went to Dean’s blog first thing this morning. Then I burst out laughing because of the announcement of the new Voice workshop. I’ll be signing up. Just have to figure out where to steal the money from.

  28. Wait, people are told to AVOID parallelism? WT… [sighs and shakes head] That explains some patterns I’ve noticed, but it doesn’t make sense.

    Then again, the justifications for literal application of all that never/always advice tends to not make sense, because it’s necessarily built out of a faulty premise in order to make it an absolute rather than a generalization, even when the generalization’s accurate. (Example: “All sentences must start with a capital letter.” Usually true. But not entirely true.)

    I readily admit to advising folks to learn to avoid head-hopping…IFF they’re doing it accidentally. Because the writer can’t use a tool they don’t even know exists, and limited PoV vs. omniscient PoV vs. head-hopping are all distinctly different things. Besides, head-hopping is more difficult to do well (clearly, without causing confusion) than folks tend to realize when they’re still figuring out how to put words on the page that convey what’s in their heads. I’ve found it’s fastest to teach folks how to avoid it…then show them how it can actually benefit a scene to use, namely in the sandwich technique. (As an intro or outro for a scene; it’s the most applicable method across genres, plus gives a guideline for folks who need rules to build comfort and confidence while those who work better off springboards can jump as far as they want.) Beyond that, I’ll alert a writer that some reviewers will b**** about it but remind them that it’s a legitimate technique to use, so their choice to keep or leave.

    I tend to have writing groups more focused on “Hey, is this a typo or on purpose? Purpose? Cool.” It occurs to me that my writing voice probably has something to do with that. (…I’m the type of person sees a writing rule of thumb and finds the exceptions, so I naturally piss off folks who want to follow “the Rulez”.)

  29. Excellent stuff. I’m hoping there will soon be a DWS workshop to help all of us ex-critique groupers to go cold-turkey with the serious writer voice. I think I’m still suffering from that.

    This makes me feel (somewhat) better about an editorial review I got where the reviewer said he didn’t much like my voice. Means at least he thought I had one.

  30. This is so cool. I have the worst time with this, maybe because I’m not advanced in skill enough, or maybe because I’m so used to slipping into “Serious Writer Voice” to write, but I can NOT for the life of me identify my own voice. It might be the one I use when I’m blogging, but I can’t be sure of that. Not really.

    I know EXACTLY what this looks like on others, though, which is annoying. I had a writer friend who could blog with her own voice, and it was engaging and wonderful and fun. But she didn’t have any of that voice in her stories, which were nowhere near as fun to read. I tried once to encourage her to write like she blogged but I don’t know if she ever tried that or not.

    But for myself, it’s the worst thing ever to discover. What the heck does my voice sound like?! Very frustrating. (I do not, however, workshop my stories. Never have. Never thought writing by committee was a good idea.)

    Does one of your workshops online cover this particular skill, Kris? I’d LOVE to learn to do this, if for no other reason, than to see what people think of my own voice, versus my “writing voice.”

    Off to check the WMG Workshop page!

      1. Oh, thank you Kris! Now to take that new workshop you and Dean are putting together and learn HOW to write in my blogging voice (which, of course, I don’t like, ha!)!

      2. Some 65 years ago, as a college sophomore, I enrolled in the Professional Writing program created by Walter S. Campbell and Foster-Harris at the University of Oklahoma (which numbers among its graduates Louis L’Amour, Bill Gulick, and Tony Hillerman). I stayed with it for the remainder of my time at OU. It was the first, and last, formal training in the craft I ever took. During the first introductory course, Prof. Campbell repeatedly told us “Don’t worry about style. Your individual style is as unique as your fingerprints, and you can’t do anything to change it.” He also during that course taught me, in a brief after-class conversation, a four-word formula for writing non-fiction that kept me going ever since — but despite Foster’s patience, it took me until just a couple of months ago to make my first fiction sale.

        I see, these days, exactly what you describe. Great to see it out in the open! Keep telling we beginners what Prof. Campbell pounded into me so long ago. At least a few of us will take it to heart.

  31. Thank you for this post. It crystallizes my thoughts on a lot of the problems I sensed but couldn’t fully identify in my own writing.
    I do think you left out one other source of “serious writer voice” – every schoolroom in America, which tried (and mostly succeeded) in grinding off every spiky, unusual bit of voice in my writing. I became very good at academic writing which demands “serious writer voice.” Now that I’m out of academia, again, I’m trying to find my creative voice once more. I’m thinking about breaking another “rule” of writing and just writing fan fic for a while, because writing in different characters’ already-established voices was how I started to develop my own writing voice once before. Maybe it can help again.

  32. More than ever, I’m glad I did it myself. Learned how to write. I think I break – judiciously – every one of those ‘rules’ on your list.

    What do you mean don’t use conjunctions? How can anyone write without parallel structure? And a list needs to have the number of items in it that it needs to have. You go by sound. By feel. By what is ‘right’ to you, today.

    I don’t like head hopping, though – unless it is a form of omniscient pov, and done right. Because it isn’t me – but I’m not going to tell Romance readers they shouldn’t like what they like. They know perfectly well already what they like.

    Trying to reduce everything in reading and writing to one canon is reductio ad absurdum. And anyone trying that gets what they deserve.

  33. At the risk of turning this into a debate, I think the issue you’re talking about goes beyond just bad workshopping: it is the wages of political correctness. You say writing is bland? Look around – much of society is bland; certainly most entertainment is. When people face the very real threat of being publically pilloried to the point of having their careers and future livelihoods threatened if they don’t conform to an accepted narrative, they will by and large hunker down and conform to that narrative. Whether it is real or not. The sort of thought-policing we see on a daily basis is poison not just to liberty, but to creativeness.

    1. This is just what I needed to read. I’ve been working on a novel which I just love spending time in, but recently reading a few online criticisms (for example, Buffy not being feminist enough, or a video by Rihanna “glorifying” domestic violence, or a book accused of “cultural appropriation”) has made me fear putting anything out into the world now. My protagonist doesn’t act in a perfectly feminist fashion, or according to what the advice columnists say she should do, but if she did, the story would fall apart. And no, I don’t want to change it to make her “perfect,” because then you risk a Mary Sue or bland character. It’s her very flawed choice, to go back to her Svengali, which gives the story its energy and moves the plot along.

      I guess I’m more an old-school liberal, because while I do believe in speaking and acting with sensitivity, I also believe that censorship is wrong. Lately it seems like characters are no longer allowed to go outside the current cultural “rules,” or they’re ripped apart. 😛 Hence, criticisms of what used to be considered groundbreaking characters.

      But this post and this comment give me courage to keep writing my novel the way I want to write it. This story lives in my head constantly, but probably violates somebody’s standards for non-offensive writing. 😉 It probably violates most of the current rules for “serious writer voice,” too. 🙂

  34. Excellently summed up.

    I’ve been in enough writers groups to be guilty of pushing that same conformity. I think it comes from a good place, but it’s too easy to get heavy-handed with it, especially when it settles into fashions and The Way We Do This. Love your points about Clarion and other groups having their own biases.

    We call them “writing rules,” but rules are made to be broken– IF you know what the penalty is and the different ways to manage it. Or, “when you know the rule’s there, you can break it, but until then you’ll just trip over it.”

    So it’s seeing those “rules,” and getting comfortable with our own ways past them, that lets us find our way back to sounding like ourselves.

    1. I don’t know if I agree that the “rules are made to be broken”, but I do fully agree that people should know the cost and benefits of certain choices and use them accordingly. Most of the “rules” do not come from nowhere — they come from dozens, maybe hundreds of amateurs using something badly until someone says, “New rule, no passive voice” — not because you can’t do it ever, but because most people don’t do it well/correctly. However, not every person who suddenly uses a “different” voice by breaking the rules is a master of their new tool. Sometimes you get houses made of steel that look like meccano sets after the apocalypse.

      I learned the “choice thing” an odd way in Grade 11. I had a teacher who wrote passive all over my essays, it was his big thing for the class that year, and yet I couldn’t see what was wrong with my essays. After four or five essays, I took them to him and said, “Okay, you’ve tried to explain this a couple of times, here are five essays where you’ve written passive three or four times, let’s work through MY examples concretely.” He thought it was a great idea…and then he said hmm. Read the second one, third one, fourth one, hemming the whole time. And then he said, “I know why you’re confused. These are all passive voice sentences, but every one of them, you have used it correctly to better the sentence and flow.” I was using it correctly but he was still flagging it as passive as his mind was saying “no passive voice.” No nuance, just wrong. He said, “From now on, ignore me if I write passive. You should be aware you’re doing it, but they’re done right.” So then he had me helping those who were doing it wrong!

      I just finished the YA trilogy for Divergent. First and second book were 1P POV from the main girl; book three is 1P POV from two separate characters and it drove me nuts for the first 10 chapters — like KKR said, there was no voice difference and there should have been. I shouldn’t have had to look at the chapter title to see whose head I was in. Plus, the only reason it did it was because of an end of book plot point, or maybe she was into screenplay mode already. Great books but that tool didn’t work well and she didn’t use it well. I have also seen a lot of people use tools to show how masterful they are — like the person who only wants to speak a new language they just learned, even when it doesn’t fit.

    2. Out of curiousity, with all the recent readings, do you notice a trend towards the “slice of life” stories over complete stories? Outside of mystery collections, I’ve had to stop reading certain short story collections as they were basically vignettes of someone’s day…interesting, but unfulfilling. I’ve heard other editors complain of such, just curious if you found the same.

  35. I’m rarely accused of a serious voice. More like a WTF voice, unless I’m on duty in the ER.
    But I’m working on a back pain book right now, with the stultifying academic tone of journal articles and books merging in my head, and sometimes it’s hard to maintain the light-hearted tone I’d envisioned for this work. I also think I’m a little “out there” for most editors. But your article is a cool reminder that you can have good character and plot and setting, but it can be a little meh without voice.

  36. I just read not too long ago a new writer for me and she didn’t put a space between the scene breaks. We were with one character and then suddenly we were with the other character in the story. It was a bit jarring but I got use to it. It was written in third person not from the POV of the characters. I still liked it and got introduced into a genre that I didn’t know existed. I didn’t know about furry stories! Where was I?
    Anyway, you really have to work at finding your voice and your own way of writing and that is what is lovely about the new indie world. You can write this stuff and put it out for readers to judge if they like it or not. Not everyone will of course but there will always be ones that do love what you have done.

  37. Those so called rules were the worst nightmare of my writing life. The editor stuck to those and the no head-hopping, no same word repeated on a page… That put lots of SF incoherence in my 14th YA novel ex. A passing through a magnetic filter became on second mention a hand- dusting. She hated the word magnetic.
    Of course I was the sole author that had so much of it rewritten (all the others were mystery or gen-lit writers) that I offered her to put her name on the cover besides mine!

  38. I think a lot of the rules came about because some techniques are harder than others to get right, and very easy to screw up royally. Frex., I don’t know how many times I’ve been reading along and a writer was switching POV back and forth until I’d get to a line or three where I had no clue whatsoever who was speaking or acting. That’s not to say that nobody should ever head-hop — clearly Nora Roberts does it well, and I’ve seen others pull it off too. But it’s probably easier for a teacher (in whatever context) to tell new writers not to do something at all than to explain how to do it well. Especially when the explanation is something like, “Pay attention when you’re reading to how other writers make it work, then practice until you can do it too.” The lack of clear blueprints for some of this stuff probably makes a lot of teachers and mentors just throw up their hands and try to ban whatever they can’t break down into a step-by-step how-to.


  39. Brilliant! I’ve judged a few contests over the past few years and have definitely seen a lot of workshop-style books. They were good, but not brilliant. But the stories that knock my socks off have a unique voice. Last month it was Alexander McCall Smith’s latestt Precious Ramotswe or Chuck Wendig’s Zeroes or Kelli Stanley’s City of Secrets.

  40. This hits home for me. My wife and I were watching American Idol tonight (because the Voice is resting), and we talked about who was going to go on, and who was going to die. And it’s the people who lean into their performance, who push, who go out to rip it apart – they’re the ones who move on.

    If you lay back, you’re toast.

    It’s kind of funny, I tell my wife when I do it right (writing) it feels like I’m in a knife fight, and there’s nothing between me and death, but me. And it’s a ball.

    Okay, did that just sound psychotic? 🙂

    1. I hear that. I feel like I’m in a life-or-death battle where if I don’t get the words out /right now/ it’ll be the end of me. And even if I do, I end up breathless and exhausted, and still ready for more.

  41. Ive also seen many a writer fall into these traps. Writing rules are treated as hard and fast rules even when they contradict then some writers jam up trying to use all the rules all the time. Struck and White is a great book, but it’s a guide, not a rule book. And that’s what writing rules are, writing guidelines and I wish more writers would see them that way.

    I wrote a story that broke one of the biggest writing conventions of all time. I built up to a climax, and the character walks through a door and into the unknown. Many readers loved the story and let their imagination run away with what his new life would be like, others, mostly writing friends, didn’t care for the “non ending” despite the beauty leading up to that point. The story was never about what lay behind that door, but his life leading up to that choice.

    Their guidelines, not strict, enforceable rules. Only those who are taught the rules will look down on those that choose to break them.

    P.S. the story is Grandpa’s Little Red Barn on wattpad should any care to read it 🙂

    1. jr, that must be why “The Lady or the Tiger” is so unpopular and not considered a classic. 🙂

      I do think new writers should probably start a new line before they switch POV. Because they’re not going to be as good at it as La Roberts, and the reader will be confused. When they learn it, then go ahead.

      1. How are they going to learn to do it if they don’t do it until they’re good at it?

        And good readers adapt to new techniques, or they go read something they understand better. Saying a book is awful because one reader couldn’t follow it is probably a mistake.

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