Business Musings: Serious Writer Voice
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: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/author-voice-workshop-announced/
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.
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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.