Tag Archives: what is the author’s voice

Narrative Voice, an Author’s Style #amwriting

Every story, poem, newspaper article, or song has a recognizable fingerprint: the author’s unique voice or style. Voice and style consist of three aspects:

  1. The habitual choice of words shapes the tone of our writing.
  2. The chronic use and misuse of grammar and punctuation shapes the pacing of our sentences.
  3. Our deeply held beliefs and attitudes emerge and shape character arcs and plot arcs.

a writer's styleSome authors are forceful in their style and throw you into the action. They have an in-your-face, hard-hitting style that comes on strong and doesn’t let up until the end.

Dashiell Hammett perfected the crime noir novel with short, choppy sentences packed with power words:

Quote from TheMaltese Falcon:

MalteseFalcon1930“I’m going to send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means you’ll be out again in twenty years. You’re an angel. I’ll wait for you.” He cleared his throat. “If they hang you I’ll always remember you.” [1]

Other authors take you on a journey. They have a more leisurely, fluid style of writing. Neil Gaiman is poetic and thoughtful, leading you deeper into the story with each paragraph.

Quote from Stardust:

Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at the stars because we are human? [2]

When we first begin writing, our style is heavily influenced by the authors whose works we love. Our stories are an unconscious reflection of what we wish they would write.

We develop our own voice and style when we write every day or at least as often as possible. We subconsciously incorporate our speech patterns, values, and fears into our work, and those elements of our personality form the voice that is ours and no one else’s.

Developing a broad vocabulary is important because we are creatures of habit. When we want to express ourselves, we fall back on certain words and ignore their synonyms. This is where a good online thesaurus comes in.

oxford_synonym_antonymBut I prefer to keep my research in hardcopy form, rather than digital. The Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms is a handy tool when I am stuck for alternate ways to say something.

And it makes the perfect place to rest my teacup.

We all have “crutch” words. These are words we choose above others because they say what we mean more precisely, or they color our prose with the right emotion. Unfortunately, I can be repetitive with certain words when expanding on an idea. Having alternatives that express my idea does two things:

  • It often gives me a different understanding of what I am trying to say, which improves the narrative.
  • It makes my work less tedious. (I hope.)

modifying-conjunctions-04262022As we become confident in our writing, we learn more about grammar and punctuation in our native languages. We learn to write so others can understand us.

The great authors use those rules to energize their prose. They are knowledgeable about sentence and paragraph construction and the fundamentals of grammar—the aspects of writing we call mechanics. They write to industry standards. When they break a rule, they do it deliberately and consistently.

Our word choices are a good indication of how advanced we are in the craft of writing. For instance, in online writing forums, we regularly are told to limit the number of modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) we might habitually use.

We are like anyone else. Our work is as dear to us as a child, and we can be just as touchy as a proud parent when it is criticized. We should respect the opinions of others, but we have the choice to ignore those suggestions if they don’t work for us.

Our voice comes across when we write from the heart. We gain knowledge and skill when we study self-help books, but we must write what we are passionate about. So, the rule should be to use modifiers, descriptors, or quantifiers when they’re needed.

How we use them is part of our style. Modifiers change, clarify, qualify, or sometimes limit a particular word in a sentence to add emphasis, explanation, or detail. We also use them as conjunctions to connect thoughts: “otherwise,” “then,” and “besides.”

Descriptors are adverbs and adjectives ending in “ly.” They are helper nouns or verbs, words that help describe other words. Some descriptors are necessary. However, they are easy to overuse and are sometimes reviled by writing groups on a mission.

When I begin revising a first draft, I do a global search for the letters “ly.” A list will pop up in my left margin. My manuscript will become a mass of yellow highlighted words.

I admit it takes time and patience to look at each instance to see how they fit into that context. If a word or phrase weakens the narrative, I change or remove it. If that descriptor is the only word that works, I leave it. Ninety percent of “ly” words get removed.

Quantifiers are abstract nouns or noun phrases. They’re used to convey either a vague impression or a nebulous quantity, such as: very, a great deal ofa good deal ofa lot, many, much. The important word there is abstract, which shows a thought or idea that doesn’t have a physical or concrete existence.

In some instances, we might want to move the reader’s view of a scene or situation out, a “zoom out” so to speak. The brief use of passive phrasing will do that.

ozford-american-writers-thesaurusHowever, quantifiers have a bad reputation because they can quickly become habitual, such as the word very.

When I am laying down the first draft of a story, quantifiers, descriptors, and modifiers fall out of my head and into the keyboard. They are a mental shorthand that tells the story in only a few words, which is essential when we are just trying to get the story down before we lose our train of thought.

They are subconscious signals to our future selves that indicate an idea needs expanding and rewording for impact. They tell us to rewrite that sentence to strengthen it.

Limiting descriptors and quantifiers to conversations makes a stronger narrative. We use these phrases and words in real life, so our characters’ conversations will sound natural. The fact we use them is why they fall into our first drafts. But they weaken the story’s impact if we let them bleed over into the narrative.

neil gaiman quote 2Our narrative voice comes across in our choice of hard or soft words and where we habitually position verbs in a sentence. Where we automatically place the words in the sentence is a recognizable fingerprint.

Sometimes I read something, and despite how well it is constructed and written, it doesn’t ring my bells. Maybe I’m not attracted to the author’s style or voice.

That doesn’t mean I think the work is awful. It only means I wasn’t the reader it was written for.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Quote from: the Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, © 1930, published by Alfred A. Knopf. Fair Use.

Illustration, Original Cover of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, © 1930, published by Alfred A. Knopf. Public Domain.

[2] Quote from Stardust by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess, © 1999, published by DC Comics. Fair Use.

Illustration: Original Cover of Stardust by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess, © 1999, published by DC Comics. Fair Use.

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Voice #amwriting

If you write professionally, you develop habits, ways of expressing yourself that “sound” like you. Voice is how you bend the rules and is your fingerprint. For your voice to be compelling and not jarring, you must understand what rules you can break with impunity, and which ones must be obeyed. Knowledge is key—it enables you to craft your work so it says what you want, in the way you want it said.

Most editors will ignore liberties you take with dialogue but will point out habitual errors in the rest of the narrative.

If you work with an editor, you must be willing to explain why you are choosing to flout a particular rule. If you don’t understand the rule to begin with, you can’t defend your position with authority.

This is why I always suggest you buy a good style guide. I like the simplicity and thoroughness of Bryan A. Garner’s The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation.

If an editor asks you to change something you did deliberately, you are the author. Explain why you want that particular grammatical no-no to stand. If you have a concrete reason, your editor will most likely understand.

Repetition of a key word for emphasis is one example of breaking a rule with style.

This is why it’s important to educate yourself. If you know the rule you are breaking, you will be better able to explain why you are doing so, and your work will reflect that confidence.

However, if I am your editor, you must be prepared to break that rule consistently. Readers do notice inconsistencies.

No one is perfect, and even authors who also work as editors need and use editors. Certainly, I have benefited from the editors I have worked with. I began this journey knowing nothing about the mechanics of writing, other than that which I had retained from my school days. Writers who were further along in the craft gave me good advice, and I began growing as a writer.

To go back to what I said in the first paragraph, you must understand what rules you can break with impunity, and which of them must be obeyed. The average reader doesn’t take joy in reading James Joyce’s experimental prose. Alexander Chee can be difficult for an average reader to enjoy. This is because both Joyce and Chee take liberties with punctuation that makes reading their work a real challenge. Some readers are up to that, others not so much.

I will admit, I had to take a class to be able to understand James Joyce’s work, and I did have to resort to the audiobook for Alexander Chee’s work. It’s the hypercritical editor coming out in me, making it difficult for me to set that part of my awareness aside. It’s my job to notice those things.

I can hear you now: these are literary authors, and you are writing genre fantasy fiction or sci-fi. Shall I toss out another name or two?

Tad Williams mixes his styles. His Bobby Dollar series is Paranormal Film Noir: dark, choppy, and reminiscent of Sam Spade. In this series, he seems to be somewhat influenced by the style of crime authors, such as Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. It is a quick read and is commercial in that it is for casual readers.

Yet his fantasy work set in Osten Ard has lusher prose, multiple storylines, dark themes. It is written for serious fantasy readers. The story starts slow, but his powerful writing has generated millions of fans who are thrilled to know he has set more work in that world.

Beginning slow and working up to an epic ending is highly frowned upon in writing groups, but Tad broke that rule and believe me, it works.

George Saunders writes sci-fi and historical fantasy but is considered literary. He has a unique, literary voice because he takes liberties with the rules.  His work reads like a conversation with him, a little crisp and choppy, but intimate.

If you are writing a genre such as fantasy or sci-fi or mystery, I suggest you do not get experimental with your punctuation unless you don’t mind bad reviews. People who look for quick reads for the adventure and romance don’t want experimental. They want an escape; they want prose that doesn’t interfere with the narrative. Run on sentences, commas inserted every place you breathe, or no commas at all—these are flaws that ruin the experience for the casual reader.

Get a good style guide and stop guessing about where the commas go and how to use that ellipsis.  Don’t know if you should use a semicolon or not?

Get a style guide.

Your writing will go faster, and your beta readers will be able to give you better opinions on what reads well and what needs more work.

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