Finding Your Voice

I don’t talk much. I never have. Sometimes I don’t have anything to say- realizing that I could say, “I don’t know enough about XYZ to have an opinion,” was a great boon to my socially awkward self. Sometimes I do have something to say, but it’s not quite appropriate for the situation. And, most frequently, I have something appropriate to say but can’t get the words out fast enough. For a while, I was losing the ability to string together a coherent spoken sentence, which was seriously weird.

Like a lot of people, my mind moves faster than my mouth, which is what attracted me to writing in the first place. I don’t have to say it fluently the first time; I can edit. In the last five years or so, I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to take thoughts and turn them into words on the page. Well, ‘learning’ might be too strong a word. That implies that I actually sat down and studied. The truth is that, like everything else in life, I just winged it.

But I keep running into a curious little concept that makes no sense to me- the idea of the ‘author’s voice’ and that part of writing includes finding this voice.  Okay… I mean, I looked under the couch cushions and everything, but I still have no idea what this means. The style manuals talk about tone, expression, and style, but in my mind, these concepts are genre-specific (very broad) or book-specific (narrow), not author-specific (in the middle). I write in a bunch of different genres and change my style accordingly, and within a genre, each book is distinguishable from the others. Even my regencies- about as write-by-numbers as you can get- read differently from each other. So either this concept doesn’t apply to me, or I’m looking at it from the wrong end (I have all the subtlety of a thrown brick, so it’s entirely possible).

Each genre has different conventions, and uses different language to draw the reader into the story. I’ve been writing a lot of regencies lately, and the syntax is nothing like a contemporary novel. Words, phrases, entire sentences are flipped up, down, and around to get an old-timey feel. The sentences themselves are longer and more complicated; I could probably count on my fingers the number of single-clause sentences in the average regency. They also have a great love of semi-colons, which are useful but less common in contemporary novels.

When writing a regency, I use the language, syntax, and slang common to that genre, because the readers expect it. When I’m writing fantasy, I use as little slang as possible and slightly more contemporary syntax, because it’s easier to read. This can get interesting, though, because I’ll be writing along and a modernism will sneak in when I can’t think of any better way to convey the idea at the moment. Thank goodness for editing.

When writing Hartington Abroad, I found myself tripping over the regency syntax in places. This book is a space opera written in the style of a regency, but unlike its predecessor, The Hartington Inheritance, there’s more action, including a skirmish with some rather aggressive wild animals. This calls for shorter, simpler sentences, completely different from the usual regency construction. While writing the relevant chapters, I found myself slipping out of the genre, and into something more like my usual style when I’m writing fantasy. Regency slang also disappeared from the story for a while, because it can be clunky or too obscure at a time when I wanted the reader turning pages as fast as possible. This seems like a change in authorial voice to me, and necessary for the story.

So, tell me, dear reader, what does the concept of ‘author’s voice’ convey to you? How does it differ from style, tone, or expression? How much of an author’s voice is actually linguistic conventions of a particular genre? Was finding your voice a gradual process, or did you have an epiphany? Has it changed over time (I’ve become slightly less pedantic, but that might not count as a change in voice, per se)? Tell me; I’m dying to know.


Hartington Abroad is now available on Amazon, if you’d like to see the changes in language that gave me so much trouble.

Hartington Abroad

Jeriah Hartington is far from home. Born into a wealthy family, he is now reduced to poverty. In desperation, he signs on to a ship headed for the planet XKF-36. Their mission? To search for colonists who’ve been lost nearly as long as Jeriah has been alive.

Jeriah fully anticipates an adventure as they travel into the unknown wilderness. He never expected to find living people, eager to tell the tale of their sufferings. But their hair-raising account could be the downfall of everyone on the planet, even their rescuers. For a villain lurks within the ship’s crew, and no one can say who he might be.


  1. A work friend from my old day job beta read something for me (I dubbed him my orbital mechanic). In addition to fixing some errors, he commented that I had a surprisingly breezy style. He was used to my lawyer voice in real life. What I didn’t tell this engineer was that I consciously got rid of my lawyer voice when I was in the engineer’s point of view.

    I admit I happily let that voice return when I write lawyers.

    But I don’t know if that’s voice or style or word choice. For instance, the engineer wasn’t going to think “In the alternative” or “conversely…” I had to change a few of those in edits.

  2. “So, tell me, dear reader, what does the concept of ‘author’s voice’ convey to you?”

    Nothing, really. I probably have one, but like the back of my head, I can’t see it.

    I do know that my characters are lippy as hell most of the time, so there’s that. ~:D

  3. Head cold, so my thinking is too confused to sort out evidence arguing for the existence of authorial voice, or guessing what it means.

    But there are definitely patterns in what writers write about, and how they write about it.

    Examples coming to mind being Pratchett, Kratman, Vathara, and the guy who wrote Sic Semper Morituri. If you had read everything published by them, and were presented with a large enough sample of a new story from one of them, you could probably identify who wrote it.

    If learning to write is an experimental process, some people are going to have a learning curve where they learn a lot from the earliest experiments, and later experiments have less dramatic and obvious permanent long term effects on output. Finding the voice may be doing enough experiments to stabilize the patterns a skilled reader would use to ID the author.

  4. Most everyone I’ve heard of says you grow into your voice. As Neil Gaiman says, “The urge, starting out, is to copy. And that’s not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people.” He was talking about art in general – and it’s very obvious in portfolios, where you see people doing art in the style of their favourite artists, and taking bits and peices and turning it into a synthesis that becomes their own style. If you think of Luis Royo or Bev Doolittle or Michael Whelan or H.R. Giger or Edward Gorey, you immediately think of their style – their voice. But they didn’t start out with that; they grew into it. And sometimes, like Bev Doolittle, the camoflauge art everyone thinks of as her style? That’s only one facet – she also does sculpture and some awesome western art that merges into abstract. Her very earliest commercial art? Was illustration for advertisements. Nothing like her pintos in a snowy meadow at all!

    If you read very, very early Terry Prachett, he doesn’t sound like the Terry Prachett we know. Even the first few Discworld books are shaky – there’s a reason people recommend readers start with later ones, after he found his voice, and it went from a fantasy pastiche to a sound, weird world with double- and triple-layer puns that turn right around and the punchline will turn out to be a reference that later moves you to tears.

    If you read any John C Wright these days, you’re going to get worldbuilding, description, and thought from certain characters that’ll send the average reader tapping the dictionary function on their ereader app to figure out what that word is, much less how to pronounce it… or so caught up in the story they kinda pick it up from context and let it go, because they’re too caught up in story to stop for a word or five. You also get deep worldbuilding in the philosophy, and in the hearkening to old writers long out of print.

    If you pick up Dave Freer, you’re going to get fully fleshed out secondary and even tertiary characters, with double-layered meanings and I swear, I think there are tri-lingual puns tucked in. They feel like tri-lingual puns that I don’t speak enough languages to get. (I grew up with people who speak many more languages than me, and married another, and they’re all inveterate punners. I know the feel, even if I can’t get the joke.) You also get subtle historical and science-related digs and nods. (And not so subtle. When I figured out the secret the mother was smuggling in Cuttlefish, I had to put the book down and laugh, because yes, that is a very, very, very relevant point for branching off alternate history… that very few people outside of chemical engineers, farmers, some EOD, and chemists know!)

    Sarah Hoyt does stream-of-consciousness headlong rambles that suck you in and pull you along on improbable journeys with the craziest of characters who love to battle impossible odds, often while lying to themselves and being unreliable narrators, but somehow you can never manage to object to the crazy or put the book down until it’s time to quit trying to sleep and go to work.

    My darling Peter had a much more formal voice, very British… it’s almost stilted, which works well in old-fashioned works that were closer to that style.People talk in full paragraphs, in well-thought-out sentences (which people often did, when they were trained to think before they spoke or wrote. Ah, how lax standards, the ability to erase what you write easily instead of having to labouriously scrape it off, rub it out with an eraser, or paint it out with newfangled white-out has contributed to lazy text and speech!)

    That said, all of the above mentioned authors have more than 10 books out. They grew into their style, their word choice, their manner of pacing and describing and plotting and pacing, and as long as they’re alive and working, can grow still. So you’re on book 2 – congrats! Keep writing, and you’ll find your own voice.

  5. What isn’t voice?

    If you’ve read Reki Kawahara, plus James Hogan’s Realtime Interrupt, a couple of other Hogan novels to have a feel for Hogan’s voice, you can probably see traces of influence that are not voice.

    The obvious influences are borrowing from the technical details of Realtime Interrupt for Sword Art Online and Accel World. My impression is that there is also a subtle influence. The Alicization arc contains descriptions of Americans, and these seem subtly flawed in ways that remind me of Hogan.

  6. When I discovered Tristram Shandy, I was shocked (and never did manage to finish it). That’s exactly how I write email. All my coworkers can identify my code by the voice in the comments.

    Still working on novel the first, I haven’t recognized a voice, yet. Other than perhaps: Stop it with all those semicolons. I also tend to use commas as vocal breaks, not correct written punctuation.

    Oh, and we were speaking of smells the other day. I just stumbled on “petrichor”.

  7. My father always said, when he didn’t know the answer to a question I asked, “Not knowing, I hesitate to state.”
    I too don’t talk much. Like the time I was walking slowly with my cane across the street and a self righteous person in a BMW asked, “Can you walk any slower?” I couldn’t come up with an answer. Later I decided I should have said, “Yes.” Then slowed down. I’ll note that I was walking as fast as I was able at the time.

  8. Like a lot of people, my mind moves faster than my mouth, which is what attracted me to writing in the first place.

    Heh. My father and I both have this problem. Dad used to trail off while talking, because in his head, he’d already said it out loud. Prodding him to finish his sentence usually had him finish it. I have a tendency to go “Hey, my love, have you seen the – oh never mind, I remembered where I put it” or I abruptly stop talking because something’s occurred to me and my poor long suffering husband has to try prod me about the previous thought, and hope it hasn’t gotten so derailed it has gone sailing off into the bottomless abyss of my short term memory. (for the same reason, it’s bad to interrupt me, because I’ll forget.) Writing is easier, because I can see the words.

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