How to develop your writers voice

How to find & develop your Writer’s voice

How I found my voice – and how you can do the same (but a whole lot faster.)

Here’s a quote I love from Gore Vidal. It’s just about the most important advice any writer can give another. Vidal says this:

“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”

That quote is a lot meatier and more challenging than it looks, and we’re going to unpack some of its lessons in this post. Before that, though, I’m going to offer a little bit of backstory, about how I came to find my own authorial voice – and to recognise that I had it.

The story ends, a few years ago now, in 2012.

My agent and I were looking to sell Talking to the Dead, the first book in my Fiona Griffiths crime series,  to the US market. I’d had US deals before, but this one felt special.

We were pitching to Kate Miciak at Delacorte / Bantam Dell. She was New York’s Queen of Crime. She edited Lee Child. She edited Karen Slaughter. As far as I was concerned, she was the peak of the peak of international crime.

And she liked my book.

She liked it!

She offered for it. We accepted. She bought it. She published it.

It wasn’t anywhere close to my biggest ever book deal, but it still felt like my coming of age as an author. I had long been able to get the attention of the biggest editors in my home, British market, but this was the first time I’d cracked the commanding heights of the American market too.

And get this:

Later – after the contracts were done and dusted and we were having a fancy lunch in mid-town Manhattan – she told me that she knew she wanted to offer on the book by the time she’d finished the second page.

And on the face of it, that makes no sense at all.

In the first two pages of that book, nothing happens.

I mean, sure, my character is interviewed for a place in the police service. Some of her answers were a bit odd. But there was no big revelation. No huge premise uncovered. No big plot element. No laugh out loud moment. No nothing. (If you want to read the text, you can. I’ve included it at the bottom of this blog post here.)

Sophie Rundle in the TV adaptation of Talking to the Dead

Except – voice.

My book, and that otherwise nondescript opening, had a voice.

The way I told that little story told Kate three things, I think:

  1. That I was a confident, professional author, fully in command of my technique.
  2. That my writing technique wasn’t merely competent, but was actually sophisticated.
  3. That I sounded like myself, and no one else. She didn’t publish any other author who sounded quite like me.

Take those three points in order.

Professionalism

If you’re not a confident, professional author, you shouldn’t be publishing books. We’re hoping to sell our skill with words for our living, so we better darn well have some skill.

But that’s a pretty low bar. Stephen King is pretty much a genius – he totally reinvented the horror genre and is still the towering figure in his field. But a genius wordsmith? Not really. He writes clean, efficient, professional prose like the ex-journalist he is. If you took a random page from his work and one from (say) John Grisham, Suzanne Collins, Harlan Coben, I think you’d struggle to say whose was whose. (That’s not dissing those authors, by the way. It’s just saying that those guys have other, abundant virtues.)

Put another way, efficient professional prose is a minimum requirement. It gives you your entry ticket to the Hall of Possibility, but nothing more than that. It’s not a plus-point. It doesn’t get editors like Kate Miciak excited about your work after just two pages. It has nothing at all to do with voice.

Style

But I think my writing offered a little more than that.  I haven’t reshaped an entire genre the way that King / Grisham / Collins etc have done. But stylish writing? Yes, that is one of my strengths.

So I think Kate Miciak thought, roughly, “this guy writes with a bit of style and confidence – and if he displays that much confidence in how he handles the first two pages, do I think he’s just going to mess up completely when it gets to everything else? No, I don’t. I think this one is going to go all the way.”

That’s still just a hunch, of course. If Kate had hated the way I’d developed things from there – well, she’d never have bid for the book and I’d never have had the wonderful chance to work with her.

But, yes, definitely, style is a plus. It gets people (agents, editors, readers) interested in the story. It adds sizzle.

And sizzle sells.

Voice

But style only takes you so far.

One of the problem with all those MFA courses, those university diplomas in Creative Writing, the workshops, the peer-to-peer critiquing stuff is that writers end up with style all right . . . but they can all end up sounding the same.

Because we at Jericho Writers do a lot of editorial work with a lot of writers, we end up recognising the flavour. I call it Universal Workshop Style (UWS). It’s not bad, exactly – the opposite, really – but to be honest with you, I always have a sinking feeling when I pick up a manuscript written in UWS.

It’s like there’s something fake there. Like a dancer who has been taught to execute her technique with such ruthless thoroughness that the person out there on stage is just going through her performance with a mechanical accuracy.

Perfect, but dead.

Thanks to: Paata Vardanashvili from Tbilisi, Georgia – Swan Lake

From style to Voice

So, OK, voice is good. You presumably knew that already, which is how come you’re reading this post. But how do you find (or get or develop) your voice?

And the answer, I think, has everything to do with authenticity. Here’s that quote from Vidal again:

“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”

Take Gore Vidal into one of those writers’ workshops – those factories of UWS – and if someone critiqued his turn of phrase, he would, I expect, say, “I wrote it like that because I like it like that. And screw you.”

Voice isn’t about perfect. Or about pretty. Or about peer-critiqued or peer-approved.

It is about authentic.

And look closely at what Vidal says. He doesn’t start off talking about writing or books at all. He talks about “knowing who you are.”

As a person. As a human.

Authenticity – being truthful to yourself – starts with having a confident sense of your own identity. (Which isn’t the same as being confident, period. If you’re quite unsure of yourself in social settings, you can at least know and accept that you are that.) It’s the self-knowledge that matters here, not being a perfect human.

Then Vidal calls attention to “knowing . . . what you want to say.”

That sounds a bit non-fictiony, maybe, but it applies to us novelists too.

So in my Talking to the Dead, I knew perfectly well that my book broke some of the rules for crime fiction. I was, truth be told, more interested in my character than in the crime she was solving. My book was a mystery novel, yes, but my character was the major mystery.

So sure, in that sense, I knew what I wanted to say. I took my direction, and had an almost unwavering confidence in it. If other didn’t approve, or if I was breaking other people’s rules, I really, genuinely didn’t care.

So, in fact, the bit of Vidal’s quote I like the most is the last bit.

“. . . and not giving a damn.”

The fact is, writers and authors face constant pressure from others in relation to their work. You’ll get comments from:

  • your beta-readers
  • your external editorial consultancy (like ours; and we’re very, very good)
  • your literary agent
  • your editor at the publishing house
  • your copy-editor

And from yourself.

You’ll tell yourself things like, “Hey, Harry, that’s not a real crime story, because you’re not really truly focusing on the crime. And other successful crime writers don’t really write the way you’re doing here. And . . . and . . . and . . .”

That little niggly voice will push your work towards UWS or Universal Crime Writer Style or something else. It’ll push you away from true authenticity. It’ll push you away from finding your own sweet voice.

And the only response is – and I’m going to swear here, because Authentic Harry is a bit swearier than Blog Post Harry –

“I hear you. And you know what? I don’t give a fuck.”

Example: when I get my first set of copy-edits on Talking to the Dead, my copy-editor seemed to think that her job was to take me from my own (quite non-standard) style to something that might meet the approval of a 1950s librarian. So my sentence fragments were equipped with verbs. Sentences that started with conjunctions were quietly denuded of them. My fullstops (periods) were turned into commas or semi-colons.

My work was cleaned up, rendered safe. De-personalised.

But you know what? (**Swearword alert**) I didn’t give a fuck.

When I came across anything I didn’t like, and that was a LOT of the changes, I just wrote stet in the margins.

Stet: an old copy-editing mark from the Latin for ‘let it stand’.

And when a simple stet wasn’t enough, I wrote – with some emphatic underlinings – stet-stet-stettety-stet. This is my work, you brute, and I wrote it like that, because I like it like that.

I’m not even saying my copy-editor was remiss. She wasn’t. She was doing her job, within the confines of House Style.

But I’m not styling a damn house, I’m writing my damn book. And my rules win.

finding your authors voice

The Beginning of the Story

But I said that my deal with Kate Miciak represented the end of this little story. I haven’t yet told you the start.

Because Talking to the Dead was hardly my first book. It was my sixth novel, my tenth book in total, and that’s not to count some projects where I worked as ghost or very hands-on editor.

And those earlier books?

Well, I wouldn’t say their style was totally dead, or that they were written in UWS, or anything like it. But did they have real voice, as I now think of it? No. They didn’t. One of the biggest reasons why I’d never cracked the peak of the peak of the American market before Talking to the Dead was that my writing was fine, but still not truly authentic.

And, OK, you’re probably reading this post on a quest to discover how to find and develop your authorial voice. So here’s one answer – a guaranteed answer, born of my own experience:

You write ten books, by way of a happy and lucrative apprenticeship.

You develop your skills and your confidence.

Then – boom! – your voice is born. Job done.

That may satisfy some of you – especially, those who are very young, very patient and have excellent genetic longevity. But for the impatient remainder, I’m going to guess that you’d like a shorter, faster solution.

It’s to that speedier solution we turn next.

But first – a little question.
The question is: are you one of us? A Jericho Writer?

We created a club for passionate, ambitious writers and our purpose is to give, quite simply, the richest possible experience to our members that we know how to deliver. So maybe you’d like to pitch you work live online to agents? Yep, we got you covered. Or you’d like a really classy, in-depth course on How To Write? Or you want to know, in detail, the ins and outs of how to get published from a team who have helped 100s of authors gets published over the years? We’ve got all that, and much more. You can find out more here. We look forward to welcoming you on board.

Is your idea any good?

Learn the fundamentals of writing

How to find and develop your writer’s voice

Elsewhere on the internet, you’ll find advice on how to develop your voice.

Make lists of authors you love. Try free writing at six o’clock every morning. Copy out passages by your favourite writers. Make a list of adjectives describing the person you were, the person you are, the person you want to be. Write the same mini-story in ten different voices and see which voice works best for you. Blah, yadda, yadda, blah.

Those things all sound like garbage, and they are all garbage.

Forget them. They don’t work. They’re a nonsense.

You can’t fake authenticity.

So my advice is both fuzzier and more honest. It’s twofold.

1. Find your real

As soon as you become aware of all these issues around voice, you’ll start to engage with your own work with a new intensity and awareness.

If you write a passage fast, and there feels something a little God-given in it – something gifted, rather than grafted – then there’s a reasonable chance your voice was showing itself there. (Though there are other possibilities too. If you’re just writing a long-anticipated climactic scene, then your juices flowing just because it’s nice to be finally writing it.)

Or let’s say you’re editing your text and a chunk strikes you as not quite consistent with the passagse before and after. It could just be a bad passage in need of rewriting . . . or it could be your voice sneaking its head above the parapet.

The things that will tip you off are (a) some kind of oddness or personality, and (b) some sense that the oddness in question relates to you. It’s your version of odd.

These things are hard to talk about in the abstract, so here’s an example. In the passage from Talking to the Dead which follows below, there’s a paragraph which runs as follows:

Matthews is a big man. Not gym-big, but Welsh-big, with the sort of comfortable muscularity that suggests a past involving farm work, rugby and beer. He has remarkably pale eyes and thick dark hair. Even his fingers have little dark hairs running all the way to the final joint. He is the opposite of me.

The whole paragraph has personality, I think, but that last sentence – “He is the opposite of me” – stands out as totally unexpected (and also, characteristically, totally unexplained. My young, female narrator was just talking about the hairs on Matthews’s fingers. We presumably don’t expect her to have especially hairy fingers, so why does she jump from an observation about finger-hair to this sweeping comment about this guy being her opposite? We don’t know.)

Look around in your work. Are there phrases that strike you as typical of you? Or sudden jumps in thought? Or the way you present characters? Or the way you tend to open chapters? Or the way characters tend to talk in your work?

(Oh, and if you think, but the way my characters talk is only to do with my characters – it can’t be to do with my authorial voice – then think again. Think of the way Raymond Chandler’s characters talk to each other. You could surely recognise a page of his work from the dialogue alone. That’s why I urge you to consider any aspect of your work when trying to isolate your emerging voice. It could be lurking almost anywhere.)

Any of these things could give you an insight into your emerging voice, and the insight alone will strengthen your movement towards an authentically personal style.

In that sense, your approach is simply:

  • Write
  • Examine your writing
  • Become more aware of when your voice is emerging
  • Write some more
  • Examine some more
  • And so on

That process alone will move you along the path to true authorial voice. One of the reasons I took so long to find my voice was that I didn’t really care about it much.

Didn’t think about. Didn’t do anything to nudge it into life.

The biggest thing you can do actively to find, develop and enhance your writer’s voice – your authorial presence on the page – is simply BE AWARE. Like water moving under rock, that awareness will do things for your development as a writer that no amount of constant effort will produce.

It’s not about effort. You don’t get to be authentic just by making a bigger effort.

2. Remove your Handbrake

For me personally, however, the biggest act of voice-development had less to do with awareness, and more with something like courage.

I’d written big bestselling books before, but I’d always crafted them with a careful eye on the market. The books had been a compromise between who I was and what I thought people wanted to buy.

When it came to Talking to the Dead, I wasn’t so worried about what people wanted. I was more worried about writing something that would come out exactly the way I wanted it. That was partly just from being older. It was partly that I’d had some success already, so I didn’t need that kind of affirmation from the outside world so much. It was maybe also that my preceding book – a non-fiction thing for HarperCollins – had been very badly published and died a horrible death in the trade.

Or whatever else.

In any case – I told my inner censor to shut up. I no longer cared about Cautious. I released the handbrake, then cut the brake cable. This story was going to go the way I wanted it to go, and the hell with anyone who told me otherwise.

And please note: I am NOT saying “ignore the market.” The opposite. I knew the market for my crime novel very well indeed. Because I’d had some time away from reading crime, I went out and bought 25 leading books by 25 contemporary crime heavyweights and read them all, with care.

Took notes. Made spreadsheets.

I knew the market for my book all right, and OK, my research didn’t tell me that the world was waiting for a book like mine, but it didn’t prohibit it either. I didn’t think that what I wanted to do would seem old or stale or cliched or anything else.

here at Jericho Writers, we sometimes encounter writers who tell us, “Oh, I hate modern fiction – it’s all rubbish – no, no, what I want to do is . . .” And those people will never get published. I can’t  think of a single counterexample  in a dozen years or more.

You need to know the market, but not be bossed by the market. Or overawed by it.

So I wrote my book.

HarperCollins had a slightly technical Right of First Refusal over my next novel, so we showed them the manuscript first (rather hoping they’d say no – you can have too much history with a firm.)

And?

The editorial side were excited. The sales side said no.

When we went to other publishers, we sometimes encountered  the same thing. Editorial: yes. Sales: no.

And I can imagine the sales guys at those acquisition meetings. “You want us to buy a crime novel, where the crime is hardly the real mystery, where the heroine is very damaged, and where the writing style is strange? No. I mean, duh. No. That’s not what a crime book looks like.”

Strangely, The Fiona Griffiths series has been super-successful with readers, but it’s also had the most rejections from publishers. And (Gore Vidal again!) I don’t give a damn. That’s fine.

One of the things about being authentically you and having an authentic thing to communicate, is that lots of people won’t like it. And that’s OK! You’re not aiming for some squishy, unthreatening centre. You’re reaching right down into the roots of your authorial power, and saying, “This is me. And, ultimately, I don’t care what you think.”

Except of course, those people who do like your work will really like it. And that intensity matters more than some stupid popularity poll. When my British editor and I were discussing the #2 book in my series, I actually said, “Look, Bill,I don’t really think I gave that first book both barrels – not completely – because I was worried I was going to be too out there for publishers to cope with.”

He just said I should go for it. “Both barrels, definitely. I like what you do.”

So while that first book was certainly written in my authentic voice, it was still doing so just a wee bit timidly.

But both barrels? OK, buddy.

My second book in the series made no concessions to the Voice of Caution. I just let me be me (and my central detective character, Fiona, be completely Fiona) and the hell with it.

The books in that series have just got better and better. It’s probably fair to say that my writing pleasure has increased as well. My readers are the most insanely committed bunch I’ve ever had.

And yes, there are lots of things going on in all that – but at the heart of it all? Voice.

Know who you are.

Say what you want to say.

And don’t give a damn about anything else.

Happy writing, my friends. Have fun.

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An example of writer’s voice


What follows is the first two pages of Talking to the Dead, the first book in my Fiona Griffiths crime series. These are the two pages that got Kate Miciak excited about the book.

And just to be clear: I’m not saying that this is the world’s greatest ever bit of prose. Far from it. What I am saying is I sound like me. The text that follows sounds like something I wrote and it doesn’t sound quite like any other writer you’ve ever read.

You may like it. You may hate it. (That’s allowed, you know.) But liking or not liking isn’t the point here.

The point is the voice. That quality of sounding – confidently sounding – like the person you know yourself to be. So while I won’t say that this passage is super-wonderful in any way, I will say that it sounds like me.

It has a voice. An authorial voice. My voice.

Here it is.

Interview, October 2006
Beyond the window, I can see three kites hanging in the air over Bute Park. One blue, one yellow, one pink. Their shapes are precise, as though stencilled. From this distance, I can’t see the lines that tether them, so when the kites move, it’s as though they’re doing so of their own accord. An all-encompassing sunlight has swallowed depth and shadow.

I observe all this as I wait for DCI Matthews to finish rearranging the documents on his desk. He shuffles the last file from the stack before him to a chair in front of the window. The office is still messy, but at least we can see each other now.

‘There,’ he says.

I smile.

He holds up a sheet of paper. The printed side is facing him, but against the light from the window I see the shape of my name at the top. I smile again, not because I feel like smiling but because I can’t think of anything sensible to say. This is an interview. My interviewer has my CV. What does he want me to do? Applaud?

He puts the CV down on the desk in the only empty patch available. He starts to read it through line by line, marking off each section with his forefinger as he does so. Education. A levels. University. Interests. Referees.

His finger moves back to the centre of the page. University.

‘Philosophy.’

I nod.

‘Why are we here? What’s it all about? That sort of thing?’

‘Not exactly. More like, what exists? What doesn’t exist? How do we know whether it exists or not? Things like that.’

‘Useful for police work.’

‘Not really. I don’t think it’s useful for anything much, except maybe teaching us to think.’

Matthews is a big man. Not gym-big, but Welsh-big, with the sort of comfortable muscularity that suggests a past involving farm work, rugby and beer. He has remarkably pale eyes and thick dark hair. Even his fingers have little dark hairs running all the way to the final joint. He is the opposite of me.

‘Do you think you have a realistic idea of what police work involves?’

I shrug. I don’t know. How are you meant to know if you haven’t done it? I say the sort of thing that I think I’m meant to say. I’m interested in law enforcement. I appreciate the value of a disciplined, methodical approach. Blah, blah. Yadda, yadda. Good little girl in her dark grey interview outfit saying all the things she’s meant to say.

‘You don’t think you might get bored?’

‘Bored?’ I laugh with relief. That’s what he was probing at. ‘Maybe. I hope so. I quite like a little boredom.’ Then, worried he might feel I am being arrogant – prize-winning Cambridge philosopher sneers at stupid policeman – I backtrack. ‘I mean, I like things orderly. Is dotted, ts crossed. If that involves some routine work, then fine. I like it.’

His finger is still on the CV, but it’s tracked up an inch or so. A levels. He leaves his finger there, fixes those pale eyes on me and says, ‘Do you have any questions for me?’

I know that’s what he’s meant to say at some stage, but we’ve got forty-five minutes allocated for this interview and we’ve only used ten at the outside, most of which I’ve spent watching him shift stationery around his office. Because I’m taken by surprise – and because I’m still a bit rubbish at these things – I say the wrong thing.

‘Questions? No.’ There’s a short gap in which he registers surprise and I feel like an idiot. ‘I mean, I want the job. I don’t have any questions about that.’

His turn to smile. A real one, not fake ones like mine.

‘You do. You really do.’ He makes that a statement not a question. For a DCI, he’s not very good at asking questions. I nod anyway.

‘And you’d probably quite like it if I didn’t ask you about a two-year gap in your CV, around the time of your A levels.’

I nod again, more slowly. Yes, I would quite like it if you didn’t ask about that.

‘Human resources know what’s going on there, do they?’

‘Yes. I’ve already been into that with them. I was ill. Then I got better.’

‘Who in human resources?’

‘Katie. Katie Andrews.’

‘And the illness?’

I shrug. ‘I’m fine now.’

A non-answer. I hope he doesn’t push further, and he doesn’t. He checks with me who’s interviewed me so far. The answer is, pretty much everyone. This session with Matthews is the final hurdle.

‘OK. Your father knows you’re applying for this job?’

‘Yes.’

‘He must be pleased.’

Another statement in place of a question. I don’t answer it.

Matthews examines my face intently. Maybe that’s his interview technique. Maybe he doesn’t ask his suspects any questions, he just makes statements and scrutinises their faces in the wide open light from the big Cardiff sky.

‘We’re going to offer you a job, you know that?’

‘You are?’

‘Of course we are. Coppers aren’t thick, but you’ve got more brains than anyone else in this building. You’re fit. You don’t have a record. You were ill for a time as a teenager, but you’re fine now. You want to work for us. Why wouldn’t we hire you?’

I could think of a couple of possible answers to that, but I don’t volunteer them. I’m suddenly aware of being intensely relieved, which scares me a bit, because I wasn’t aware of having been anxious. I’m standing up. Matthews has stood up too and comes towards me, shaking my hand and saying something. His big shoulders block my view of Bute Park and I lose sight of the kites. Matthews is talking about formalities and I’m blathering answers back at him, but my attention isn’t with any of that stuff. I’m going to be a policewoman. And just five years ago, I was dead.