A Tip — and a Short Case Study — for Writing “Voice” Authenticity

Coaching the writing voice — the narrative tone and style and essences that become the telling of the story in sentences and paragraphs and scenes and chapters — is the toughest realm of “talent” to access.   And for many, to improve upon.

Thing is, sometimes it’s that very thing – your voice – that is standing in your way.

It’s like coaching a singer to carry a better tune. 

Writing voice is an ear thing, a sensibility.  It is something that comes naturally, and from there is honed and tuned in context to the evolution not only of what you need to get onto the page,  but what you are drawn to as a reader, as well.

What may seem like your natural “voice” may not be your ticket, after all.

The ultimate goal of working on your voice is, like the singer, a more appropriate tone and style and musicality for the performance.  The singer has to get it at some point, no matter what the teaching tries to convey.

I once heard Michael Bolton sing opera during a concert (you can hear that HERE), and it was stellar, he absolutely could do it and do it well.  Question is… could he do it better than, as well as, the professionals in that niche?

Bolton singing opera, as good as it sounds to you and me, is not the voice that sold millions of pop records.

That’s the point: write what works.  Discover what works, and if you’re there yet.

But first you need to understand what works.  In this case more than others, feedback is critical.  Too often it comes in the form of rejection.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Use your resources, ask for honesty.  Then listen.

You very well may not have found that voice yet, even after years of banging out stories.

This case study is from a writer who has been hitting some brick walls with her submissions because of, she has been told, her narrative voice.

Agents and editors are complimentary of her writing in general, and her story sense, but they “just aren’t feeling it” where the voice is concerned.

Translation: it wasn’t distinctive enough.  And perhaps, it was too often off-key.  Or simply too often too much.

She submitted the problem, which became our coaching objective, along with two separate 5-page excerpts from her novel.  I’ve included all that here, followed by my analysis and some coaching points.

The take away: it’s easy to do, but bringing a third person sensibility (which may be your natural voice) and context to first person narrative creates an unnatural tonality to the voice, to the point of distracting from the story.

You absolutely do NOT want your narrator to sound like your high school English teacher.  You remember, the one that had a thing for adjectives.

See that happen here, along with some tips and examples, including a link to one of the finest modern “voices” writing novels today (no, it’s not me, trust me): Voice analysis and Coaching.

Many thanks to this courageous author, who requested only that her name and the name of her protagonist not be used, because she doesn’t want this on a search engine somewhere after she revises the manuscript.  Which she will, since the feedback resonated and she now sees it and hears it better than before.

In fact, her response was to switch from first person to third person in the next draft, because she’s closer to understanding her natural gift of narrative, which fits better there.

Feel free to share your thoughts, she deserves any feedback we have that might help. 

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If you’d like some feedback on your story, click the links at the top of this post for a short Concept/Premise analysis, or a longer Full Story Plan analysis.  I won’t post your work (and the feedback) here if you don’t choose to go that route… and that’s not the point.  YOU are the point, in many cases saving months or even years of exploration and experimentation over a series of draft, perhaps never really understanding why your submission gets the responses it does.

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Click HERE for some tips (lifted from Story Engineering) from writer Liesa Malik’s terrific blog.  And a contest, too, if you’re the competitive type.

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NEWS FLASH ANNOUNCEMENT: I just learned today that Turner Publishing has sold the audiobook rights to all of my novels, including my current title, Deadly Faux, myfour backlist titles, and my new release on December.  Exciting news for me, I’ve been trying to crack that code for years now.  The producing company is a Grammy winner and considered the best player in that niche.

Who knows, maybe now I can accompany you on a road trip sometime!  Will keep y’all posted as this unfolds.

14 Comments

Filed under Case studies

14 Responses to A Tip — and a Short Case Study — for Writing “Voice” Authenticity

  1. What a subtle challenge. Reading the excerpts, I could feel something was awry, but not what it was. Your conclusion, that it sounds third person, not first, was a very “aha” moment.

    I understand the appeal of writing this in the first person, and for this story, that would still be my choice. That would require a total rewrite in a different voice.

    Third person won’t deliver the same vicarious experience. Reading *about* gods is a world away from reading what it’s like to be one.

  2. MikeR

    One article on writing made an interesting comment when it came to the writing of narrative: “TELL, DON’T SHOW.”

    As I recall, the gist of the idea was that, at any particular point in time, a narrative is doing one of two things: either it is “moving forward,” or it has “stopped to look around.”

    Also, the narrative is either “experiencing” (thus inviting the reader to vicariously share in the experience), or “describing [the narrator’s own experience],” thereby pushing the reader out of the vicarious post and relegating the reader to being a third-party observer.

    The first thing that I would do with this prose is to print it out and lightly take a pencil to it. Stroke through the phrases that cause the action to stop, and those that impose the writer’s personal vision of the setting and the scene. Except to the extent that there’s a detail that you’re really going to refer to elsewhere in the story, let ME, the Gentle Reader, BECOME the protagonist. Let ME populate the set, even dress the characters, out of my own imagination. I don’t want to watch the movie; I want to be IN it. 🙂

    I’m also pondering the story-value of the obviously pivotal scene that was chosen here as an example – the public undressing of an eighteen-year old maiden from the point-of-view of that maiden; a sort of visual mass-rape that she ostensibly must go through to entitle her to join the ranks of those who will wear the red robes. Okay, the horny-male in me might say, “go for the breasts, hyuck hyuck, let’s just go straight for the …” But the other part of me simply feels let-down by the entire scene. Because, no matter how many pages it goes on, it has only one ending, and that ending is: the ritual, but total, public humiliation of the protagonist character. “Why?”

    Grandma refuses to attend. Good for her. Father stares straight ahead. So does protagonist. Really? Father does not, say, instead, step forward, breaking the ritual, refusing to allow it, and wraps his daughter(!) in the red robe that he himself took off, and says to her, “you shall have it now,” defiantly taking upon himself whatever repercussions his act might ultimately have? He reveals that underneath his robe he wears a simple tunic, and leads his daughter to stand beside him. BANG! Now THAT would be drama – and, a whole lot more real.

    A big danger in a 1PNarrative story is that it becomes self-absorbed even to the point of being a little bit narcissistic. The Gentle Reader needs to have room to slip-into and slip-out-of the narrator’s point of view.

  3. Thank you BRAVE WRITER who allowed Larry to share your struggle/story. It was insightful. It sounds like a great story, but yes, it lacked the emotional hook that I like when I read. The changes Larry has suggested will make this sing. Best of luck. It is a good story. And Larry, “The wheezing greed of mob bosses” “I sell newspapers” That was great writing. Thanks for introducing us to Colin Harrison

  4. Terri P

    I can certainly understand the dilemma for this writer. Fantasy lends itself to third person; YA to first. If you’re writing a YA Fantasy, which do you choose?

    It all depends.

    I think this writer leans towards the lyrical and that nudges me into favoring third person POV especially since you need to ground your reader in a world that may or may not be similar to your reader’s reality.

    That being said, if your reader doesn’t connect to the characters, who cares?

    I would write in third and layer in deep POV. Deep. So, the protagonist might not think, “Crap this marble’s cold!” when stepping onto the dais but she might be counting her steps to distract her from the ritual that’s about to crash down on her.

    I think it’s a good call, Larry.

    My 2 bits.

  5. That was a good lesson, especially for those of us hoping to break in some day.

    So, just so I am clear, her writing was fine if it were coming third-person? I enjoyed her touch of elegance, but I see how it doesn’t fit first-person.

    I’m reading Tortilla Curtain by TC Boyle right now, and he overwrites to the point of it being annoying. In contrast, this woman’s writing was very easy to read.

  6. David

    You are a good writer. I see loads of potential here. I do not think this should be changed to third person because it is the type of story that begs to be told in first person. Honing your first person pov is what you should focus on, at least for this book. I have a feeling that you could very well have a “break through” after some reflection on the technique and more practice implementing it, after which the writing will become both easier to do and more natural to read.

    The biggest hurdle in my mind is not finding your own voice but finding this character’s voice. It is much easier to portray an 18 year old Midwestern American girl than a half-human goddess from another dimension. I suspect that trying to figure that out is your biggest hindrance at the moment. But once you do, once you figure HER out, it will be much easier for you to slip into her skin and take your readers with you. I am not the one to give you advice on first person technique, but there are many others who can. Just re-reading parts of Katniss’ story and others like it will go a long way toward helping you with your own. I mention Katniss specifically because she has some things in common with this girl, she is foreign to us, lives in a time and place we can’t realistically relate to at all, but comes across well because of the things we DO understand, her love, her courage, even her horridly repressed passion for life. This character should not be like Katniss, of course, but she might learn how better to express herself by observing how Katniss does it.

    Some technical notes unrelated to voice: I think you should get rid of the “almost” in the first paragraph, ie: “In moments I would be stripped naked for the viewing pleasure of the gods” The sheer unencumbered boldness of such a statement has an immediate and powerful impact. It puts your protagonist in at the height of vulnerability. If you fear possible sexual overtones, don’t. You are in no danger of wandering off into erotica here. This is about your readers (mostly female in all likelihood) vicariously experiencing your protagonist’s incredible state of vulnerability, right at the outset. (I agree with Larry that the first paragraph is just fantastic, by the way. This one change, in my opinion, would send it into the stratosphere.)

    Second, you really need to rethink some of your names for things. Some of them are really, really good. Some of them I think are just really bad. Diamond Peacock is bad. I get the connection between the Peacock and the vanity of the gods, and I think your mention of the giant peacocks lining the walls accomplishes the purpose of that imagery very well. I just don’t think the place should actually have peacock in the name. I think this is very important. Because think about the affect that the word peacock has. In the description of statues, it is fine, but in the name of the kingdom of the gods, it has a completely different effect. The word itself carries an air of absurdity. An agent may react very badly to it without even being conscious of why. It is one of those seemingly small things that gives them an impression of “a not-ready amateur”, possibly without them even realizing it. A name like that colors everything written after it, so that after the initial great impression of the first paragraph, they become negatively disposed toward the rest. Now they are looking for signs of amateurishness (if that’s a word), instead of being carried along by the story.

    One tip is to look up the word in another language, and find a version that sounds really cool, if it exists. This gets rid of the bad name, preserves the peacock statues (which you still call peacocks, because it doesn’t seem absurd when you’re just mentioning statues), and hides a nice little Easter egg for some of your really big future fans, who might just look it up and smile when they find out the meaning. One place that I think is great for this sort of thing is a baby names website. You just look up “names meaning ____”. You’ll be amazed at some of the cool names and origins that come up. For example, some cool names that come up for Peacock are:
    Chandraki, Kalapi, and Mayoor. (Chandraki is my favorite.) For diamond, among many others: Almas and Avikam. Why not have a place called “Almas Chandraki” or “Avikam Kalapi”, or “Almas Mayoor”, or just drop the Diamond and call it Chandraki or Kalapi. These may or may not be great names, but you can hunt around until you find a combo you really like. In any case, I would get rid of the Peacock.

    Another bad name is Sea Inside. Too clumsy and obvious. Aarnav Antara is an alternative from the same source. This technique also brings a subtle authenticity to the names, and anyone obsessed enough to research them and find out the meaning will be delighted that the place with the sea on the inside is actually called “Sea Inside” by combining words from two other languages. Most of the other names are very good. Those two just stood out to me.

    Finally, read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, available on Amazon in kindle format. (Also available in paperback if that’s your thing.) Fantastic book on the very specific, technical aspects of professional writing. Never again will your character’s voice break as she finds her balance. Rather she will do something like, “I finally found my balance and looked straight at them. ‘I’m going to the monastary.’ It didn’t help that my voice cracked, undermining my show of determination.” Maybe not the greatest example, but it gets rid of the compound action, which is a big no-no. Anyway, the tips in that book are just excellent, and experimenting with them will undoubtedly make your writing more powerful and effective. I think you are very close to being very good.

  7. trudy

    Frankly, I enjoyed the writing and found little to quibble with. That said, you have received a rejection that focused on voice and tone. It may be quite true, though, that first person may be a key reason why they turned away from publishing your work. Personally, I love first person. But I know so many folk who don’t enjoy it (I don’t get it, but they do). The problem I have seen with switching from 1st to 3rd is that it will affect your pacing (as in it will slow the story down). You don’t have pacing issues now, but you will have to really watch that should you make the decision to change to third. I would not discount the editor’s bias against first person and you may wish to submit elsewhere (if you haven’t already) before turning your story inside out. Great job – I really enjoyed getting a peek at your story. Good luck!

  8. Wow, this is a tough one because the author is obviously very talented. But Jack Bickham has written, “Many writers get into serious trouble by writing as an author, instead of writing as a character.”

    What is the true nature of the protagonist? Not the author, but the protagonist? Despite all the flowery adjectives, her “voice” is — Self-conscious. Precise. Literate. Edited to within an inch of its life, as she carefully explains things like the following:

    “In moments, I would be stripped, almost naked, for the viewing pleasure of the gods – the rite of passage that would mark my eighteenth birthday and bring my freedom. But first I had to be judged, by my own kind.”

    She even admits: “Both also had an unsettling capacity to suppress all emotions, which I sometimes feared they had instilled in me. At this moment, at least, that skill was proving helpful.”

    Now, this would be fine if this were the true personality of the young protagonist. We could get into her. But is she really this literate, thoughtful person? Not really, because, at the same time, she tells about her wild emotions such as the following:

    “Too nervous to concentrate on anything or anyone”
    “A feeling of panic blew through the mental fog”
    “I became aware of all my senses. They were overwhelmingly heightened, and pouring in all at once.”

    Kind of like Spock telling us that he cried himself to sleep last night, his salty tears soaking the pillow. It just doesn’t ring true, and maybe that’s why the editors said they “didn’t feel it.”

    I think the voice might be helped if the author decides on the deep, true nature of her protagonist–and has her 1st person voice reflect that.

  9. Bill Cory

    Larry … sorry to differ, but there are actually four adjectives in that first paragraph of Harrison’s novel: wretched, wheezing, muscled and magnificent. Easy to gloss over, since they are so perfectly woven into the description.

    I think the thing that struck me most about the sample pages was when the protagonist arrived in the human realm and was able to identify bushes and trees, lichens, and so forth, but called the people leaning over her “creatures.” She even knew how to describe their skin and clothing. Seems to me this is a somewhat transparent attempt at making her seem more foreign, but if she didn’t even know they were the humans of the human realm she was in, how did she know what lichens were? But, maybe it’s just me.

    Other than that, I thought the writing was nice, but the dialogue a little bit off the mark.

  10. @Bill – good catch. Really illustrates the “less is more” tool, because those adjectives in Harrison’s work really do melt into the flow, rather than jump out, which is the symptom of purple prose or simply trying too hard. Thanks for reading my stuff — L.

  11. Robert Jones

    I think Larry’s advice here is pretty spot on. Using his advice as a starting point, hopefully I can add to it in some way. It’s a tough call when it comes to differentiating “poetic imagery” and “metaphoric imagery.” Metaphor can seem poetic without coming across overly purple. And I believe a bit of poetic licensing could work here since the character comes from a different realm, or if she we made to speak a certain way. However, if you don’t have a practiced voice, or understand characterization through visual actions and imagery, this is going to be very hard to do and come across realistic. So let’s stick with metaphor, and I’ll endeavor to explain in greater detail using some examples from the opening of “Manhattan Nocturne,” and from the writer in question.

    Let’s begin with some basics. How do you show instead of tell? Because this seems to be the writer’s main issue. The writing comes across as a vivid fantasy, but “told” in a way that sounds like some version of an essay written for that English class Larry mentioned. “I did this, I saw that, soon I would be stripped naked…” and so on. The difference between telling and showing is this:

    Telling: It began to rain.

    Showing: The first drops of rain raised gooseflesh along my bare arms.

    Maybe not the greatest example of writing, but the idea is that a non-writer tells us it’s raining, a writer shows us what it feels like to be rained on.

    Let’s examine two sentences from “Manhattan Nocturne.”

    I sell the muscled heroism of firemen and the wheezing greed of mob bosses. The stench of garbage, the rattle of gold.

    Adjectives, which usually become less effective when overused, are used to good effect here because they help us see the “muscled heroism of firemen,” we hear “the wheezing” of mob bosses and the “rattle” of gold. This uses our senses of sight and sound, even our sense of smell is touched on in “the stench of garbage.” Granted, if you were writing a paragraph that was just about the stench, then some particularity about what that stench smelled like would be even better.

    We see those “Italian longshoremen sitting on their stoops in Brooklyn, chewing unlit cigars,” not because it is a masterful sentence, but because it is a fresh image that we don’t see every day. It’s the picking out of details that are fresh and particular to any setting that makes us feel we are in the hands of a writer.

    “I have magnetic hooks on my refrigerator door that holds my potholders”–is something your grandmother might say in terms of passing along information.

    A writer might say, “Hanging from magnetic hooks on the refrigerator door was a potholder and matching oven mitt–pale blue with big yellow daisies that made me think of summer picnics at my grandmother’s farm when I was a boy.”

    Writing is about the details most people see but fail to observe. And they are always viewed through the lens of the character who is doing the observing. Let’s look at one of the writer’s paragraphs:

    Their eyes fixed on me as I took my place front and center. Aunt Ursa cocked her eyebrows higher, if that was even possible. Her face, as usual, did very little to hide her disgust at the Presentation ceremony, and even more at the Bacchanalia, in which she refused to participate. Father gave me an almost imperceptible nod before turning his attention to the crowd – probably in search for one, or several, goddesses to accompany him during the Bacchanalia.

    Could this be improved if we could actually “see” the aunt and father? Not a lengthy description, but just a quick detail or two that most characterizes them through the eyes of the hero, or gives the reader something a bit more fresh than arching eyebrows and almost imperceptible nods. These images are cliched as well as telling. And they don’t characterize at all.

    How about: My father’s nod was a command. He never nodded a second time, and you never ignored it–not of you wanted life to remain pleasant.

    Growing up around Aunt Ursa, I came to see her perpetually arched eyebrows as a symbol of her high expectations for me.

    Even in third person, we are viewing life from the POV character, their impressions, their feelings, what stands out most to them. And we should never waste an opportunity to characterize the viewer and the viewee through our imagery.

    I think once the writer begins to understand this, to really get inside the heads of her characters and particularize what they see, filter it back to the reader through her character’s eyes and impressions, the writing voice will take shape. I also believe this is why the poetic imagery stands out so loudly in the current examples of writing–because it just sits on the page as poetic words and doesn’t come through the character in a way that makes us feel like she’s lived her life with these people, in this world. She’s a stranger…no, a stranger’s grandmother…telling us about the potholders hanging on her refrigerator without engaging our senses that show us color, texture, characterization.

    It’s a potentially great story, told without careful observation of details that or anything very fresh and particular.

  12. MikeR

    One thing that gives rise to “purple prose” is the “You ARE There!” newsreel approach, in which the narrator tries to describe the immediacy of the moment while at the same time providing the necessary exposition … and seeks to do so from the same point-of-view. This is extremely hard to pull off. The concerns of the prose have to be, not only storytelling, but cinematography where the only camera is locked in her hands.

    In the case of Manhattan Nocturne, the person who is telling the story is obviously telling the story about himself. But he’s not necessarily holding the camera. He’s telling you the story of what happened in the recent past. He’s also telling you about himself. He’s conjuring up your own experiences and memories to fill in your mental picture in your own way. By means of what he says and how he presents it, he’s telling you about what’s going to happen and especially about himself. He’s dramatic. In two sentences, you’re hooked.

    If the protagonist in this tale is, in effect, holding her phone and shooting a real-time video, it’s extremely difficult to write dialogue that works. However, if the protagonist is telling her own tale, she’ll naturally and seamlessly alternate between telling you background, about herself and the situation, and directly relating “what it was like to be in” a particular detailed scene. It’s clear from her narrative where-and-when she is at any particular time, and she can, so to speak, switch between several different cameras and points-in-time. That will come across as storytelling, where the story concerns herself, and that will work well.

  13. @Mike — spot on stuff here. It’s a great example of (and extension of) my assertion that nailing the tonality of EITHER first or third person is a “sensibility” that results from naturally understanding and applying exactly what you speak of in your comment. Harrison (in “Manhattan Nocturne”) didn’t sit down and strategize that opening riff. It was him going deep into character, he was introducing what he does, and flipping it to an external expression. The vividness of the descriptions isn’t in the detail of the externals he describes, it’s the passion with which he recalls them. And of course, he had the chance to polish it once it was on the page, as we all do. Often, I think, it’s in the polish phase where we lather on the adjectives and the purple and that the whole thing over the top.

    I still think this is the hardest thing for writer to finally “get.” It’s court sense in basketball or tennis. It’s touch in golf. It’s the ability for a jazz player or an actor to improvise off-script in the moment, playing off what’s before her/him. The great ones nail it. They don’t overwhelm the core of it, they clarify it and lend texture and passion to it. Offering us an opportunity to watch/read and learn. Maybe we’ll get there a little quicker when we do. L.

  14. Great comments so far and I think everyone is spot on. I have a few things to add, if it might help.

    I’m not sure if the rejection is coming from the pitch letter or from the sample, but the pitch is too long and not in the voice of the character. One trick I’ve been taught when writing a picth is to write it first person of the protag and then switch it back to third. The pitch as it reads now is all third person.

    Agree about the showing and some minor info dumping, the character needs much more interior dialogue. It sounds like an adult’s perspective of what’s happening to the teen. I realize this is fantasy, but let’s say that the character has to be naked, it would be something like, I have to take my clothes off in front of my family? Gross! Or whatever her voice would be. Or, if being naked is no big deal, then she could say something like, I don’t know what’s the big deal about being naked. I was born that way after all. Or when she sees the humans for the first time it could be a WTF? kind of moment. Of course I’m using contemporary examples, but you have to think how a teen would react. Or maybe she would scream or blurt out how ugly they are rather than saying it to herself. Just some ideas.

    Another thought I had is that there could be more dialogue tags, as sometimes I got confused who was talking. Anyhoo, I will read it again if anything else sangs. I would definitely keep the first person.

    Thanks for your bravery and sharing, Cheers Heidi.