It's your voice! Use it!
One thing I’ve always admired about the fantasy genre is it doesn’t talk down to readers. Writers tend to assume the reader understands big words, or can at least infer the meaning from the rest of the sentence. There’s also the fun of new names and places. These are part of the genre. Would we ever have thought Gondor was real if it wasn’t in a place called Middle Earth? Probably not.
I’ve enjoyed reading the genre for as long as I can recall, so it was natural for me to begin writing it. I’m an avid tabletop gamer. I draw endless inspiration from our adventures. I’m also armed with a good vocabulary!
So, when someone I thought knew what they were doing tried to tell me my books weren’t selling because I used too many ‘big words’ (examples they used were: constrained, constricted, acknowledged) or ‘strange names’ (Kade, Talin, Arwenna), it stung. How could someone, another author at that, say such things?
They said it because they don’t understand my voice. Or the readership I write for.
We all read books for different reasons. For me, growing up, I needed to escape into a world that wasn’t the one I lived. Where I didn’t live across the street from someone who raped me. Where my mother wasn’t a narcissistic bully. One where I wasn’t ostracized by other kids in grade school because of my weight.
One where the problems I was dealing with as a young child could disappear, be forgotten.
I like to read what I call “intelligent books.” In intelligent books, the author gives me credit that something they mention in passing on page 16 I’ll remember when it becomes relevant on page 293. This is how I write. This is my voice. It belongs to me.
Too often, new authors listen to the opinions of others and write to please them instead of staying true to their own voice. We get bogged down in ‘rules’ that really don’t exist. Passive vs. active, using -ly adverbs, or doing too much/not enough of something. A lot of these opinions are going to come from people we think know better. They say they’re trying to help. They’re not. What they’re doing is trying to tell you to change your voice into something they personally like.
I remember my mother once telling me I should change the name of some of the characters in my first book because she had trouble pronouncing them in her head. She said this after it was published. Um, no.
As I said before, I didn’t have the best childhood. That’s not meant to make you feel sorry for me. A lot of people have had trauma in their lives. I think my parents did the best they could but really had no clue how to raise a creative child. My voice was silenced at an early age, because I believed them when they said that I’d never be good enough. Someone else would be better, so I shouldn’t even try.
My muse was locked in a cage, and I lost the key for decades. When I found it again, I knew I’d never look back.
That trauma is part of me. It’s part of my voice. Which is why it bothered me so much to hear unsolicited advice about my writing. I can handle constructive criticism. That’s part of the job. And I know not everyone’s going to like my stories. But to be told that I have to change things that are central to the stories I write? I had to ask myself why this author would say such things. My only conclusion was that they didn’t understand the genre.
The first step to finding your voice is to read the genre you’re wanting to write. I don’t like westerns, so it’d be silly for me to start writing one without ever picking up a book. I’d be basing it entirely off of stereotypes from movies and shows my parents watched. A book about a country singer who makes it big in Nashville? No, because I don’t listen to the music. I grew up reading fantasy. I love the genre’s literature and movies. Superheroes, comic books, role playing games…. those are where I draw my ideas from.
I went to Scotland in 2018. At one point, I spent a night in a restored 14th c. castle. I took over a hundred photos. Why? Because most of my stories are set in a medieval world of sorts. I wanted to be able to paint an accurate picture of what the wall of a castle might feel like. The thickness of the walls, the patina of a fireplace that’s had a fire burning within for centuries. The inconsistencies in the height and width of the stairs. These are all things I can weave into my books to bring my reader into the world I build.
That’s not to say we can’t learn. The internet’s an amazing tool for writers. If you do the research and dig deep enough, you can get a lot of knowledge to add to your books.
Authors use words to immerse readers into a world they create. It doesn’t matter if it’s modern with real locations or an imagined space ship heading to a planet in another galaxy. It’s the words that take us there. They feed our imagination, paint the image, for the reader to enjoy. A good vocabulary, to me, is essential. It makes all the difference when I’m reading.
Here’s an example.
The room was painted blue, and shelves lined the walls. Caspar looked up from his desk as George entered. “Take a seat,” he told his brother. George sat in one of the leather chairs in front of the desk.
Now, the same scene but in my voice:
Caspar sat at the desk, the dark mahogany polished to a reflective sheen. Matching bookshelves stood around the room, filled with volumes collected from his travels. The gold stamped lettering of some of them stood out. Deep blue walls gave the room depth and what Adara had called ‘pop’. It was the one reminder of her that he’d kept in his study. Even the photos of them together had long since been packed away.
The door opened and Caspar drew in his breath sharply as his brother walked in. Nodding, he acknowledged his presence. “Take a seat,” he told George. He still didn’t trust the younger man, no matter what their father believed. He watched every movement as George settled into the dark brown leather chair.
I’m not saying the first, shorter version is bad. It’s not. If that’s your style, then run with it! You’ll want to make sure it’s grammatically correct with spelling and punctuation, of course. Otherwise, it’s fine. It’s how you like to write.
The second version, for me as a reader and author, is better. Only because you’ve got a truer picture to imagine of the room itself. You understand that it’s a male dominated space. That this woman, Adara, did have an influence on the design but that something had happened. To her, to their relationship. And that Caspar didn’t really trust his brother for some reason. You get a visual in your mind that’s in line with what I, as an author, am picturing. And I used some ‘big words’.
I’m admitting it here, to you, that I got angry when I read the ‘helpful’ commentary by this other author. I’m not naming them, because I don’t believe in public shaming. Not online, anyway. We have enough problems with flame wars, etc., and I won’t be part of the trend.
I had asked their advice on the wording for a blurb. Not my writing in general. They chose to attack me and my voice. They write in the style of the first example I gave. My voice is the second. I refuse to go backwards. I refuse to change my voice for one person. The genre I write demands an extensive vocabulary, strange names, and descriptive terms. It means sometimes breaking ‘rules’ that others adhere to religiously.
I’m not saying my writing is perfect from the moment it hits the page. Never is. This is why I have an amazing team of beta readers and I listen to my editor. But they understand my voice. They know the expectations of my target readership. One beta pointed out that I tend to have what he called a ‘pet adverb’ that changes with each book. That’s pretty common. We’ve all got a phrase or word we use more than we should. Mine changes from book to book. When it’s pointed out to me, I can make the corrections as necessary. This is why I have beta readers.
Throughout it all, though, my voice is consistent. The words I use to describe a scene, or emphasize something in dialogue, tell the story. I want to craft a world that makes readers forget they’re sitting on the couch and their tea has grown cold because they turned the page instead of picked up the cup. Where the laundry will get put away after one more chapter. Or they have to tell their friends at work to get a copy because they couldn’t put it down all weekend. A story that makes time stop and stress is put on the shelf until you find out what happened to the characters.
At some point, we all need to take a deep breath and listen to the voice inside of us that compels us to write. Not what anyone else says. Find that style that’s uniquely yours and nurture it. Feed it, water it, let it bloom. Write the story that’s in you, not the one dictated by someone else.
Commentary from Meg:
I'll likely publish a follow up to this blog post next month, where I cover voice from your editor's perspective and how to preserve your voice while working with an editor.
Thank you KateMarie for the generous contribution! You can keep up with Carly at the following links: