Write Like Hell (a Word about Voice)

September 27, 2011

As a non-fiction writer, I spent a decade keeping my audience in mind and writing concise copy in a conversational tone. Nobody said a thing about “my voice” unless they wanted me to speak up—or shut up—during a conference call.

After two years of devoting more time to fiction writing than to non-fiction writing, I’m struggling with the concept of voice. Although I don’t think I realized the magnitude of the struggle until I read my first Victoria Dahl contemporary romance. I thought, “Damn! That’s one heck of a voice.” Strong, clear, funny, and even a bit awkward (typed with total admiration), Victoria Dahl’s authentic writing voice inspires me to find my own. What I admire most is that she doesn’t try to copy someone else, and she certainly doesn’t engage in self-censorship.

When I mention censorship, I’m not really talking about strong language and explicit scenes. What I’m referring to is the habit some writers (me, me, me) have of carefully writing almost every word rather than letting the story pour from the deepest parts of them. These writers (read: me) write with the proverbial “they” on their shoulders. The writers (ME) question sentence structure, alter words, change the plot and in general trash their own voices. In fact, it’s impossible to hear the writer’s voice with so much static in the head caused by well-meaning advice from email loops, Twitter, rejection letters, workshops, conferences, Web sites and writing pals.

I’m not saying advice is bad. On the contrary, few writers will achieve publication in a bubble. Over the years, my manuscripts have benefited from advice, especially in terms of story structure and general industry likes and dislikes. But my manuscripts have suffered from advice too. Each time I sit down to write, my story shares headspace with advice like this:

Watch the backstory—not too much. Pump up the dialogue. White space is good (which goes along with more dialogue). Rape and adultery are bad. Show, don’t tell. Adverbs cheapen descriptions. Wandering body parts should be caged. Heroines can’t be too needy. Heroes shouldn’t be too alpha. Small town romances are trendy. Vampire romances are dead. Too many POVs in one chapter confuse the reader. Switch POVs in the same chapter only at scene breaks. Get your H&H together in Chapter One. Focus on sexual tension. Avoid gratuitous sex. Practice safe sex. Say no to prologues. Reward readers with epilogues. And on and on and on…

To be honest, I waste a lot of time sanitizing what I write, and I’m pretty sure I’m killing any fiction voice I’ve managed to develop over the last two years. So I’m detoxing. I’m purging all the dos and don’ts. The only advice I’m going to follow while I’m recovering is:

Write like hell.

My voice is in there someplace, and damn it…I’m going to find it.

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11 Responses to “Write Like Hell (a Word about Voice)”

  1. nicolehelm Says:

    You know what’s funny? I had this same exact revelation on my vacation. I’ve been so busy listening to all the dos/dont’s that nothing seems to come out the way I want it to. I don’t feel like I’m really getting anywhere with each subsequent MS. I want to write again without constantly worrying about if it “fits”.

  2. Neeks Says:

    You know what? Excellent post and great advice. You come across here as thoughtful, frustrated, concise, but with a sense of humor. That’s quite a voice in my book! More please!

  3. LD Says:

    I’m with you on the ‘sanitizing’ part…a blight that has been crippling my writing for the past few weeks. Been trying hard to follow the so many rules and it’s resulting in a WIP that sounds so robotic.Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not doing away with the editing, but for goodness sake, too much scrutiny and you end up with a work that lacks a voice as you rightly point out.


    • And the worst kind of editing is the kind we do while we are writing. Are you guilty of that? I am. My internal editor yaps the entire time I’m writing. It’s worse during rewrites or revisions.


  4. I’d say your voice came through loud and clear here. I confess to “massaging” what I write, but it’s not so much trying to fit everyone’s expectations or even finding a voice. I always seem to have what I “mean” clear in my head, but I have trouble finding the words. Rather than wait until the right words come, I’ve learned to just “write like hell” and then go back to figure out why it’s not saying what I wanted the reader to hear. Would that be voice? Or the murdering of?

  5. kathryn Says:

    Isn’t this “part of the process”? That we all, after a few attempts to write like hell in ignorance, stutter to a halt. Then we struggle thro learning the Craft. Then we go back to forgetting all about the Craft (except of course it’s lodged in the grey matter somewhere) and start writing like hell again. Muuuch more pleasurable to write seemingly from instinct – but now we know how to get where we want to go…

  6. Mel Jolley Says:

    Well said, and so true. At the recent RWNZ conference a publisher/agent (can’t remember which) said first person POVs were a tough sell. All I thought, when my friend reported this from her blog, was, ‘Tell that to Stephanie Meyer and Charlaine Harris!’ Thanks again.

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