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Serious Writer Voice

5 February 2016

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

So I read fiction magazine after fiction magazine, anthology after anthology.

I noted something as I read. Most of the stories had the same voice and tone. What do I mean by that? I mean they read like they’d been written by the exact same person.

It was always a joy—it is always a joy—to “hear” a new voice, a voice that doesn’t sound like anyone else. I could tell without looking at the byline when I hit a Joyce Carol Oates or Megan Abbot or Michael Connelly story. The Strand found an original F. Scott Fitzgerald story and published it last year, and Fitzgerald’s voice—unlike any other—came through loud and clear.

A lot of the stories I read this past year had wonderful plots. They had great characters and lovely twists. The stories were published, remember, and so they all had something unusual, something strong.

But that something generally wasn’t voice.

And now I’m reading manuscripts for an anthology that should be all voice. Every story should sound so different from every other story as to be unrecognizable. Think of it like accents or word usage: As I read, I should be seeing Texas accents and idioms in one story, Australian accents and idioms in the next, and Scottish accents and idioms in the next.

Instead, I get mostly what I call “serious writer voice.”

Serious writer voice is carefully bland. It will include a few setting details, some nice descriptions, maybe a few unique words. But mostly, it is indistinguishable from any other voice. Rather like the way we used to train broadcasters in this country.

When I started on the radio, I was fortunate enough to have the perfect accent, because broadcasters were trained to speak like a Midwesterner. (Middle Midwest, if you want to be specific—more Central Illinois than Northern Minnesota or Southern Missouri.) Now, if you listen, you’ll hear broadcasters with Georgia accents, and broadcasters with Brooklyn accents. They actually sound like human beings these days—with correct grammar (most of the time) but varied delivery.

Like broadcasters of old, writers have been trained to sound the same. Serious writer voice stories have paragraphs that are of uniform length, sentences that rarely have contractions, a lot of passive voice (!), and very few conjunctions. Things like dashes and parenthesis are used judiciously—as in so rarely that most stories don’t even have them.

All the tools that writers should have in their grammarian’s toolbox—the tools that make writers “sound” different—well, most writers don’t know they exist. It’s as if writers try very hard to build a house using a hammer, nails, some wood, and a saw. No screwdriver, no wrench, no metal, no PVC pipes, nothing. Just the same four things over and over again, whether they fit or not.

. . . .

Think of it this way: imagine someone telling you a story. That person, who uses his own voice creatively—mimicking accents, raising his voice when someone’s shouting, using different tones for different characters—will hold your attention with his performance as well as his story.

Then think of the same story told like this: the person stands in front of the room, uses no gestures, and speaks in a monotone. Sometimes, you can hear the story anyway. But most of the time, you have to struggle to pay attention, because that monotone is deadly.

Most of what I read these days—things that are published, both traditionally and indie—are written in the stylistic equivalent of that monotone.

Is there a reason this is happening? Absolutely.

Writers workshop their manuscripts. They have their friends (usually unpublished or poorly published) writers go over the manuscript. Those friends impose really weird rules on the writers. I’ve seen lists of these rules. The rules tend to vary depending on where the writer learned them.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch and thanks to Toby for the tip.

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Writing Advice

37 Comments to “Serious Writer Voice”

  1. Spot on.
    It’s the gatekeeper effect of the publishing establishment.

    Some of the most distinctive and enjoyable writers I’ve found are criticized for *not* following the herd.

    Yet another advantage of the Indie world…
    …if the author takes advantage of that freedom. Big if, in a lot of cases.

  2. “Serious writer voice” is what we’ve been told by The All-That-Five and their minions we must have in order to be taken seriously. I’ve tried to let my voice have its way and I’m told I didn’t until I kicked the sides outta the Christian fiction “serious writer” box and simply wrote what my characters would say.

    Many, many writers in the C-fic markets are abandoning that market for the mainstream. There are many names that you who read in that market would recognize. The “serious writer voice” box is part of the reason they’re leaving.

  3. I think this is the most common criticism I’ve seen leveled against MFA programs, and I think it’s valid to a point, but I think it’s the same as with any writing. Bradbury commented that we all have to write a million words of crap, and I think that sometimes the writers who go into MFAs are at early stages of that million words. They’ve probably got a novel or two, but that’s, like, what, 150,000 words?

    So they go into those programs at that stage and their initial million words are still awkward, but their awkward at a competent enough level to be published. There’s no confidence yet, no assurance, and very little intention besides “to get published.”

    I was lucky that I was at the latter bit of a million words when I went into a writing program, and it was a very different experience for me than for many of my classmates, I think. I had a couple of works in particular to bring, one major story I desperately wanted to tell and make gleam, and I wasn’t starting stories and manuscripts just to see where they went.

    The more you write, the more your voice refines, and the less of what isn’t your voice makes it to the page.

    Writers workshop their manuscripts. They have their friends (usually unpublished or poorly published) writers go over the manuscript. Those friends impose really weird rules on the writers.

    Arguably why writers need editors so badly. Somebody who knows story and structure and mechanics and prose. Somebody who’s as good at editing as the writer is as writing — if not even better. Friends and beta readers are fine and all, but I think if you want to get better you need to work with better.

    I’m glad I didn’t totally miss “serious writer” discussions at TPV!

    • Arguably why writers need editors so badly. Somebody who knows story and structure and mechanics and prose.

      Writers won’t find their unique voice by having editors rewrite their books for them…

      • If that’s what you think editors do you haven’t worked with a good one.

        • Bingo – my editor is my inner conscience. She articulates the stuff I knew was wrong with my work, but was afraid / reluctant to face or admit. She doesn’t tell me “this is how to do it better,” she says, “I know you can do better,” and leaves me to figure out how. She’s worth way, way more than I could ever afford to pay her.

  4. During his last visit I got to discussing SF/Fantasy writers with my elder son. One of the subjects was Robert E Howard and we both agreed that – despite his political incorrectness – he was a great writer because he would grab you from the start of the story and hold you tight until the end. When we started listing other writers who did this we realised that most of them were dead – or anyway old -and we had no real idea why younger authors didn’t do it for us.

    Our tentative conclusion was that you couldn’t really succeed as a pulp author without this ability, but this didn’t explain the current unsatisfactory state of much writing. Kris’s piece perfectly explains our post pulp dissatisfaction: too many published modern authors’ voices have been blandified.

    • Howard’s “secret” was nailing the true power of voice — it’s a synergy of author AND character. It’s evident because he wrote in different genres, with a distinct voice in each. It was Howard filtered THROUGH Conan, Sailor Steve Costigan, etc.

      We have more competent fiction than ever before. The material and workshops are out there to help writers learn the essentials. The power of voice is what elevates the competent to the distinctive and, perhaps, the unforgettable.

      • We have more competent fiction than ever before. The material and workshops are out there to help writers learn the essentials. The power of voice is what elevates the competent to the distinctive and, perhaps, the unforgettable.

        Brilliantly stated. Reminds me of the idea that “the good is the enemy of the great.” Competent is the enemy of extraordinary.

        • Will, I disagree. Complacency, not competence, is the enemy of the extraordinary. It is being satisfied with competence, not competence itself, that is bad.

          I heard it phrased ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good.’

          Thanks for making me think. You put a lot of thought into your posts (maybe not at the moment, but your work is like law — a lot of studying and experience goes into a two-second objection). I appreciate that and am grateful for it.

          • Hey thanks for that. I appreciate the kind words.

            And yeah, I’ll agree with you on that, about complacency. My use of “competent” was in the sense I used it below in response to Rob Gregory Browne — “competent enough mid-list thrillers.” Fine books, sure, but very rarely extraordinary.

            But you’re right that it’s more about the complacency. Being content to write merely competent without the challenge to pursue better.

            Not that writers need to. We all have our own motivations, and far be it from me to question anyone else’s. Not everyone wants to write extraordinary books, and that’s totally fine.

    • It’s funny you bring up REH’s Conan et al — I had thought that I’d lost my attention span for short stories. I find that I can’t settle in and “get into” most short stories I read; I prefer novels. But since I’ve been reading some pulps on Kindle, including binge-reading Conan, I was surprised by how immersed I got into those stories.

      Last night I was trying to figure out what set those stories apart. I was wondering if the reason was that the stories were all about one person so perhaps I was treating them like chapters in a novel. But now I’m wondering if “the voice” is the key.

      Perhaps it is, some of my prose style leans in the old fashioned direction. I picked up vocabulary over the years from stories written pre-1950’s words and phrases that I don’t see in more modern stories. I sometimes like to use them straight and sometimes I’m tongue-in-cheek. Y’all may be on to something here.

    • @ Mike

      “When we started listing other writers who did this we realised that most of them were dead – or anyway old -and we had no real idea why younger authors didn’t do it for us.

      Our tentative conclusion was that you couldn’t really succeed as a pulp author without this ability, but this didn’t explain the current unsatisfactory state of much writing. Kris’s piece perfectly explains our post pulp dissatisfaction: too many published modern authors’ voices have been blandified.”

      Excellent observation. We need to bring back the Dime Novel!

      Oh, wait… That would have to be the Five Dollar Novel today!

      Oh, wait… Indie e-books for $4.99 (and under) precisely fit that bill today. But not overpriced Big5 e-books! 🙂

      • Pulps were replaced by paperback originals and paperbacks are being replaced by ebooks.

        In both cases, the dominant publishers came from outside the establishment and were resented and deprecated for “devaluing” literature by making it more accessible to the masses. Hopefully indies won’t sell out to the establishment the way the paperback houses did, back in the day.

  5. I found this a bit confusing. The use of dialect isn’t voice. The use of passive voice isn’t the same as an author’s voice. It’s a grammatical term. I will go along with what someone said above that the writer’s voice is something he or she develops over time until it becomes distinct and recognizable from other voices.

    • I think she was saying that breaking the rules is part of voice and that sticking to them doesn’t allow you enough rein to be distinctive.

      I tend to use fragments for emphasis. Sometimes that can be very powerful. But it is still a fragment and some people would balk at the lack of correct sentence structure. Yet it is part of my “style” or voice.

      • Yes, that’s a far more precise example. Ken Bruen does some remarkable things with lists of key words that comment on a scene. The effect is quite poetic.

      • Exactly.
        It is like slipping into a straight-jacket before going into a soccer match. Sure, you’re not supposed to touch the ball with your hands, but it is going to seriously impair your agility. Writing rules should not be allowed to control the narrative flow yet too often that is exactly what they do.

        It’s really is the old “wordsmith technician” vs “artistic storyteller” divide.

        Too many writers write strictly by the book and in the process neuter their natural style. We don’t all speak or thing alike. Why should everbody write the same way?

        As mentioned above, in the days of the pulps style and voice was critical to standing out among the flood of stories coming out weekly and the best writers not only stood out among their peers, they stand out across time.

  6. I have long been a lover of voice and have tried to develop my own. I don’t particularly enjoy books that don’t have a clear voice and I wouldn’t bother writing if I didn’t feel my voice—like it or not—is distinct from others.

    All that said, I get the impression that most readers don’t give a damn about voice. Books with the blandest voice sell like crazy. Series written by multiple authors are believed to be written by a single author.

    The only people, it seems to me, who care about voice are extremely selective readers or other authors.

    • I’m not sure readers don’t care about it so much as that they can’t afford to use it as a filter criterium. Voice done really well is rare. That’s one reason why it’s notable. If everybody had a unique voice it wouldn’t be an issue.

      “If everybody is special, then nobody is.” 😉


      “If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.”

      • “Average people are the most special people in the world. That’s why God made so many of them.” – Michael Scott

      • Agreed. I think readers care about the story first, or an element that scratches an itch. They will forgive a multitude of writerly sins as long as the story meets their need.

        Whereas, a writer will probably think, “I loved that part, but I would write it this way,” and then go do that. These days, I will abandon books if their sins are bad enough to make me run back to my keyboard and continue my WIPs. I prefer the books that make me wistful about whether I’ll ever be that good, but my first criteria is story above all.

    • Story trumps all. KKR also said she’d prefer a great story poorly written over a good story carefully crafted.

      • In general, but not always. It’s down to reader preferences. I’m certain there are readers for whom prose is more important than story — I’m one of them. I’m certain there aren’t many readers for whom that’s true, but just noting that one size rarely fits all. Usually one size fits most generally comfortably, but something tailored can fit like the proverbial glove.

    • Books with the blandest voice sell like crazy.

      I don’t think readers give a damn about sales, either, though (I think sometimes they’re interested in what’s popular and everyone else is reading, which correlates to sales, but isn’t exactly that). I also don’t think that voice (or style, or craft) is readers’ primary draw to anything, and it’s worth remembering that a perfectly competent voice that gets out of the way of a story with great structure, plotting, and pacing can be very effective. I once had an agent call a submission a “competent enough mid-list thriller,” which is what I’m thinking here. And there’s nothing wrong with those, because they tend to sell very well. Readers buy lots of them.

      It’s not always about sales. Sales are great, but not everyone’s primary motivation.

    • The only people, it seems to me, who care about voice are extremely selective readers or other authors.

      Just as the only people who care how refined a dish tastes are cooks and how powerful a car’s engine is are gearheads.

      We’re writers; we’re supposed to care about the quality of our work. You can define quality a lot of different ways: pacing, story details, characterization, voice, and style, for instance.

      Most readers won’t on a conscious level, but look at what books they reread, what books survive.

      Conan Doyle survives while Jacques Futruelle doesn’t. Henry James is still bought and read, while writers of his time who were much more popular (Mrs. Humphrey Ward, Hall Caine, Marie Corelli) are forgotten.

      • I still have my “Thinking Machine” stories, so there! 😀 I suspect Futruelle’s difficulty was he wrote before the computer geek population explosion happened. I *loved* the prison escape story as a young sprout. “Freshly blackened shoes” for the win!

        • Actually, Jacques Futrelle was “forgotten” because his heirs were stuck on his popularity back in the day. They refused to reprint his stories unless given huge payments. So anthologists and radio dramas went elsewhere.

          Now that Futrelle has fallen into the public domain (since he died on the Titanic), he is newly appreciated by the many mystery fans who had only heard of him in reference tomes. I don’t know if he will be rediscovered widely enough to regain his reputation and popularity, but at least he’s not unobtainium anymore.

          Marie Corelli probably fell out of favor because spiritualism did. I’ve never gritted my teeth enough to discover her take on romance, though, so I could be wrong.

    • It took me at least six published novels, plus those that deserve to continue languishing on my C drive, before I found my voice. The only way I knew was that people began to mention it, and I knew they were right. Prior to that, I’d have told you I’d already found it.

  7. “serious writer voice” … that’s a good approximation.

    Same in every writing genre. Esp in tech and psych and ‘research.’ Dont get me started with the stilted styles. Ack. The copyists who try to sound like their admired whomever. The ‘by the book’ [there seems to be zillions of books on how to write, but few on taking one’s own life into one’s work where all the unique’ness would derive from, even if you live in the cellar, are ever in a bad mood, scare the sansevaria, and never do laundry… that too is narrative experience that can be parsed], and the following of style manuals for other than citations. Chicago style man. could as easily be called, here is how to strip the flowers from the stems, til one just has a stalk of stems only. Like I said, Ack [technical term]

  8. Yeah, aspiring writers these days are told (and really believe) that the author should be invisible and shouldn’t show through in the text at all. Which makes for a lot of books that bore the hell out of me before I even finish the first page.

  9. I think certain genres are aware of this problem, and struggle against it. In science fiction/fantasy, you still get lots of authors with very original and unique voices. I’d never confuse Ursula Leguin with Connie Willis or Neil Gaiman.

    • The best writing book I ever read that pushes back against bland writer’s voice and limited language tools is LeGuin’s Steering the Craft. The only other way I can seem to express in general to break someone’s language box is to try poetry, where the whole point is to play with language.

      • Totally agree with this. I think writing exercises can sometimes seem fruitless (“What? You want me to write something I don’t intend to publish?”), but really playing with language is so important. In fact, the one writing class that really had a demonstrable effect on the quality of my prose was one in which the professor had a laser focus on language but couldn’t give feedback on genre because that just wasn’t her thing. It frustrated me at the time, because I was working on The Prodigal Hour, but darned if my prose didn’t improve so much that, on reading that draft of the manuscript, you could tell by the text at what point I started that class, and the next revision was basically of the opening up to that point to make sure its prose was as good.

  10. This is the literary equivalent to The Blandness Plague that Phillip Wylie wrote about back in the 50’s in Science Has Spoiled My Supper. (Available @ wren08.wordpress.com/stories/science-has-spoiled-my-supper-by-phillip-wylie/ )

    It’s exacerbated by Trad Pub’s desire for clones of the Last Big Bestseller. And also by the fact that anthology editors are drawn to green-light stories that appeal to their individual sensibilities.

    There have been writers with such a unique voice that they influence writers for decades. Hemingway and Tom Wolfe come to mind.

    I think KKR is ultimately saying “Write your own stories in your own way, and in your own voice.” Kudos to her for advocating this.

  11. Voice is when you open your mouth and speak completely unselfconsciously. It’s not something you can work up or learn. You do it when you have reached the edge and kept going, at least in my experience. When I was a young writer in my twenties, I took off on the road and hitchhiked halfway around the world, abandoning every element of my past, in a profound and heartfelt search for my voice. All I carried was a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, a notebook, and a pen. For me, that’s what it took. Voice is the sincerity in a writer that says what no one else can say.

  12. Ian McDonald burst into science fiction with Empire Dreams. He wrote with a distinctive, lyrical voice. I love Empire Dreams and Electric Avenue and Desolation Road. Christian and The Catherine Wheel are two of my three favorite sf short stories (the third is The Green Hills of Earth). Became a serious fanboy. Bought signed and numbered hardbacks of his work.

    Then he began his Chaga Saga, and the voice died. I mean, the world being invaded by an extraterrestrial plant is boring enough, but when you do it in serious writer voice it is unbearable.

    And so Ian lost me. The shift to serious writer voice changed a devoted fanboy into someone who will not pick up a McDonald book.

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