Find Your Topic, Not Your Voice

From Jane Friedman:

In setting out to become a writer, you must strive, above all, to discover your unique voice. At least, that’s become the conventional wisdom, taught in MFA programs as well as in more casual settings, from writers group meetings at Starbucks to free classes taught in the stuffy backroom of your local library. Yet there is so much wrong with this advice that, if you spend even one full minute giving it serious thought, your eyes will roll heaven-ward all on their own like Where even to begin?

Still, we must begin somewhere, so here goes.

How can you know what your tone will be when you don’t yet know what your topic is?

Where exactly do we think voice comes from if not from subject?

Which is the right cart and which is the right horse?

Sure, your unique sensibility may account for a large part of your hot takes, but would you write about muffins and genocide the same way, or Fords and fjords? And are we really so sure that voice trumps all other aspects of a piece of writing?

Finally, who is responsible for advancing this damnable, now-inescapable sick logic, and what is their address, because I’m thinking I might like to T.P. their house?

Maybe that seems a tad aggressive. But you have to consider the real damage this advice has wrought. All over the world, people’s drawers bulge with unpublishable novels, essays collections and memoirs in which there’s plenty of voice, yet no story, no real through-line, no sense of one’s audience beyond the assumption that they’re there. That’s the problem. This overemphasis on voice puts the focus on the writer and what they want to say and how they want to say it, ignoring more pertinent questions. Namely, considering how there’s Mare of Easttown to binge on HBO, why should anyone spend hours poring over your writing instead?

It also ignores the credentialism involved with the few novels and works of nonfiction that get acquired, more or less, because of voice alone. Publishers are a lot less apt to value your unique voice if that voice doesn’t come with degrees from Harvard or Iowa, or if you’re not reading this article while lounging on the terrace at Yaddo. It’s just a fact. There are exceptions, of course. The overall picture is, however, about as clear as any close-up of Kate Winslet, though not as pretty.

I rant like this from firsthand experience, from the wish I could time-travel back about 15 years and tell myself all this. My own writing breakthrough, the one that got me a book deal after a dozen years of trying, came from focusing on topic ahead of voice. Your writing struggles and goals may well be different. You are probably miles ahead of me, much less dense and much quicker to learn. But considering the prevalence of the conventional wisdom, let’s turn it on its head a minute.

What if you were to put the primary focus on your topic?

It might just help you land a book deal, climb some lofty bestseller list, scale those Everest-like Amazon ranks—and what’s more, the process is simple, no matter if you’re writing fiction or nonfiction.

  1. Pick a topic that fascinates you, or learn about a topic until it fascinates you.
  2. Lead with research. Google your subject to see what’s out there. Begin to gain a sense of whether an audience already exists.
  3. Bring that topic to the world.

This strategy can lead to more interesting writing, and interesting is what you need to be, considering you and I and everyone else we know are all working inside a full-fledged, entertain-or-GTFO attention economy. Few of us occupy such exalted positions that we can take audience for granted. This is all the more true if your goal is to eventually sell a book—again, fiction or nonfiction—because first you must prove to agents and acquisition editors that there’s a crowd of people eager to pay for it.

Your topic could, for example, take any of the following forms:

  • Things that interested you as a child
  • Ideas you can’t get out of your head
  • Places that have become your personal obsessions
  • Or some such B.S.: weird jobs, strange headlines, cultural trends, etc.

And your audience may pop up in such places as:

  • Facebook fan groups dedicated to your subject
  • Publications and other outlets (from podcasts to YouTube channels) dedicated to your subject
  • Reddit boards about your topic
  • Other writers who’ve covered this same subject, plus their audiences.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

PG hasn’t decided if he needs to establish a quota for the number of articles he posts that include a discussion about the difficulty of getting a traditional publishing contract or not. He’s happy to receive suggestions on this topic in the comments.

As he was thinking about this quite common trope, the thought occurred to him that the consistent appearance of such stories might be evidence of some sort of common cognitive error or mental disorder that seems to plague more than a few would-be authors who wish to be traditionally published. He’s not certain if an MFA is a contributory factor to contracting this condition or merely a symptom of it.

PG needs some help in understanding what’s going on here.

Note that PG is not disparaging mental health professionals or the great benefits they can provide to those who are genuinely mentally ill or otherwise emotionally impaired. Nor is he ridiculing those, author or non-author, who have genuine mental, emotional and/or cognitive problems.

He’s simply providing the many intelligent laypersons who visit TPV and who may have observed the anguish and anger exhibited by many authors who are frustrated with the arbitrary and unfair treatment traditional publishing and it’s enablers visit on them, particularly when those authors have other avenues for getting their books in front of readers.

Per Positive Psychology, here is a list of common cognitive errors AKA cognitive distortions:

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking / Polarized Thinking

Also known as “Black-and-White Thinking,” this distortion manifests as an inability or unwillingness to see shades of gray. In other words, you see things in terms of extremes – something is either fantastic or awful, you believe you are either perfect or a total failure.

2. Overgeneralization

This sneaky distortion takes one instance or example and generalizes it to an overall pattern. For example, a student may receive a C on one test and conclude that she is stupid and a failure. Overgeneralizing can lead to overly negative thoughts about yourself and your environment based on only one or two experiences.

3. Mental Filter

Similar to overgeneralization, the mental filter distortion focuses on a single negative piece of information and excludes all the positive ones. An example of this distortion is one partner in a romantic relationship dwelling on a single negative comment made by the other partner and viewing the relationship as hopelessly lost, while ignoring the years of positive comments and experiences.

The mental filter can foster a decidedly pessimistic view of everything around you by focusing only on the negative.

4. Disqualifying the Positive

On the flip side, the “Disqualifying the Positive” distortion acknowledges positive experiences but rejects them instead of embracing them.

For example, a person who receives a positive review at work might reject the idea that they are a competent employee and attribute the positive review to political correctness, or to their boss simply not wanting to talk about their employee’s performance problems.

This is an especially malignant distortion since it can facilitate the continuation of negative thought patterns even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary.

5. Jumping to Conclusions – Mind Reading

This “Jumping to Conclusions” distortion manifests as the inaccurate belief that we know what another person is thinking. Of course, it is possible to have an idea of what other people are thinking, but this distortion refers to the negative interpretations that we jump to.

Seeing a stranger with an unpleasant expression and jumping to the conclusion that they are thinking something negative about you is an example of this distortion.

6. Jumping to Conclusions – Fortune Telling

A sister distortion to mind reading, fortune telling refers to the tendency to make conclusions and predictions based on little to no evidence and holding them as gospel truth.

One example of fortune-telling is a young, single woman predicting that she will never find love or have a committed and happy relationship based only on the fact that she has not found it yet. There is simply no way for her to know how her life will turn out, but she sees this prediction as fact rather than one of several possible outcomes.

7. Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization

Also known as the “Binocular Trick” for its stealthy skewing of your perspective, this distortion involves exaggerating or minimizing the meaning, importance, or likelihood of things.

An athlete who is generally a good player but makes a mistake may magnify the importance of that mistake and believe that he is a terrible teammate, while an athlete who wins a coveted award in her sport may minimize the importance of the award and continue believing that she is only a mediocre player.

8. Emotional Reasoning

This may be one of the most surprising distortions to many readers, and it is also one of the most important to identify and address. The logic behind this distortion is not surprising to most people; rather, it is the realization that virtually all of us have bought into this distortion at one time or another.

Emotional reasoning refers to the acceptance of one’s emotions as fact. It can be described as “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” Just because we feel something doesn’t mean it is true; for example, we may become jealous and think our partner has feelings for someone else, but that doesn’t make it true. Of course, we know it isn’t reasonable to take our feelings as fact, but it is a common distortion nonetheless.

9. Should Statements

Another particularly damaging distortion is the tendency to make “should” statements. Should statements are statements that you make to yourself about what you “should” do, what you “ought” to do, or what you “must” do. They can also be applied to others, imposing a set of expectations that will likely not be met.

When we hang on too tightly to our “should” statements about ourselves, the result is often guilt that we cannot live up to them. When we cling to our “should” statements about others, we are generally disappointed by their failure to meet our expectations, leading to anger and resentment.

10. Labeling and Mislabeling

These tendencies are basically extreme forms of overgeneralization, in which we assign judgments of value to ourselves or to others based on one instance or experience.

For example, a student who labels herself as “an utter fool” for failing an assignment is engaging in this distortion, as is the waiter who labels a customer “a grumpy old miser” if he fails to thank the waiter for bringing his food. Mislabeling refers to the application of highly emotional, loaded, and inaccurate or unreasonable language when labeling.

11. Personalization

As the name implies, this distortion involves taking everything personally or assigning blame to yourself without any logical reason to believe you are to blame.

This distortion covers a wide range of situations, from assuming you are the reason a friend did not enjoy the girls’ night out, to the more severe examples of believing that you are the cause for every instance of moodiness or irritation in those around you.

In addition to these basic cognitive distortions, Beck and Burns have mentioned a few others (Beck, 1976; Burns, 1980):

12. Control Fallacies

A control fallacy manifests as one of two beliefs: (1) that we have no control over our lives and are helpless victims of fate, or (2) that we are in complete control of ourselves and our surroundings, giving us responsibility for the feelings of those around us. Both beliefs are damaging, and both are equally inaccurate.

No one is in complete control of what happens to them, and no one has absolutely no control over their situation. Even in extreme situations where an individual seemingly has no choice in what they do or where they go, they still have a certain amount of control over how they approach their situation mentally.

13. Fallacy of Fairness

While we would all probably prefer to operate in a world that is fair, the assumption of an inherently fair world is not based in reality and can foster negative feelings when we are faced with proof of life’s unfairness.

A person who judges every experience by its perceived fairness has fallen for this fallacy, and will likely feel anger, resentment, and hopelessness when they inevitably encounter a situation that is not fair.

14. Fallacy of Change

Another ‘fallacy’ distortion involves expecting others to change if we pressure or encourage them enough. This distortion is usually accompanied by a belief that our happiness and success rests on other people, leading us to believe that forcing those around us to change is the only way to get what we want.

A man who thinks “If I just encourage my wife to stop doing the things that irritate me, I can be a better husband and a happier person” is exhibiting the fallacy of change.

15. Always Being Right

Perfectionists and those struggling with Imposter Syndrome will recognize this distortion – it is the belief that we must always be right. For those struggling with this distortion, the idea that we could be wrong is absolutely unacceptable, and we will fight to the metaphorical death to prove that we are right.

For example, the internet commenters who spend hours arguing with each other over an opinion or political issue far beyond the point where reasonable individuals would conclude that they should “agree to disagree” are engaging in the “Always Being Right” distortion. To them, it is not simply a matter of a difference of opinion, it is an intellectual battle that must be won at all costs.

16. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy

This distortion is a popular one, and it’s easy to see myriad examples of this fallacy playing out on big and small screens across the world. The “Heaven’s Reward Fallacy” manifests as a belief that one’s struggles, one’s suffering, and one’s hard work will result in a just reward.

It is obvious why this type of thinking is a distortion – how many examples can you think of, just within the realm of your personal acquaintances, where hard work and sacrifice did not pay off?

Sometimes no matter how hard we work or how much we sacrifice, we will not achieve what we hope to achieve. To think otherwise is a potentially damaging pattern of thought that can result in disappointment, frustration, anger, and even depression when the awaited reward does not materialize.

Per WebMD, here is a list of the most common categories of mental disorders:

Anxiety disorders: People with anxiety disorders respond to certain objects or situations with fear and dread, as well as with physical signs of anxiety or panic, such as a rapid heartbeat and sweating. An anxiety disorder is diagnosed if the person’s response is not appropriate for the situation, if the person cannot control the response, or if the anxiety interferes with normal functioning. Anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias.

Mood disorders: These disorders, also called affective disorders, involve persistent feelings of sadness or periods of feeling overly happy, or fluctuations from extreme happiness to extreme sadness. The most common mood disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, and cyclothymic disorder.

Psychotic disorders: Psychotic disorders involve distorted awareness and thinking. Two of the most common symptoms of psychotic disorders are hallucinations — the experience of images or sounds that are not real, such as hearing voices — and delusions, which are false fixed beliefs that the ill person accepts as true, despite evidence to the contrary. Schizophrenia is an example of a psychotic disorder.
Eating disorders:Eating disorders involve extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors involving weight and food. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder are the most common eating disorders.

Impulse control and addiction disorders: People with impulse control disorders are unable to resist urges, or impulses, to perform acts that could be harmful to themselves or others. Pyromania (starting fires), kleptomania (stealing), and compulsive gambling are examples of impulse control disorders. Alcohol and drugs are common objects of addictions. Often, people with these disorders become so involved with the objects of their addiction that they begin to ignore responsibilities and relationships.

Personality disorders: People with personality disorders have extreme and inflexible personality traits that are distressing to the person and/or cause problems in work, school, or social relationships. In addition, the person’s patterns of thinking and behavior significantly differ from the expectations of society and are so rigid that they interfere with the person’s normal functioning. Examples include antisocial personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, schizoid personality disorder, and paranoid personality disorder.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): People with OCD are plagued by constant thoughts or fears that cause them to perform certain rituals or routines. The disturbing thoughts are called obsessions, and the rituals are called compulsions. An example is a person with an unreasonable fear of germs who constantly washes their hands.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): PTSD is a condition that can develop following a traumatic and/or terrifying event, such as a sexual or physical assault, the unexpected death of a loved one, or a natural disaster. People with PTSD often have lasting and frightening thoughts and memories of the event, and tend to be emotionally numb.

7 thoughts on “Find Your Topic, Not Your Voice”

  1. Humh…

    Voice is a writers personality in the form of words written. A topic is one that interests the writer to write something about. Caveat that what interests them is rather fraught with terms and conditions.

    So, I call this piece wishful thinking or a framework of the ideal in a pure form. Sure, if that floats your boat. Otherwise, apart from the writer and the reader who clicks with what the writer wrote, what does it matter in the bigger scheme of things?

    I don’t know.

    Nearly everything you do is of no importance, but it is important that you do it.
    – Mahatma Gandhi

    With regards to mental health, the professional who try to help (of which I was once one), they are people who put their pants on one leg at a time and subject to the same weaknesses and fallacies that everyone shares or rejects.

  2. I would add another, somewhat darker aspect of the problem with commercial publishing: Self-aggrandizing rationalization and delusion… by both authors and publishers.

    On the author side, “obtaining the commercial publishing contract” (more to the point, “easily available at any bookstore grandma can get to, so that she can proudly proclaim to the cashier that her grandchild Is the Author”) is an external validation of worth for the author. Even without much, if any, actual sales; or support; or follow-on contract. It’s very much a binary state, reified by the class- and race-based preconceptions so common in the US and especially in NYC:* If you’re a “published author,” you’ve Made It.

    On the publisher side, “acting as the gatekeeper of ‘murikan culture” is how they justify themselves to both others and themselves. It’s very much parallel to refusing to pay the (mixed Ricardian and non-Ricardian) “rent” of trading “protected from interference by the First Amendment” for “there’s a price for that protection, in lower expected returns than for nonprotected activities.” It’s a simple economic concept — lower risk of government interference means lower risk to be accounted for in profits to convince rational economic actors that investing in “publishing” is a rational economic transaction. Commercial publishers extend this rent problem to the “cultural guardian” meme, but now we’re really into self-delusion… the “will it play in Peoria?” meme of three-quarters of a century ago is just the most obvious example.

    My point is that the causal areas implied in both the OP and in PG’s response to the OP are generally of a nonfault variety… whereas I believe there’s some fault, some character defect (and we all have them, don’t think I’m snootily saying I don’t!) that must be resolved for itself and not for its consequences, that’s a significant element here. Both involve rationalization of external validations as internal measures of merit. But, to quote one disturbingly perceptive set of lines from a 1980s film:

    Rationalizations are important. They’re more important than sex.
    Naah, nothing’s more important than sex.
    Yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?

    (And the dubious history of those lines, their sources, their speakers, etc. is another example of the problem — right, Mr Sayles?)

    * Really. Ask yourself: Have you ever encountered someone, directly/online/whatever, proclaiming New York City as “the greatest city in the world”? More to the point, was that person anything other than white?

  3. The OP seems to be speaking of non-fiction only. ‘Topic’ is not something I associate with fiction.

    ‘Find some topic you like and learn about it’ sounds like a page from the ‘write a book fast’ club. Genuine experts writing in their field don’t have this problem.

    Nothing wrong with the popularizers, but they don’t have much depth.

    The whole OP has an odd tone, because to me the most important part about a book is its purpose, and that’s not mentioned. Books are not widgets. A children’s book on how to use the potty is not in the same universe as War and Peace, but both are ‘book.’ Hard to generalize.

    • Generally, no.

      Most of the classic genres don’t *need* a topic. But most will accomodate one if the author is interested in saying something with the narrative. This is common enough in SF that Asimov overgeneralized it, saying that being a (good SF) writer you had to have something to say. Not literally true as there are entire subgenres that thrive just on a fun narrative.

      Still, some of the most enduring stories became perennials precisely because they do have a clear underlying topic (the NARNIA series, BRAVE NEW WORLD, 1984, STARSHIP TROOPERS, THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, CONJURE WIFE, dozens more).

      https://www.amazon.com/Conjure-Wife-Fritz-Leiber/dp/0765324067

      The OP prescription is totally optional.
      You *don’t* need a topic to tell a good story.
      But if you have something to say with the story, be it about civism or sexual politics, 40’s style, it helps to focus on your chosen topic upfront to ensure you do say what you intend to say.

  4. Hi PG,

    I think the problem you’ve accurately diagnosed could be summed up in a sentence:

    The fish don’t see the water.

    You can’t buck the trends when you’ve been told by every authority, peer, writing book, writing conference, online course, trade journal, podcast, and Youtube video that *things are like this*.

    It’s worth exploring the many different cognitive and emotional errors, but I suspect that those are all contributors to the mere force of inertia — and a reflection of the difficulty of self-knowledge and change.

  5. Finally, who is responsible for advancing this damnable, now-inescapable sick logic, and what is their address, because I’m thinking I might like to T.P. their house?

    Remember the Pandemic, when toilet paper vanished from stores(Why did everyone hoard toilet paper when none of the symptoms included having diarrhea.) Now we know who was hoarding the toilet paper and why.

    I’ve been reading non-fiction in ebook lately. What attracts me to a book is the “gonzo” style “voice” the way Hunter S. Thompson had.

    The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name
    https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0818QJHKF/

    If a non-fiction book sample has a whiff of “gonzo”, I’m in.

    BTW, don’t tell the woman who wrote the OP about The Immortality Key, I would not want to be responsible for her dropping dead from envy, because he did everything right, and has the “Voice” to go with the subject.

  6. I had a different take on the OP. And agreed with her on that post. If you change “Topic” to “Story” (Concept > Premise > Structure), than that is easily more important than Voice. At least in the genre fiction that interests me.

Comments are closed.