Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Michele Dunaway on Voice

Michele Dunaway
Out of Line
Publisher: Harlequin Enterprises
Pub date: June 2008
Agent: Jessica Faust

(Click to Buy)

Author Web/Blog links: www.micheledunaway.com & www.micheledunaway.blogspot.com

I’ve always been a lousy joke-teller. But anyone who hears me talk about what’s happening in my life usually ends up rolling on the floor clutching his or her stomach since I make people feel better about themselves without them pitying me too much. It is this ability to laugh at myself that creates my author’s voice.

An author’s voice is that mystical, interplanetary thing that you can’t buy in Walgreens or find on the Internet. But every best-selling author has it. So where did they get it? And better yet, where do you find it?

Your author’s voice is actually already with you. It’s found deep inside you, but it doesn’t take any money or a clinical psychologist to help you get it out. All you need is to know who you are, and accept that who you are is what you are.

By this I mean that you need to know your own personality. Authors use personality all the time in their work. There are the archetypes and stereotypes that we can draw from. However, who are you? Are you the embittered divorcee holding out for true love? The young virgin with the future so bright? The overworked father with the nasty boss? The parent of fifteen kids and not a minute to yourself? Are you a codependent? An independent? An ISTJ? ESTJ? Or another of those Myers-Briggs personalities?

Whatever or whomever you are, you are unique. Your combined experience gives you a personality and a life that is similar, yet different, from everyone else. And what makes you unique helps create your author’s voice, which is how you create dialogue that sounds real, settings that readers visualize, and plots that come alive.

Ask yourself some basic questions:

1. What movies and books do you reach for? You’ll occasionally find me with a mystery, but my voice doesn’t lend itself to Kinsey Millhone or Hercule Poirot. And speaking of Agatha, look at how different Miss Marple is from Mr. Poirot. That’s voice.

2. What do you like to eat? I disagree that foods make the man, or I’d be able to live on nothing but chocolate and Oreos and never gain an inch around my waistline. Most of my characters hate coffee. I don’t drink it, and couldn’t describe it if I tried. That’s voice.

3. What magazines do you read? If you are a serious person with subscriptions to Time and Newsweek, your characters may appear more serious or may read more studious things. If you are a home-and-hearth type who reads Better Homes and Gardens, you may find these little tidbits coming through in your wording. That’s voice.

Voice occurs through word choice. Your vocabulary isn’t limited, but the words you choose to use more often than not are. Soda versus pop? Where you live, your background, and your experiences determine your voice. They all come together to determine who you are, and how your words will sound on paper. If you’re setting a book in St. Louis, and where you live that fizzy beverage is called pop, you’ll want to do some research to make sure you’re using the correct term for the area. Here we call it soda. I’ve heard that in the South everything is Coke, you just specify the flavor.

So, how do you get a handle on voice? You begin to look for it. You analyze yourself and your writing. Is your voice active or passive? Do you love adverbs? Adjectives? Prepositional phrases? Pronouns? Look for what makes your writing work—that unique element in the paragraph you really love. Then you eliminate the stuff you overuse or that makes your prose sound flat. I love to use the phrase "she shrugged." During my edits I make sure my heroine isn’t shrugging throughout the entire book. I also look for "be verbs" and replace them wherever possible with action words.

If you write love scenes, your voice will allow you to be sweet, sensual, steaming, or anywhere in between. My ex-husband always wanted me to use the phrase "pink, pulsating bazooka of love." You can see why I divorced him—this article is the only time you’ll ever see that particular piece of purple prose in my writing.

Seriously, though, if you are uncomfortable writing graphic sex words, you might not want to write for the hotter, more erotic lines or imprints. You may discover your voice speaks easier writing something sweeter, and which keeps the love scenes behind the proverbial closed bedroom door. Embrace your convictions and personal beliefs. They dictate your voice, and what that voice says as the words leave your fingertips and plant themselves onto paper. Readers can tell when you are forcing something that you shouldn’t, or when you aren’t being honest or comfortable with your writing.

Just as your fingerprints are original, so should be your voice. Write what you love, characters you can love, and your readers will love you. Your voice is what sets you apart from everyone else; it’s what adds that special sparkle to writing that editors are looking for when authors recycle the same basic plots over and over. I mean, what makes your amnesiac bride with the cowboy’s secret baby unique? It’s the way you tell the story, and the way you make your plot come alive through your voice.

Think of some top authors and their voices. Stephen King’s voice is horrific. He can suspend reality and make us cringe as we visualize the langoliers when we board an airplane or think of pig’s blood come prom time. He can also take us along the green mile and make us think about living forever and the consequences of being different.

John Grisham takes us into the courtroom and the world of lawyers. Sue Grafton gives us Kinsey in first person, as if we are reading her report of the crime. Jackie Collins gives us Hollywood and its excesses; Dick Francis connected most everything to the horseracing world; and the incomparable Nora Roberts takes a reader from murder to suspense to humor all with a happy, romantic ending. James Patterson can go from thrillers to sappy sweet. J. K. Rowling made us cheer for wizards and wish we weren’t muggles. Each book an author writes has distinct tone, which comes from the characters, who come from the people we as writers must see or hear inside our heads. Bestseller Stephanie Meyer saw Edward in a dream. Don’t be afraid of hearing your characters speak.

What scares me is when they are silent.

Your voice is what gives your characters life. Talk to them. Listen to their answers. Write down what they say—for they cannot come alive until you breathe life into them. When you do this, you will realize you have found and discovered voice. Once that occurs, take your vision and go forward.

Michele Dunaway found her voice early, it just took her a long time to appreciate it. When she’s not talking to herself (without answering, of course, because that’s a sure sign she’s crazy—wait, she teaches high school, she already is), Michele is busy writing for Harlequin American and Harlequin NASCAR. Her next book is Out of Line, and is followed by Tailspin in September.


The Dark Scribe said...

Great post. It took me several years to finally track down my voice, and even now I find it changing. I suppose that's called growth.

The really great thing is that once I found my voice on the page, I found it in life, too.

Lynn Raye Harris said...

Wonderful post, Michele! And I've discovered that you can also find your voice in a place you didn't expect. I entered the Harlequin Presents contest because I thought "why not?" And I won. I thought I was all about writing hunky military guys and smart aleck heroines. Imagine my surprise to realize that ruthless tycoons were also part of the package. :)

For me, though, it's been a function of age -- I'm more comfortable with who I am, more confident. And my life experience does translate into voice. I'm a military brat who grew up and married a military man -- and I lived around the world. It all comes together and pours onto the page. :)

Thanks for the great post! I like how you've described voice and finding your own. :)

Kalynne Pudner said...

This is one of those truly priceless posts that make one rejoice for the fact of the internet! (Oh, boy, that sentence reveals a lot about MY voice, doesn't it?) I've recently come to realize that my non-fiction voice is fairly consistent whether I'm blogging the "fifteen kids and no time to herself" everyday disasters or a composing a book review for an academic journal. It is NOT the same as my fiction voice. And it may just explain why my non-fiction gets published, while my fiction (so far) does not.

La Belle Americaine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Melanie Avila said...

Great post!

Just last night I wrote soda and realized I'll need to look up the proper regional term.

Patricia W. said...

Voice seems to be a popular topic right now. I've read a number of blogs on it, and I'm posting my own musings.

But Michelle captured it all in a nutshell for me.

And I agree with Lynn, finding one's voice has a lot to do with confidence in one's writing, which frees the writer up to let the story out rather than worry about doing it just right, at least in the early drafts.

Jo Anne said...

Michele, this is one of the best posts I've seen recently on voice. Voice is who we are. Gotta love it. And YIKES, sometimes it's hard to love who we are. :-)

Looking forward to seeing you in Houston next month, gabbing, catching up, and doing a slumber party with the cats. See you then!

Jo Anne

Inspire said...

This post was inspiring. Thank you! I really, really needed to read it. I've had in recent months writers push the proverbial writing 'rule book' under my nose and tell me this is the only way to do it. A writer went ballistic at a critique group after she read an 'ly' word in one of my chapters. Sigh.

Thank you for reminding us that we are each unique and have our own voices.

Michele Dunaway said...

I agree, voice comes from who you are, more than who you want to become. Once I figured out that I couldn't be Melanie Wilkes and was stuck being more like Scarlett O'Hara (whethere I liked it or not), life was a lot more fun and I worried a lot less.

See you soon Jo Anne! (I'm giving the presentation to the WHRWA chapter in July on being Superwoman.)


Maryann Miller said...

Very good post and helpful to be reminded of how we develop and use voice. I have to work hard to make sure my characters are a bit more distinct from me than they tend to be in the first draft. This post should be a "must read" for new authors still trying to define their voice and learn how to develop individual characters.

Michele Dunaway said...


When I started writing I didn't even know there were rules. I think critique groups can oftentimes suck the life out of a piece and leave it sounding generic. I've judged many contest entries that were good but had lost the zing of having that special voice.

The key is believing in yourself and your work. The bottom line is it takes one editor--which is how I made my first sale. No contest wins (and only one entry), no tons of critiques.

PS--"I greatly appreciate your post," she wrote, deliberately using and freely admitting to overly placing those lovely ly words to make an exaggerated point.


Michele Dunaway said...


My cousin grew up in St. Louis and moved to southeastern Indiana where it's called pop. It still strikes me as funny every time she says it (even though she's been there for years)...since it was a change for her!

Michele Dunaway said...

Last comment for a bit...

I don't want to insinuate that critique groups are bad. I think they can be great resources.

Simply remember that the only person who can tell the story inside your head is you...and that it must be your voice that tells it.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Like Inspire, I had to push away all the rule books, and take any hard-and-fast rule I came across with a grain of salt. I love rules, but writing is subjective, and sometimes the rules can be broken for great effect. And once I just started writing how I wanted to write, not worrying about adverbs or anything else, the words usually flowed much easier and I found my voice.

I can always cut and revise later if I did something "wrong", but I wouldn't be able to just add a voice in the rewrite. It's something that just needs to occur naturally.

Robena Grant said...

Excellent post, Michelle. Thank you for sharing. I've read various articles on voice and never quite "got it" until recently. I couldn't define when my voice was showing through.
I still have a little trouble sitting on my hands and strangling the voice when I'm trying too hard to write "correctly." Grin. Your explanation is fabulous.

Southern Writer said...

Very well said. I don't read the genre you write in, but I'll bet you're really good at it.

Anonymous said...

Terrific post. One thing I've noticed in reading other writers is how some who use critique groups have no voice. It's been overworked, and comes out with no special "zing" to it.

Julie Weathers said...

Thank you, Michelle. This was very helpful.

In a workshop, someone asked me what is going to set my work apart in an already crowded fantasy market. I had to think about that. Certainly an unlikely heroine, who turns the tide of an important battle is nothing new.

I finally had to admit, my greatest strengths are a quirky sense of humor and voice and multi-faceted characters.

Southern Writer said...

Anonymous @ 8 a.m.:

You said a mouthful there. I couldn't agree more witja.

Anonymous said...

It's true about the South and fizzy drinks.

"You wanna Coke?"
"What kind? I've got Sprite, Pepsi, and root beer."

I had a question about voice. Having grown up in Alabama, do I have to watch my words and phrases? If I set my story locally, do I have to make it more generic for readers in New York? I'm not talking about using "ain't" every other word, just some phrases that are used regularly around here.

WandaV in AL

Michele Dunaway said...

It simply depends on how much regional dialect you want to use. That's part of your voice. I definitely see y'all a lot. I would suggest you write it the way you want, and then read it aloud. You'll hear what you need to change, or if everyone sounds the same.

Fred Farnsworth said...

Graceful theme.Guy in picture looks as he has got a power booster.This pic helps one to encourage oneself to make his or her frame stronger and brain sharper.

Fred Farnsworth said...

Just as your fingerprints are original, so should be your voice. Write what you love, characters you can love, and your readers will love you. Your voice is what sets you apart from everyone else; it’s what adds that special sparkle to writing that editors are looking for when authors recycle the same basic plots over and over.