Tag Archives: Style

Using Voice to Set Yourself Apart

As my fellow Fictorians are showing you so far this month, there are many ways to set yourself apart as a writer. In my mind, the most memorable way to set yourself apart is voice, to the surprise of no one. In past posts, I’ve highlighted how you might create tension with narrative voice, and used well-known authors with distinct voices as examples. In this post, I’d like to dive into what voice is, the many ways one can use it, and highlight some examples that will hopefully give you plenty of ideas.

First, what is voice? Voice goes by many names. Style. Point of View. Vernacular. Narrative voice. Language. It is all of these things. For the sake of clarity, I defer to my friend Mignon, whom many of you may know as Grammar Girl. Julie Wildhaber writes on the Grammar Girl website:

Voice is the distinct personality, style, or point of view of a piece of writing or any other creative work. Voice is what Simon Cowell is talking about when he tells “American Idol” contestants to make a song their own and not just do a note-for-note karaoke version. (read more here)

It’s the thing that makes a reader say, “Ah. I can tell Kristin wrote this, because there are many f-bombs, and she ends every chapter on a cliffhanger,” for example.

If Socrates fermented goods, this would be his beer label.

Letting your voice shine is all about one important rule: “Know thyself.” This is not only my own personal credo for just about everything, it’s an important practice that will inform you of your strengths.

Are you funny, or at least have great confidence that you are? Can you translate or work on translating that humor into written form?

Are you good at calculating out the worst case scenario? When friends tell you their darkest fears and worries, are you able to take it another shade darker? Do you have no problem screwing with your characters and making their lives miserable?

Is your writing structure unique? Are you aware of grammatical rules and structures, but can’t help but twist and/or ignore them?

Here are some examples of authors using those very strengths and turning them into voice.

Maria Semple is one funny lady. She wrote for the television show Arrested Development, which banked on candid, awkward family dynamics to amuse their viewers. When it comes to her writing, Maria translates the same odd, character-driven situational humor into fiction. Her second novel, Where’d You go, Bernadette? may be a shade more sophisticated than Arrested Development, but you can expect the same wit and brand of humor that her television writing is known for.

Robert Kirkman doesn’t mind making a character suffer. He doesn’t mind making all of his characters suffer. As Robert has his hand in more and more projects, the common thread between all of them is his signature move: make the character(s) suffer. While reading The Walking Dead, one panel completely floored me. It was too dark, in fact, to be translated to the television version (though I dreaded I’d see it when the time came). If you’d like to read the comic books, skip to the next paragraph. For those of you who’ve read a good chunk of the comic books, you may already guess which part I’m talking about. It’s the Red Wedding of The Walking Dead. Instead of just Laurie taking a bullet, the bullet travels through her baby girl in her arms as well. The worst case scenario, one darker than I would ever dare to think up, becomes a reality in the blink of an eye. When I read it, I thought for sure I felt my heart drop.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out an author I’ve mentioned many times in my Fictorians posts who is, in my mind, the king of grammatical voicing: James Frey. If you’re currently in the beginning stages of your career and trying to get published and you’ve read James’ work, he might make you a little crazy. And it’s not because he isn’t good – oh he’s good. It’s because you’ll wonder how he was able to get away with his style and still get published. An example, from the first page I opened up to just now from A Million Little Pieces:

I stare at him.
Trying can’t hurt, Kid.
There is truth in his eyes. Truth is all that matters.
And trying’s nothing to be scared of.
Truth.
Just try.

Where are the quotation marks? Dialogue tags? Adjectives? And yet, from this short section, we can tell this is a conversation, or at least one person talking to another person. We can make very good guesses as to who is whom (given more context). This is James’ style. While different at first, it grows on you very quickly, and your eyes ease from one word to the next until, before you know it, you’re flipping the last page of the book. His style was unlike anything I’d ever seen before (Hemingway would be jealous of his brevity), and I immediately adored the rock-solid voicing.

The bottomline is this: you don’t have to be the next Maria Semple, Robert Kirkman, or James Frey. You just gotta be you! It’s as easy and as difficult as that.

First: know thyself. Next: write.

Style As Your Fingerprint

There’s not a lot out there about developing one’s writing style. Because it’s supposed to be yours, right? No one is supposed to help you shape that: it’s uniquely yours. YOUR voice. But how far, exactly, can you go with that? When does style obstruct grammar rules? When does style turn off potential editors and publishers? Unfortunately, there is no right answer.

Let me explain.

Over the years, I have heard various editors from Baen, Harper Collins, Shadow Mountain, and other publishing houses on panels explain, “I want something new. I don’t want the next Stephen King. I don’t want the next Stephanie Meyer. I want you. I want your unique style and your unique voice.” One might be thrilled to hear this call for individualism. “Then I’ll send in my personal style where I don’t use quotations, and don’t capitalize anything!” I want to say that takes it too far. But then again, there’s James Frey. Munch on this little excerpt from his break out novel A Million Little Pieces.

Hey, Buddy.
His voice is deep and dark.
Hey, Buddy.
Tracks crisscross his forearms.
I’m talking to you.
Scars run the length of his wrists.
I’m talking to you.
I look in his eyes. They’re blank.
What?
He points.
That’s my chair.
I turn back to the television.

Did that blow your mind? It should. Most manuscripts that stylized do seem to make it past the slush pile… across the desk and into the trash can.

“Perhaps I’ll send in my manuscript of one-liners that play around a semblance of a plot!” Again, I’m hesitant to negate this, too. Behold the king of one-liners, Oscar Wilde.

“How about my hard-to-follow stream of consciousness novel?” I must hold back from rolling my eyes and sighing, as this is what James Joyce is famous for.

“Ah, but my extremely lengthy novel filled with citations!” I would say that would be

This is DFW's annotations on Don De Lillo's Players, for crying out loud. Imagine what Infinite Jest is like.
These are DFW’s annotations in Don De Lillo’s Players. Now imagine what Infinite Jest is like.

boring, but then again, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is on almost every bookshelf of every English major in America.

A very wise editor and friend, Joshua Essoe, once told me something along the lines of: “Prove you know what the rules are before you go and break them.” I think this is fantastic advice for new writers. Editors and publishers need to trust that you know what you’re doing. Slowly injecting your style as you go is the way to job security.

At the same time, I can’t help but wonder: what if the authors I’ve mentioned above had done the same? Maybe if they hadn’t boldly stepped out into the world with their styles fully realized, style wouldn’t be as important as it is today. Maybe we should be so bold as to say, “Yes, I know my style is unique, but just read it, and let me know if it doesn’t just knock your socks off.” Because chances are, if your story is solid and engaging, your style will only add to it.

About Kristin Luna:
Kristin Luna copyKristin Luna has been making up stories and getting in trouble for them since elementary school. She writes book reviews for Urban Fantasy Magazine, contributes to the blog The Fictorians, and her short story “The Greggs Family Zoo of Odd and Marvelous Creatures” was featured in the anthology One Horn to Rule Them All alongside Peter S. Beagle and Todd McCaffrey. Her short story “Fog” recently appeared on Pseudopod. Kristin lives in San Diego with her husband Nic.