I have a subscribers-only Q+A thread running and it’s been an absolute delight. The questions I’ve been getting and the discussion that ensues makes me feel like we’re building a small community here and one that is thoughtful and engaged in interesting ways.
I wanted to share a radically abbreviated version of one of the questions and a somewhat expanded version of one of my answers with the whole list. I’ll probably keep doing monthly Q+A threads so long as there’s interest.
Q: How do you hone your voice?
I'm interested because I want to focus on honing my own voice, but I really can't find any advice aside from embracing your interests. This is great until you try to consider the needs of the genre and market. Also, I feel like it would be helpful while I'm editing to be able to say "I stand by this choice in scene/tone/wording" if I know it's not just hubris on my part.
I know I need to write what feels true to me, but I also should consider editorial advice, and at least consider the market, and this all sort of feels like somewhat opposing advice? I've also read lots of people say you can't hone your voice, it's just there, and I'm not sure how I feel about that.
A: Voice is probably the single most difficult and, in a lot of ways, the single most important aspect of a book. I often say you can't teach voice, which isn't exactly true. You can, it's just really really hard.
The thing about voice is that it's unconscious. Character arcs, plot, structure all of that are conscious decisions that you can forcefully manipulate. I can jump in and say "do this," "cut that," or "add this scene here." Editing is an activity; writing is a flow state.
With voice at best I can say "this feels too upbeat" or "I don't believe this is a teen girl" or "can you make it feel richer" or something like that. All of which are terrifyingly vague editorial notes for a writer to receive. The problem is, the task of writing is a long and arduous one and one that resists active, conscious manipulation. Instead, the writer must trust in their subconscious, their habits, to provide the right words in the right order.
I talk a lot about how I want to see you, the author, in the book and what I really mean is that I want to see two fundamental things. I want a point of view -- what high school English taught us to call "theme" -- a concrete and unique perspective on how you see the world. And I want to hear your voice. The unique combinations of descriptors, the tiny choices of metaphors, the rhythm of the words and the placement of the punctuation. The thousands and thousands of micro-decisions that add up to a whole. That's your voice. It's yours and yours alone.
As you mentioned in your question, the tone of Mira Grant is different from Seanan McGuire. In the same way that the tone of the October Daye books are different from books of the Wayward Children series. But the voice is the same. The undefinable element that makes Seanan's writing distinct and recognizable ties those books together.
We conflate tone and voice a lot, but really voice is the thing that underlies the modulations you make to fit the genre and category and style of the book. It's like pitching your own speaking voice up or down to fit a situation and to change the impact. At the end of the day it's still your own vocal chords supplying the sound, the same lungs driving the air out into the world. Writing voice is the same except your subconscious are the vocal chords.
So when considering how to approach the market, trust your voice but be intentional about your tone. Find the line between them and lean into the distinction between the two. What’s a mood you’re setting vs what’s a pattern in your work. Knowing where that line is and how you can produce the desired effect comes with time and experience (or just operates on an instinctive level for many) but being able to flip that switch is a thing you can learn to do.
Now, you can alter your voice over time. You can learn new techniques and wire new paths in your brain. Practice is part of it. Write enough to find your voice and hone it. Read enough to learn new methods. And you can trick your brain into learning someone else's voice by simply writing down the words that they wrote. Transcribe favorite passages from someone who has a voice you admire. It'll help you find those paths in your own brain. But don't forget that what makes a voice great is that it is your own.
You want a stronger voice? Live more life. Read more things. Watch more stories. Talk to more people. It is certainly possible to be a hermit and have a strong voice. But a point of view is developed and honed against the whetstone of the world. Sharpen your thought process by opening your heart to new perspectives and new experience.
Read more. Experience more. Practice more. That’s how you develop your voice.