Voice – love me, love me not!

I’ve been commenting these past few weeks about a writer’s voice – the qualities that (in my opinion) make a voice strong or unique. While we work hard to define and refine our voices, it’s also important to remember that any writer’s voice will be pleasing to some, and not so pleasing to others.

Some authors have a light or witty voice that might make you laugh. Think Janet Evanovich and her  Stephanie Plum series. (On a side note, my neighborhood in Jersey was never as fun as hers!) You don’t have to write a comedic book, however, to have a witty voice.  A perfect example is “Pleasure for Pleasure” by historical romance Eloisa James (Avon Books, 2006).

The setting: London, 1818, four sisters are chatting at the home of the Duke of Holbrook.

“If my season continues as it’s begun,” Josie said, “I shan’t be married at all. One can hardly obtain one’s entire education in the ways of men and women from the pages of novels.”

“Tess, did you know that Josie has made a list of efficacious ways to catch a husband?” Annabel asked, taking a final bite of syllabub.

“Based on our examples?” Tess said, raising an eyebrow.

“That would be a remarkably short list,” Josie said. “Lady is compromised, gentleman is forced to marry her, marriage ensues.”

Now, I know there will be those who fuss about what may or may not be historical inaccuracies with the syntax or terminology. Personally, I just don’t care. I find the scene witty, and fun. I can hear the clipped British accents. I can picture the setting (although I must admit to drawing a blank at the mention of taking a bite of something called “syllabub”). This scene entertains me, mostly because of the author’s voice.

Jenny Gardiner’s contemporary novel “Sleeping with Ward Cleaver” (Dorchester Publishing/Love Spell, 2008) is also witty, also fun, but a stark contrast to James’ “Pleasure.” Here’s an excerpt of the opening chapter.

In roughly four hours, I’m scheduled to have sex with Ward Cleaver.

Ward Cleaver? You ask?

You know the guy: bland gray cardigan with leather-patched elbows, perma-press slacks, stern countenance. Stick up his ass.

Of course, it’s not the Ward Cleaver, of black-and-white sitcom fame.  (Skip a few paragraphs.)  Instead, I can stake my claim as being doomed to yet another Sunday-night roll in the hay with my very own version of Ward Cleaver: my husband, Jack Doolittle….

Others have a voice that make you think of dark and dangerous things, like the opening  lines from M.J. Rose’s “The Delilah Complex” (MIRA Books, 2006).

Warm, engulfing, darkness surrounded him. Flesh moved over him. Naked legs held him, vice-like, rocking him, rocking him, lulling him into haze. Shoulders, neck, torso, blocking all light. Hot breath on his neck. Soft hair in his face, soaking up his tears.

He was crying?

Yikes, I practically shiver reading that. I envision pain or discomfort, a sense that something bad is about to happen, but in almost a lyrical voice—like poetry in the form of prose. I can almost hear music (sad or mournful) when I read the words.

I also think of F. Scott Fitzgerald as having a lyrical voice, although his style and verbiage are obviously from a period long gone. Still, I think his work makes a good point of comparison. Here’s an excerpt from “The Beautiful and the Damned” (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922):

She rolled over on her back and lay still for a moment in the great bed watching the February sun suffer one last attenuated refinement in its passage through the leaded panes into the room. For a time she had no accurate sense of her whereabouts or of the events of the day before, or the day before that; then, like a suspended pendulum, memory began to beat out its story, releasing with each swing a burdened quota of time until her life was given back to her.

These four examples are about as different as you can get in genre and style, and I think they demonstrate well the differences in voice.

They also, I think, demonstrate that highly successful novelists don’t all appeal to everyone. Some people will read the excerpts I chose and think, What garbage! Others will feel what I felt – the humor, the melancholy, or the rhythm.  Readers are going to like what they like, and not like what they don’t like. You as a reader know that already. Your best friend could rave about a book that leaves you cold, and vice versa.

So the lesson for the writer is not to worry about pleasing everybody. When you try to please everybody, that’s when you lose the uniqueness of your voice. Let yourself be you, and your personality, your humor or darkness, your lightness or intensity, will shine through.

Someone once told me that for every house there’s a buyer. I think that’s true for writers and readers – for every different type of voice, there will be a reader who’s drawn to it. Be true to your voice and there will be readers who respond.

Happy reading, and writing!

Have a great week!
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After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work as author liaison for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.

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