In December 2021, I had the opportunity to attend DisConIII. Here are my other DisCon posts.
The panelists for the titular panel were: Jo Walton, Usman T. Malik, Cass Morris, Mary Turzillo, JT Greathouse, Andrea Stewart, and Walter Jon Williams. Moderated by José Pablo Iriarte.
The panel description was as follows: Story, characters, and plot are important, but what often defines a book is the feel of the prose. It can turn a merely adequate story into a raging success… or an excellent story into something barely tolerable. The voice as heard by the reader is critically important. So, what defines voice? From stylistic choices like dialect and punctuation to narrative choices like POV, this panel will discuss how to find the authorial voice that best fits you.
The panel room itself was small and overcrowded, and the most uncomfortable COVID-wise space I was in all weekend, although I was on the aisle and gave myself as much space as possible. But, the strong panelists and the panel topic made me decide to risk it.
What is Authorial Voice?
It’s a hard thing to define, but the panelists did their best.
- A thread that is in all your work, so people can identify you as the author, no matter the subject. It’s what makes you sound like you. (Jo Walton/Cass Morris)
- What unites all your work (JT Greathouse)
- What sells you to the reader – often why you read an author. New voices on old stories can carry the story (Walter Jon Williams)
- A forcefulness of writer personality (Usman T. Malik)
A Toolset to Use To Develop Your Voice
There was some discussion of whether a voice is innate or taught. Can it be authentic if it is consciously crafted rather than unconscious?
- Examine Your Rhetoric – Despite connotations, this isn’t necessarily political or violent. This is the structuring of your patterns in repetition, syntax, rhythm — and when you break your patterns. Your style of metaphors, and your type of description — long and winding or sparse and precise — or vague.
For characters not like you — purposely break your patterns.
To develop a rhetoric you like, study authors you admire and try to absorb, try to observe what their patterns are. (Cass Morris)
- Sample Different Voices – Write the same scene with different styles — bare bones, thick description, lots of internal monologue. Play with it and see which resonates better for you. (JT Greathouse)
- Separate Voice From Rhetoric – While rhetoric is a tool, it is not your voice itself. Some writers have drastically different styles between books — different types of metaphors, patterns, humor levels. A step behind those tools is where the writer is. (Jo Walton) said that Walter (Jon Williams) is the great ventriloquist because he writes with different tones and everything else, but as a whole, his works always feels “like a Walter”.
- Cast Size and Pacing – Often, particular voices have a certain number of characters they track, a certain dynamic between the characters and level of mean/niceness. An inherent pacing in their writing. (Mary Turzillo)
- Sentence Structure – Playing with punctuation, disorder, chaos, and sentence fragments. In its extreme, Cormac McCarthy’s novel (Child of God I think?) was said to be the best book of poetry of ’73.
- Read Widely – there is a saying, “you read 1,000 poets, you sound like 1,000 poets. You read 10,000 poets, you sound like yourself.” Reading widely helps you absorb multiple voices — you can either try out each of their voices to see what comes most naturally for you, or blend until you find your own.
- Type out Books From Authors You Admire – Hunter Thompson reportedly did this with F. Scotts Fitzgerald’s books.
- Write Until You Find Yours – Some people naturally have a unique voice, others need to write 1 million words to get there.
- Imitate Authors – Read authors you admire, whose voice work for your story, during the writing process.
- Reading Diets – Some writers need to avoid similar genres or all books when writing, to avoid the voice from leaking into their writing. Some people just get too into what they’re reading and don’t pick up their writing again until the story is done. Some can write while rereading books they already know or non-fiction. Some can read anything, as long as they don’t overlap with historical characters or settings.
- Observe When Something You’re Reading Works – Takes notes and see if you can analyze why and how it worked.
Many of the panelists were certain that style does not equal voice. Others thought style was the tools of the voice.
How Different Voices Are Used
For Jo Walton, each book needs its own voice, but your voice is still the puppet master. If you deliberately parody someone, you understand it, but parody must be done with love, or it’s mean. Try parody as a writing exercise, to teach yourself how the voice works.
Walter Jon Williams matches his writing style to the project and is very conscious of his language choice — modern vs anachronisms (etc). But, reality can be stranger than fiction — there were societies of merchants in the Middle Ages that cosplayed King Arthur’s court for festivals — for 100s of years. Everything old is new again.
Walter Jon Williams says he has a parliament in his head of novelists. The challenge when you write such disparate works is it’s hard to sell, because they are all “A Walter Jon Williams book like no other….” Rather than most writers, where if they write one thing, you’re likely to enjoy their other works because of the matching voice and/or genre. He’s currently writing both a contemporary modern voice with light description and heavy internal monologue, and a Jacobean-lite style fantasy.
Each genre and subgenre has a usual voice, but it can be fun to mix and match. Roger Zelazny’s 1st-person close was new to fantasy (at the time). Some have mixed Cyberpunk and noir for science fiction. As long as the pacing of the style works for the genre you apply it to, it can be fun. Otherwise, you’ll break the genre. Play with your voice!
Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series is in the 18th century didactic tone, where the narrative voice talks to the reader, and was suggested as a Masterclass in voice as the series goes on.
The mystery genre formula was defined as it exists to this day in the 1920s, voice is the only reason fans read new ones.
Your voice gets defined by how brave you’re willing to be — flip things and not give a hoot — like China Miéville according to Usman T. Malik. You can do anything with fiction, and if you’re not, we’re missing out.
It was a lively panel with a lot of different approaches to voice and styles.
Which best aligns with your writing?
What authors do you admire and which have voices that are similar to your writing?