If you’re a writer – especially one that’s just starting out – and you’re not reading David Farland’s writing tips at his website, or subscribing to his daily email, start now. Dave has a ton of experience as an author and creative writing teacher and is more than willing to share that experience with us. He posted something inspirational recently that I really liked  because it reminds us that there’s more than one way to work towards our writing goals. Money quote:

“If you want to be a writer, think about the time that you first felt that passion. Let it grow in you a little today. Take the steps that you need to in order to grow. If that means that you must sit down and type, then hit the keyboards. If you need to plot a story, get started on it. If you feel like you need to take a class or read a book on writing, do it. If all that you do is study the work of another fine writer by reading a chapter or two before bed, your time will be well spent.

Nurture your passions. Light up the night.”

Talking Voice – Part 4: Non-Fiction

[Other entries in the Talking Voice Series: Part 1: Authorial Voice in FictionPart 2: Tone and Part 3: Character and Other In-World Voices.]

So far in my series on voice, I’ve detailed my thoughts on voice in fiction. But now were going enter the realm of… the real (1). In addition to proper citations (see what I did there?), facts need proper voice and tone. Let’s talk voice in works of non-fiction.

First, remember this: non-fiction books aren’t all lists of facts or instructional. Many of them are stories, and need to be treated as such, including in terms of voice. Particularly autobiographies and memoirs (for the difference, see here). Let’s talk about those first.

It’s easy to think that an autobiographoical book simply needs the author’s natural voice. But in practice, this isn’t really the case. If you are writing memoirs or other first-person narratives, you aren’t really being yourself; you’re being a version of yourself. And guess what? Just like overall voice in fiction, that version of yourself needs to be consistent.

Is your autobiographical story a happy one? A thoughtful one? Or is it a roller coaster of highs and lows? Whatever it is, just like in fiction, you need to handle voice and tone in a manner that serves the story in the best way possible, from beginning to end. This might be as simple as being yourself. Momentum can often carry a writer through an autobiographical process. But lots of people can do that, and the result isn’t always compelling or well-written. Take the time and effort to make it so.

What if you’re writing a book about… say… yoga? In this context, you obviously have something significant to say about yogic practice (breathing, meditation, movement, alignment, or some combination). This could take the form of anything from a straight relating of historical fact (for example, your pictorial on the step-by-step evolution of supta baddha konasana), to presenting people with a new synthesis of yogic ideas gleaned from your own personal practice. If the former, then you’ll want to gravitate towards a more academic voice, whereas in the latter, you are more likely to feature a more informal voice that conveys a sense of discovery. A yoga teacher training manual will have a lot of information in bulleted points, photos, and lists of reference materials, but might also have the personal stamp of the teacher, making it a combination of the above. Make sure that you know what it is that you need to do before you get started and make a plan. Find a good editor to make sure that you stay on that plan!

Academic non-fiction has a style and voice all its own. Generally speaking, academic texts are much more formal, much more aligned with high school and college English essay writing than fiction. There is almost never an “I” and almost no personal stories to be found outside of a preface. Strict adherence to a style guide both in terms of grammar and citations in necessary. And make sure that you do what is appropriate for your discipline. For example, academic writing in music and art differs from that of physics and psychology. While both feature an academic voice, aspects of the voice might be different. Make sure you know what works best and what is expected.

[Bonus tip: when writing non-fiction, especially academic non-fiction, make sure that you make a commitment up front to document your sources! Nothing is worse than trying to finish up your book or manual, and not being able to remember where you lifted a quote or idea from! See this excellent resource for more on what kind of things to cite. When in doubt about whether to do so, cite it!]

And so, my series on voice comes to an end. Hope you had as much fun as I did! Let me know in the comments what thoughts and experiences you might have on voice in non-fiction.

Look for more writing tips – and maybe even a new series – soon.

1 – Wachowski, Andy and Lana. The Matrix. Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski. Los Angeles: Warner Bros.,1999. Paraphrase of quote from the movie, Morpheus to Neo: “Welcome to the desert of the real.”


Stephen King talks about opening sentences and how hard he works on them over at the Atlantic online. It’s fascinating and worth a read.

I agree that opening lines are important. But what about other ‘opening lines’ in writing? The first lines about a key character or place might need to be as impactful. Unless you’re trying to slide someone or something in as foreshadowing. I’ll have to flesh out my thoughts on this. What other aspects of writing do you think deserve the attention that King gives his openers?

Talking Voice – Part 3: Character and Other ‘In-World’ Stylistic Voices

[Other entries in the Talking Voice Series: Part 1: Authorial Voice in FictionPart 2: Tone and Part 4: Non-Fiction]

For writers of fiction, character voice is often one of the primary things we concentrate on, as it is a key way to convey information about that character. Character voice – like overall voice – needs to be consistent and authentic. This is fairly basic, and comes naturally for most fiction writers, but definitely be aware of character voice as you are starting out and even more so when you head to revision.

Early in the process, character voice can be tricky. Characters can end up sounding similar to one another or a single character voice can get inconsistent. This is especially a trap when you’re starting a new book or story from scratch without an outline, or if you’re juggling a large cast of characters. When characters are in their infancy, their voices can have a tendency wander. Maybe a character starts out wishy-washy and indecisive, but in the next scene, they’re ordering someone else’s minions to assault the Queen’s castle. For a first draft, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if the character doesn’t coalesce by the end of the first act of the book, then it might be time to rethink the character or the situation you put them in before continuing.

Once that first draft is in the books, you’ll still have to go back and check consistency of each character and their voice. If a henchman that appears early on in a minor ‘yes, sir’ kind of role later returns spouting techno-babble, you may need to reconcile that, by going back and putting something in the earlier scene that prepares the reader. Or it could be a plot point: perhaps he’s been infected by your book’s techno-babble virus, in which case we can just be sad that he will eventually die of hunger and dehydration due to his inability to shut up about the latest warp drive model and complex encryption algorithms. Or maybe we shouldn’t be sad. After all, he could have simply washed his hands before returning to his henchman duties.

But I digress.

Okay. So how can you get a consistent character voice?

First, before you get deep into the narrative, make sure that you understand your characters as best you can. What are their histories and dispositions? What are their goals? Based on these factors – as well as the plot/conflict that you’re about to throw at them – you can create compelling and consistent character voices. Do some pre-writing on each character. Put them in a scene (one that also provides you with a chance to fill out backstory) that won’t appear in the book. This way, you can give the character a test run.

Next, think carefully about the actual ‘voice’ of the characters, the dialogue. As writers (and editors), we have to be actors. We have to be able to imagine character situations, reactions, and dialogue as realistically as possible. Talk to yourself. Run dialogue out loud with yourself or with a friend. Make sure that it rolls smoothly and naturally, and that it works with the situation that you’ve put your characters in. And make sure you don’t fall into the trap of over-stylization unless you’re working in a situation where it makes sense to do so: historical novels, epic poetry, fantasy cultures, alien encyclopedias, etc.

In addition to character voices, fiction writers often have a need for other ‘in-world’ voices. Sometimes you need to be able to write a fictional newspaper article or encyclopedia entry. Or a weather report. Or a technical training manual. All of these need to sound authentic or as deft a parody as you can weave (if that’s your goal). It’s not necessarily hard, but you have to absorb the styles and execute them properly in your narrative.

Whatever aspect of voice in fiction you’re tackling, awareness, commitment, authenticity are the keys.

Coming Soon: Talking Voice – Part 4: Non-Fiction

Talking Voice – Part 2: Tone

[Also check out the other posts in this series: Talking Voice – Part 1: Authorial VoiceTalking Voice – Part 3: Character & Stylistic VoicesTalking Voice – Part 4: Non-Fiction]

My first blog on natural voice didn’t much explore the often necessary idea of altering voice in order to fit the needs of the writing task. Today I want to briefly cover one possibility for alteration: tone.

As Julie Wildhaber said in her article on voice over at Grammar Girl’s indispensable website, tone is “a subset of voice. If voice is the personality of a story, then tone is the mood.”

I agree, and I agree with her that a good writer can change that personality. The key – as with voice in a larger sense – is maintaining awareness, consistency, and commitment.

One of the easiest ways to change the personality is to change the tone. If voice is ice cream, tone is a part of what makes the ice cream’s flavor. Tone is the mood of a piece of writing. Tone creates an emotional backdrop, helping a reader know whether to be anxious, happy, scared, ready for romance, or ready for a fight between a dozen master ninjas.

Tone can manifest itself in different ways. One of those is tempo. Shorter sentences and the strategic use of fragments create an urgent tone. Word choice can also change tone. The family of adjectives you pull from for a tender, sensual love scene will be different from the set you use when one lover later decides to chop the other into quivering packets of bloody meat with a 16-inch, saw-toothed hunting knife. (Though ‘quivering’ could be used in both instances! Words are cool that way sometimes.)

So romantic books and scenes might have more warmth, but at the same time are very intense. Thrillers are also intense, but it’s more about tempo; there are more actions packed into fewer words.

Decide before you begin a scene – or even a whole book – what tone you want to have in general, then stick to that as much as possible. If you do, you’ll find that revisions go much quicker, and aspects of your writing like character development will also be more consistent.

What other ways do you try to create the right tone in your writing? Let me know in the comments!

Coming Soon: Talking Voice – Part 3: Character & Stylistic Voices; Talking Voice – Part 4: Non-Fiction

Talking Voice – Part 1: Authorial Voice in Fiction

[Also check out the other posts in this series: Talking Voice – Part 2: Tone; Talking Voice – Part 3: Character & Stylistic Voices; Talking Voice – Part 4: Non-Fiction]

What is authorial voice? Poetically speaking, it’s the wellspring of your words and the cradle of your artistic intentions. Practically, it’s made up of an array of factors from the specific to the ephemeral, that all encapsulate ‘the way you write.’ Let’s talk authorial voice in the context of fiction writing, one of my favorite craft-of-writing topics.

Your voice is every little personal quirk and tick that make up the way you naturally string words together back to back to create unique communication with your readers. This can include nuts and bolts writing tools such as your instinctive:

  • word choice
  • word and sentence rhythm
  • tone (though tone is very much author-malleable, even for writers just beginning to hone their craft)

These technical items are also shaped by more intangible things such as your:

  • Basic mood/disposition (are you a happy, outgoing person? Or do you tend towards something introverted or even melancholy?)
  • Experiences (survived cancer? lived rough on a tropical beach for six months? have the best family life you could ask for?)
  • Determined intentions (what are you trying to do with your writing arts?)
  • What styles/genres/authors have you read and which have you absorbed (consciously or unconsciously)?

That’s a lot to think about. There’s good news here: you don’t really have to juggle all that stuff in your head as you write! It’s going to happen naturally… if you let it.

Authorial voice is first about being yourself. That is the best way to make your writing flow and ring true, both to yourself and your reader. Commit to your voice and don’t get in its way. Readers can tell when you’re forcing your prose to be something imitative. They will respond to your authenticity. Even if there’s something about your story or article that’s off or otherwise uninteresting to them, the voice can keep them with you. Think of a book that you almost put down, but didn’t? Why didn’t you stop? I really didn’t like the preachy libertarianism that suffused Terry Goodkind’s SWORD OF TRUTH books. Not for me, really. But his authorial voice got me all the way to Book 6 despite my rather strong disagreement with his socio-political philosophies. That’s the power that commitment to voice can bring. And as it happened, I like the raw sharpness of his voice. Also try THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING by Kelly Thompson, for an example of a wonderful voice that exudes commitment: smooth and modern, while being at turns biting and sweet. It’s a great book all the way around, and the voice is consistent from word one to the end.

Speaking of consistency, remember that just because you’ve committed to your voice doesn’t mean that all will go smoothly beginning to end on your first draft. Writing is a multi-pass process and voice is too. Kelly Thompson and Terry Goodkind – like all authors – surely went through a painstaking revision process. As for your efforts, maybe you have to write your book in chunks over several months and the voice gets inconsistent. Or you have an extremely happy life experience – or a terrible one – that makes it harder for you to maintain consistent voice and tone. Life happens, and it causes evolution and change in authorial voice. You can smooth those inconsistencies in revision. A professional editor can absorb your voice and seek to preserve it all the way through your text. (Make sure to contact a good one.) Maybe it takes rewriting an entire scene from a different PoV or emotional feeling, or maybe you can fix the voice just by changing or removing a few words. Unless the inconsistencies are just too great, it can be fixed.

A good writer can, will, and should write in different voices. The key to being able to do this successfully is to first commit to your own natural authorial voice and get comfortable with how it is and how it changes. The best way to do this is free writing. Just get a topic from anywhere and go. When you free yourself from expectations and overly strong intentions, your voice will coalesce with little effort. And you’ll like it!

Every writer is different, and we need every writer to be different. Your unique authorial voice has a place in the world. So commit to being yourself. The art form will be the better for it.

Coming Soon: Talking Voice – Part 2: Voice vs. Tone; Talking Voice – Part 3: Character & Stylistic Voices; Talking Voice – Part 4: Non-Fiction