How did you develop your writing voice?

If you are like me, you read a mix of novels, magazine and online articles, essays, blogs, and informational books on a rolling basis. Did you ever wonder why one writer goes for puns, another for gravity, a third for elegance, a fourth for gothic imagery, and so on? Do you consider how these writing voices compare to your style?

A Poet Without Tea

A Poet Without Tea

My fiction writing is characterized by short paragraphs and minimal detail. I rarely describe my characters’ appearance, unless doing so hints at their motivations. I tend to avoid backstory and instead leave clues through dialog. I’m not making an effort in that direction. It just comes out that way.

Some reasons I do this become obvious when I think about them. One, I don’t like tangential writing. Please don’t ever lend me a novel that stops the story for a chapter to describe how a boat engine works or to offer specs on popular wood lathes of the 1970s. I guarantee I will close it right there and give it back to you. Life is too short, and I’m not that polite.

You are surely aware of a certain famous, acclaimed, epic saga about an organized crime family, which was made into what many, including me, consider to be amongst the greatest films of all time. Unfortunately, I can’t get past page 50 of the book for all the relentless tangents. I’m sure the critics know more about great literature than I do, so I’ll just call myself a Philistine and move on.

I also despise excessive detail. I tried to get into a popular contemporary mystery series, but the author can’t resist grinding the story down to explain what each red-herring suspect has in his garden. Look, he’s either got flowers in there or vegetables. Unless I really need to know because the body of a Classical Studies major is buried under the zinnias, spare me the Latin names.

Not surprisingly, I’m inevitably influenced by writers I admire, and I tend to enjoy writers who get to the point (Elmore Leonard) and writers who have a dark wit (Poe). Peruse my story links under the Fiction tab above to witness some dovetailing.

My other influences are less apparent. I sometimes read novels and then watch the resultant film version, and I marvel how the screenwriters can tell the same story with only about 10% of the events making it to the screen. Harkening back to my public relations courses in college, during which the phrase “less is more” was branded onto my forehead, I am probably brainwashed to be a fiction minimalist.

And last, since I gravitate toward writers who are brisk and direct, I tend to seek writing instruction that is brisk and direct. Brisk and direct writing instructors tell you that exposition, even one word of it, is FOR PATHETIC LOSERS. You gotta find a way to tell the story without using exposition, they say. Leave clues through action and dialog. The circle is now complete!

My intent as a writer is to keep the story moving at a fast pace, make my characters interesting and colorful, and keep my reader hooked. My writing voice is a byproduct of that, not a means to an end.

So from whence does your writing voice derive? Have you thought about it? If your answer is too involved for the comments section below, why not blog it and let me know? I can post a link next time! Poets absolutely welcome. I may learn something yet.

While you are thinking about it, enjoy “Voices Carry” by ‘Til Tuesday, the first song I could think of with “voice” in the title. Sorry if they jam you with an advertisement first, and double sorry about the guy’s acting in the beginning. Yikes. Did they pay him?

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33 responses to “How did you develop your writing voice?

  • kristenotte

    Interesting question. I think the source of my writing voice is similar to yours. I write simply and directly without lots of exposition because that’s what I like to read. I want to see the story progress not a character’s outfit (or garden).

  • nrhatch

    OMG! You said this:

    My fiction writing is characterized by short paragraphs and minimal detail. I rarely describe my characters’ appearance, unless doing so hints at their motivations. I tend to avoid backstory and instead leave clues through dialog. I’m not making an effort in that direction. It just comes out that way.

    And you described my fiction writing to a “t”!

    I mention “extraneous details” in a minimalistic way. I don’t care what color the sofa is, whether their dress is designer or off the rack, and I could give a shit about the brand of their shoes. All I really want to know is what’s going on in their head (which seldom has anything to do with hair or eye color). I want to understand their motivation for acting or not acting.

    So that’s what I write.

    But I do describe what they are EATING. Because food is glorious, never extraneous. It is one of life’s truest pleasures. 😀

  • Jill Weatherholt

    I enjoy reading and writing short and brisk dialogue. While reading, I tend to skip excessive descriptive paragrahs, so I leave it out of my WIP. I want readers to read every word I write. Wow! Thanks for the trip down memory lane, I haven’t heard that song since college!

    • ericjbaker

      I think a lot of people do that (breeze ove or skip long paragraphs), which makes me wonder why so many authors write them. I’m a little more tolerant of such passages in classic literature, because it suits the style and the classics tend to have poetic gravitas. But I’m not joking about the boat engine thing. I got 30 pages into a novel by a bestselling contemporary author, and all I found out was that the drive shaft of a boat engine gets corroded from salt water if you don’t keep after it.

    • ericjbaker

      As for the ‘Til Tuesday… I pretty much grew up working in music stores. Old nostalgic favorites most people have forgotten about are kept in a giant filing cabinet in my brain, readily accessible at all times. It’s almost a burden how easily a song will be triggered by something somebody says.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    Great post, Eric. I too dislike extraneous writing of the self-indulgent sort – those pernicious infodumps and expository lumps most often found in really old books and door-stopper fantasy tomes. That said, if there is description and/or backstory that is truly relevant to the plot, I tend to enjoy – and write – stories with a bit more meat on their bones.

    Describing what the characters look like is a whole other debate, but when writing, I like to bring in (or, for stories I’m reading, have brought in) a bit of the setting and history, for we are both affected by and have an influence on these things in real life, and stories, in my opinion, are real life under a microscope. The fact that the sofa is blue rather than red could convey something important about its owner’s personality that is likewise important to the outcome of the story. Or, it may not; it depends on the type of story.

    I prefer the type of stories where it matters.

    • ericjbaker

      Indeed, details about the setting that indicate squalor or opulence don’t bother me at all, but the literary equivalent of a camera panning across the room for 5 minutes drives me nuts.

      I’ve mentioned before that I am an Agatha Christie geek (fully recognizing the dated writing and English aristocratic arrogance). One of the reasons I enjoy her so is that she rarely goes into detail about appearance or setting, yet you know just the kind of character or place we are dealing with. When long-lost cousin Richard arrives at the door, the lock of thick, wavy hair partly covering his left eye is enough to tell us that he is the devil-may-care urbanite who offends the sensibilities of his stuffy relatives.

      • Janna G. Noelle

        Are you still finding modern books that do this? Thankfully, I haven’t, and I pity you if you are, for I don’t like the 5 minutes (or 5 pages) of camera-panning either.

        I find this was very common in some classic books. It’s funny how literary conventions change across generations. Perhaps back in those days, readers couldn’t visualize things as well because they weren’t raised on TV like we were. Maybe they needed the author to describe everything in lurid detail, down to the last button and shoe buckle.

        • ericjbaker

          I think it has something to do with the development of a literate bourgeois in the mercantile age. Most people couldn’t afford to travel or have the means, so authors tended toward travelogue and descriptions of things once considered exotic. Maybe.

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  • Tyler Lehmann

    Wow, felt like I was reading my very own words. We share a lot of the same philosophy on writing. I bet it’s because we both studied PR. The whole “less is more” mentality is at the center of my writing process. Enjoyed your post!

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks so much. I guess that’s just the modern approach to writing, (thankfully). In retrospect, I should have expected everyone to share this philosophy. Who would have left a comment saying, “Not me. I like gaudy, flowery writing with paragraphs that take up 5 pages”?

      Thanks for the comment, Tyler.

  • Bryan Edmondson

    More than a few people have told me that my writing is too descriptive. They really seem to be put out with this. I am not sure I understand. I don’t use a lot of adjectives and never use adverbs.
    You know my writing so can you tell me why people have said this too me so often, and exactly what is offending the reader? They seem to want to hear “he walked into the room..” and if I have him walk in the room and describe the smell of a dead rat and talk about graffiti on the painted cracked walls…they do not like it. “Totally too descriptive, yuk,” they say.
    Thanks.

    • ericjbaker

      You are great at painting a picture that way. But if the pace starts to flag, then you may be going into too much detail. I haven’t read any of your stories for a while, so take my suggestions in that spirit, but it helps to ask if the descriptive passages advance the story. If you are stopping the action to give extraneous information, it slows everything down.

      No matter how well a writer does imagery, I find it too dense to read after a while. Remember that, in the past, writers used a lot of description because most readers would never see the places or things in the story and needed to know. Nowadays, with google images, cheap travel, CGI effects in movies, etc, it is easy to see things that were once fanciful or outlandish. Modern readers are more worldly and don’t need the blanks filled in so much.

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  • Uzoma

    Reblogged this on 85 Degrees and commented:
    Eric has hit the nail on the head. Here:

    “My fiction writing is characterized by short paragraphs and minimal detail. I rarely describe my characters’ appearance, unless doing so hints at their motivations. I tend to avoid backstory and instead leave clues through dialog. I’m not making an effort in that direction. It just comes out that way.”

    Doing this keeps the reader glued to the piece. No doubt about it.

  • mouthfulofwords

    Reblogged this on Kimberly T. Hennessy and commented:
    Funny, and instructive … have a read!

  • gettysburggirl

    Very interesting blog. Oddly, I greatly admire and enjoy reading very beautiful and lavish prose and have wished I could write this way. My efforts, however, always come out crisp and on the minimal side. I’ve often had people say I need to add more details, set the scene, etc. It seems to go against my nature. It puzzles me that I can’t emulate the type of writing I enjoy, yet I’ve come to be happy with my own voice.

    • ericjbaker

      To me, 19th Century British literature, and early 20th century New England lit, has a certain appealing poetry that I could never reproduce. It’s surely “of its time,” but it has a gaudy grace.

      I guess we’re all trained these days to be minimalist. We’re afraid no agent or publisher will read us unless something explodes in the first paragraph.

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

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