Review: Finding Your Voice

My critique group decided to take a break from our usual meeting plan to read a book on the craft of writing and discuss it as a group. One of our members suggested Finding YourVoice: Make Your Writing Unique and Unforgettable by Bria Quinlan and Jeannie Lin. It was a good choice.

First, let me say that this is going to be one of those “sort-of” reviews. I’ll talk a J
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bit about what I did and didn’t like about the book, but I’m also going to focus on what I learned from it about my own writing. My hope is that by giving you the full picture you can decide if the book can help you with your craft. Plus, I’ll be honest, it gives me a chance to talk about my work.

At our critique group meeting last night, there was one comment that was almost universally agreed upon. The first portion of the book on “emerging voice” wasn’t as valuable as the second and third sections on “core voice” and “signature voice.” That’s partially due to the less concrete nature of the content, i.e., it focused more on what voice is not than what voice is. But, it’s also largely due to the fact that everyone in our group, published and unpublished alike, already has a voice, whether we could describe it or not.

We also had some pretty interesting discussions on what is voice vs. what is plot and style. For example, I tend not to set up a lot of interpersonal conflict between my main characters, letting the time period and circumstances do it for me. Another member of our group tends to favor wounded heroes. We decided both of those examples were more style/plot preferences than voice. Not sure Jeannie and Bria would agree, but it’s probably not worth arguing over. (As I said, I’m not a big fan of interpersonal conflict.)

What I loved about the book is that it helped me identify some things that are a distinct part of my voice:

Sentence structure – Since I write historicals, my sentences tend to be longer and more lyrical. They help me set the scene. Of course, that doesn’t mean I can use shorter sentences to increase the tension. It just wouldn’t seem quite right if I used shorter sentences throughout. (In our discussion in sentence structure, the editor in our group lamented a time when everyone was told to “write like Hemingway.”)

The book did a good job of pointing out some flaws I made early on in my writing career. For example, I’ve always lived participle phrases. Don’t know why. I also tend to start paragraphs the same way. Luckily, I had editors point these flaws out to me along the way, but I’m sure if I went back to my earliest writing, I would just cringe.

Word choice – We had a good discussion on how each of us chooses the right word. Some stick on that word until they get it right. I tend to write my first draft with the first word that comes to mind. Then, in subsequent revisions, I will either scale it up or scale it down. I may even change my mind half a dozen times. While I think historical romance readers tend to have a fairly broad vocabulary, I don’t want to choose a word that is so obscure it would lose its effect. Plus, I don’t want to re-look it up later only to find out I used it incorrectly. 

Humor – While I don’t write “funny”, I love to add touches of wry humor in my stories to give them a little sparkle. For example, in Le Chevalier, when the hero first meets the heroine, she is wearing a dress the same shade as the background in the flowered (big, purple peonies) wallpaper as if she is intentionally trying not to be noticed. (she is) Then, the inevitable happens. Someone spills wine on her dress:

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She scowled at the man’s back, but said nothing. He must have sensed her eyes on the back of his neck, however, because at that moment he spun around. His wine glass led the way, and before he noticed her, he knocked it against her shoulder and spilled a burgundy stream down the front of her dress.

Mont Trignon recovered himself just in time to avoid a belly laugh. Now the poor woman matched the wallpaper perfectly.

Interestingly, word choice and humor are two things I hone in on when I ghost write for executives in my day job. While I may not structure my sentences the way they do – especially for the non-native English speakers – I try never to use a word they wouldn’t use. I also pay careful attention to the level and types of humor with which they are comfortable. For example, I think some of my female execs were told they needed to be serious in order to be taken seriously. I don’t even attempt mild humor in the pieces I write for them. Other execs are quite comfortable with humor and are even good with borderline snarky. (Though I admit I don’t do snarky well. Again, it’s the conflict thing.)

All in all, I think it was a well-written book on craft that writers of all levels can appreciate. The authors give plenty of exercises throughout. I marked half a dozen that I will come back to as I work through the revisions in my current manuscript.

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