Key Points: Be authentic. Don't try to impress other people. Don't overwork it. Voice develops naturally. Give yourself the freedom to write what you want. Learn the techniques and get out of the way to let the art happen. Look for the cookie that can only be baked in your brain. Nurture your voice -- find what you love, and go with it. The narrative voice of a book or series isn't the author's voice.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode 18, Discovering Your Voice.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Dan] Once again, we're recording live at Life, the Universe, and Everything at UVU. We have special guest star James A. Owen. Thank you for joining us.
[James] Thank you for having me. [Cheering]
[Dan] James is the guest of honor at this conference. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
[James] I've been doing creative work for a living since before I needed to make a living. I actually started doing this professionally while I was still living at home, and could therefore make all sorts of mistakes and survive them, and have never really done anything else.
[Howard] The same could be true... Said of a lot of artists, that they do their work while still living with Mom. [Laughter]
[James] Best starter business ever.
[Brandon] James, you actually suggested this panel. Why don't you tell me the story you... Tell them the story you told me when I was asking what we should talk about?
[James] We were talking about finding your own voice. The series of books that I wrote first are the ones that have never been available in the US. It's a series called Mythworld that I wrote for a German publisher. I wrote them in English, they translated them into German. I wrote the second book first, then the first book. These were my first novels. I did comics before, but not novels. I started worrying about my voice. I had become acquainted at that time with Orson Scott Card. So I rewrote a section of the first book and sent him both pieces, and said I'd like your opinion on this. He wrote back and he said, "James, you have a dark, droll sense of humor, and you need to follow that because it's very authentic and you're very funny. That's what your first sample was. Authentic, funny, and I enjoyed it. The second sample felt like you were trying to win an American book award, and I hated it." I was writing... Trying to write the story in a way I thought would impress other people. I was trying to do what I thought would elevate my voice and use more formal language and cut out the humor. He said you wrote something that connected A to B to C, and all the words were there and the story was there, but the heart was gone.
[Brandon] Any of the rest of you guys have that experience? Mary, you're opening your mouth. You look like you might. No...
[Mary] No. Well, this is...
[Brandon] You've always had your voice from the beginning. From the womb, Mary has a voice. No...
[Mary] Well, it's tricky for me, because I spent so much of my time in the live theater. So I really spent... I think in some ways was developing my voice... The ability to connect with an audience there. So when I started writing, I... That may be a part of the writing process that I learned in another field.
[Brandon] I remember hearing... The first time I heard voice, it was in high school. The teacher was saying, "And you know, the voice of the writing..." She was doing this whole lecture on it. I was completely baffled by what the concept of the voice was. Since that time, I've met lots of other writers. That... Voice is one of those things that just seems to baffle everyone. Nobody knows really how to define voice, or how to develop it until they actually become professional writers, and it just... Kind of... For a lot of them, it just clicks. "Oh, yeah, I know what my voice is now." For me, that's kind of what happened with me. I muddled through this, trying to figure out... I put so much work into trying to discover a voice that I overworked it in a lot of ways, like James is talking about. That if... Voice is actually something you develop naturally. Yet we talk about how important it is. Can you see how hard it is for new writers then? You talk about how important it is to have a unique voice. Then they work on it, and they flub it dramatically.
[Dan] My experience is very similar, and I'm going to give a specific piece of advice. I was writing fantasy books forever. I wrote five fantasy books before I got published. It's because that's what I read a lot, that's what I wanted to write. It wasn't until I gave myself the liberty to just write anything at all, and ended up writing a horror novel that got published very quickly because I wasn't trying to force myself into this other mold that I thought was what I wanted or I thought was what the market wanted. It was just whatever I wanted to do. That's how I found it, was giving myself that freedom.
[Howard] He discovered that he has the voice of a psychopath. [Laughter]
[Mary] I think the thing that we're hitting on, which actually parallels with puppetry, is the freedom to stop worrying about how to do it, and you just speak what is... What you're excited about, to just tell the story that you are excited and passionate about...
[Mary] And the voice will take care of itself. In puppetry, we talk about that you need to learn the techniques and have them down cold so that you can get out of the way and let the art happen. I feel like that's very much the same thing with writing, that you need to know how to do all of these specific things, but that the voice... The voice is you. So when you're first learning to write, it's not so much that you're learning how to find your voice, it's that you are learning how to get the techniques out of the way so that you can express yourself freely.
[Brandon] Right, right. So you don't have to focus paragraph by paragraph as much on how to get these other things right, it can start to flow more naturally. James, you were going to say something?
[James] Excitement has to be a big part of it, because if you're not excited about the work you're doing, no one else is going to be either. A lot of finding your voice involves getting out of your own way. Not trying to manage that process... I get questions a lot because my books are published as YA. On writing panels, people say, "Well, what's the difference between writing for YA and middle grade versus writing for adults?" I answer, "I haven't the faintest idea," because I didn't write these books specifically for YA. It was a children's editor that liked them the most. I simply wrote them and wrote the story I was excited to tell. Then when my manager called, she says, "We've just gotten an offer on Here There Be Dragons." I said, "Great, say yes." She says, "Wait." I said, "What?" She said, "It's a great offer." I said, "Great, say yes." She says, "Wait. It's going to be newsworthy. It'll be in the trade papers." I said, "Please, just say yes." She says, "Wait. You need to understand. It's from the head of the children's division. We weren't planning for that, but that's who liked it the most. If you say yes, you are forever going to be branding yourself as a children's book author. You have to decide right now if you're okay with that." I put down the phone, and turned around and looked at the role of Harry Potter books on my shelf. [Laughter] I said, "Yeah, I'm good with this."
[Howard] Yeah, applause for James. [Clapping] This... It's probably a downer after that story. I'm working on the art for the Schlock Mercenary board game. One of the things that has to be drawn is the framing for the pictures. The cards and the templates and... There's little boxes and widgets and windows and whatever else. When I looked at the mockup design, it was all done in Illustrator. I looked at it and I went, "Well, that's fine. This is a window where a character picture goes, this is a window where a button goes." The guy goes, "No, we need you to draw that." "What, you just drew it in Illustrator. It looks great. Those lines are perfect." They don't want perfect lines. What I had to do... What I'm still doing is looking at what they drew in Illustrator, to show where all these things go. Then I sit down with graph paper and pencil the perfect lines on the graph paper. Then I chuck the pencil, grab a pen... I'm not allowed to use a ruler or a circle template or anything like that... And I freehand these shapes. Why? Because, and this is the analog for voice, my hand wobbles in a way peculiar to me while I'm drawing those lines, and people can tell. If I draw straight... If I draw a straight line with a straight edge, it's sterile, it could have been anybody. What they want is the cookie that can only be baked in my brain. [Laughter]
[Dan] That's the name of my next book, actually.
[Brandon] Now, James. I want to just jump on this one while it's hot, because you do illustration as well...
[Brandon] How do you then match like the voice of the prose and the illustration and... How does this all work together for you?
[James] Because I started out in comic books doing a series called StarChild, I was used to illustrating my own stories. So when I moved over to novels, that was part of the deal, is I would do the cover art and illustrate the chapters in the old Arthur Rackham , N.C. Wyeth style. To me, I'd do a one-page outline of the books, which was chapter titles and little notes in the margins about the plot line and where I want it to go. But then I'd do thumbnails for each of the chapters. So I have a roadmap and the key visuals. If I hit a chapter where I can't come up with a good enough image for an illustration, to me that means something is wrong with the writing.
[Brandon] Wow. That is interesting. That's fascinating. Now, our book of the week. We're going to pick one of your books, they won't be able to see the illustrations in the audible edition. But you do have a website. Your website is?
[Brandon] I assume we can see some of your illustration on your website as well?
[James] Oh, yes. It links to my Facebook, where I'm allowed to actually post works in progress. So pencils and inks and illustrations of the new books.
[Mary] It's really cool. Not that I'm a fan or anything. [Laughter]
[Brandon] Let's talk about your book, Here There Be Dragons. Just give us a thirty second blurb on it.
[James] Here There Be Dragons is the first in the chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica, which is Annapolis of maps of every land you've ever read about in every myth, legend, fable, and fairytale. Famous authors and artists and scientists throughout history have been the caretakers of this book. The story begins with three young men meeting in London in 1917 when one of their mentors was murdered because he was the caretaker of this book. There given the book and told they're now the caretakers of that book and all the lands mapped within it.
[Brandon] Wow, that sounds awesome.
[James] Thank you.
[Brandon] Howard, how can they get it?
[Howard] Head on out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can pick up a copy of Here There Be Dragons by James A. Owen, and kick off a 14 day free trial membership with that in your downloads.
[Brandon] Now, Dan, there was a time I actually cut you off just a few minutes ago. Did you have something you were just dying to add, or is the moment gone? Is it dead?
[Dan] No, I was actually going to say, let's do a book of the week.
[Brandon] Oh, were you?
[Dan] So... Which we've done that now. So I'm good.
[Brandon] Well, I want to get to this idea of developing your voice. Because I... We're talking about just letting it go naturally, which is good advice. Yet I do think there are things you can actively do to nurture it. I choose the word nurture intentionally. Rather than forcing a voice, I do think, as a writer... One of the things I'm big on as a writer is learning what works for you and learning how to enhance your ability to do that. Finding out what parts of fiction you're particularly good at and trying to write stories that emphasize that. Just like our guest last week knew that he loved guns and then was able to write stories that enhanced his love of guns and take advantage of it and turn them into great stories. I think you can do this with anything. You can... I think your voice is the same way. You find out what's working in your voice, and then you run with it. That's what Dan, what you did, for I Am Not a Serial Killer, is you found something that worked wonderfully and you just built an entire book around it. So what advice can we give to people about how to nurture their voice?
[Dan] Well, I mean, the first thing like you're saying, is that it comes from something that you love. So step one is love something. [Laughter] so step slightly before one is get out and learn as much stuff as you can, okay? Whether it's puppetry or guns or serial killers... Which are all three very creepy things. [Laughter] You have to have a life outside of writing.
[Brandon] One of these things is not like the others.
[Dan] You have to have hobbies. You have to do something and be passionate about it, because then you have... It's not enough to be good at writing, you have to have something to say.
[Mary] I don't know why you think puppets are creepy. Hahaha!
[Brandon] Yeah. Only because you post tweets about I've got Thor's head on my mantle...
[Mary] I did have to leave a leg at the mailbox before I left...
[Howard] I'm going to have to shave these toes before I go to dinner...
[Mary] What is creepy about this?
[Dan] Okay, one quick side note. Mary, on her Twitter feed, will all the time post these really creepy, vague things that are half puppetry making and... But they sound out of context like she's been murdering and dismembering somebody. So many comments will come through and say, "Hey, that sounds like one of Dan Wells' tweets. Ha ha, ha ha." So she and I decided as an experiment once that she would start tweeting segments of my book to see who picked up on it, and realized it was not a puppetry tweet. We actually... It took a while. It took longer than we expected. [Laughter]
[Mary] Yeah. Frankly, those were the ones that did not get the "that sounds like something Dan would write." I think my favorite comment was "Are you writing erotic Steampunk?"
[Brandon] Apparently Dan is.
[Dan] The unspoken subtext of a Dan Wells novel? Now I have a question for Mary, okay? You, with Glamour in Glass and all of these books that you are writing, you have tried very, very specifically to copy, to some extent, Jane Austen's voice and style. So how do you justify that with your own voice and style?
[Mary] This is where I think the word voice gets muddy. Because I think there is the narrative voice of the work, in which I am trying to copy the Jane Austen feel. Then there is the voice of the author, which is what you specifically have to say, and the way in which you choose to present it. So far, I think we've mostly been talking about the author voice, which is a different animal. The way in which to develop a narrative voice is to basically try to internalize someone else's work. When I'm writing the Glamour in Glass... The Glamorous history books, I sit down and basically while I am in process, I don't read anything that is out of period. I don't read modern literature when I'm working on those. Which is... Fortunately, I'm a fast writer, because otherwise that would get really frustrating. But that is... Part of that is to get my mind working in those ways. Again, it's about having a technique down so that I can get out of the way of the art. Like I do not... When I'm sitting there writing these, I do not sit there and worry about word choice. I go back and deal with that later.
[Brandon] I think this is really important to bring out, because a given work, even if you're not specifically saying, "Oh, I'm going to kind of channel Regency for this," a given work is going to have a voice. My Stormlight books actually have a different narrative voice from my Mistborn books. As you become a writer, the more you write, the more you will realize that each kind of... Each soul and each book... Each book and each series have their own soul. You will learn to bring those out, and to make it part of what makes that series work. It even kind of is something that I was able to I hope do when I jumped 300 years in the Mistborn books and write a new one 300 years later. It's still actually has the same narrative soul of the series. I've had people come to me and say, "Wow, this is so strange that it feels like a Mistborn book," because everything has changed and yet the soul, the narrative voice, is the same. You can do tricks like this if you understand voice.
[James] I think that's significant, now that you've brought it up, that I get a comment about the formal language in my books. People have used the term Edwardian to describe it. Which does describe it very well. I'm very precise in a lot of my language. Which... Then switch back to the author's voice, makes it more interesting when I introduce a talking badger or something to it, in the formal language.
[Mary] One thing that is an interesting exercise, if you want to be able to kind of know that you do have in fact a voice. Take a story, stop about midway through... And a story that you kind of know where it's going. Have someone else, that's a writer of about the same caliber, and swap stories with them. Have them write for a little bit, and then give it back to you to finish. I did this with Monte Cook. This was actually an accidental discovery. We were both stuck, so we swapped stories, we wrote for about 15 minutes, and then we gave it back. That got us both over the stuck point. I know, when I'm looking back at that, exactly when it switches to being his words. Because they feel just a little bit wrong. But, this is Monte Cook, the guy who's like Dungeons & Dragons. He has writing chops. It's not at all to do with it's written wrong. It's just not my voice. If you want to see your voice, that is one way to know that you've got it.
[Brandon] Why don't we make that our writing prompt? I want you guys to try that. Find a writing buddy and swap stories halfway through. James, I want to give you a special thank you for being on the podcast and for sharing so many stories with us. We're going to have to end right now, but this has been Writing Excuses. Thank you guys so much. You're out of excuses, now go write.