Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Be True to Your Voice

You’re ready to write a novel. You’ve outlined all twenty-three chapters and plan to write about vampires in a fresh, exciting, and bound-to-be profitable way. Soon, Twilight fans will have a new obsession and you’ll be raking in the profits from the bestselling novels, movie rights, and merchandising.

Or not. In fact, the rejections of the proposal it took you six months to create have cited something “missing” in your voice. How could that be? You penned a supernatural love affair for the ages! It should be sent straight to the most powerful editors, not to the slush pile!

Don’t despair.

I’ve been there too. I’ve written more than one less-than-stellar proposal, believe me. Back when chick lit was all the rage and any book resembling a Sex in the City episode flew off the shelf, I decided to pen a chick lit-style mystery. My agent (the fabulous Jessica Faust of Book Ends) regretfully informed me that my voice wasn’t working. She was right. My attempts to form a plot focusing on cocktails, high fashion, and one-night stands fell flat. Road kill flat.

The book wasn’t me. Chick lit was selling, but I couldn’t write it. These days, vampires are hot, but I can’t write them either.

Then what do we do, fellow writers, when we can’t put our spin on what’s already selling? We color our voice with personal experience.

If an experience can move you, then it can move your readers as well. Case in point: I’d returned to church after a twenty-year hiatus and, inwardly kicking and screaming, joined a monthly Bible Study group. Taking this risk changed me. The people in the group changed me. I assumed they’d be a bunch of stuffy, judgmental, humorless, blue-haired Republicans and, except for the Republican part, I was completely wrong. They were flawed, funny, courageously honest, generous, beautiful, and wise. I’d never laughed so freely or cried so openly as I did in their presence.

I wanted to write about these precious people. I wanted them to solve crimes, to puzzle over obscure clues, to ensure that good triumphed over evil. In the end, I wrote a mystery series about church folk and two major publishing houses offered to buy it. And there wasn’t a single vampire in my proposal. I was in heaven (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Your richest, most believable voice will be born out of dozens of such personal experiences. So don’t get hung up on Carrie Bradshaw or Bella Swan or whatever the next trend may be. After all, you don’t want to ride a trend; you want to start one. Forget what you think people are looking for and write your story. Your voice will outshine even the glitteriest vampire.


Lisa Bork said...

Jennifer, a great example of "write what you know". Best of luck with your new series and everything else :)

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Great post, JB. To thine own self be true.

I recently received a comment from a friend on the manuscript for my upcoming vampire mystery. He said even though the book was about vampires and was "totally out there" it was "still a Sue Ann Jaffarian book." I took it as a huge compliment because it means the topic didn't overshadow my personal voice.

Mike Dennis said...

Thanks for sharing, JB. You've just told the story of every writer looking for a voice. Finally hitting on it is well worth the struggle to find it.

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Oh yes! Excellent point. You must write what you must, not what is selling, not what is trending. By the time it hits the shelf, that trend might be over any way, even if the voice is strong. Above all, must be true to that little voice within you, and let that shine. I could never write a Sex in the City book either. It's just not me.

Thanks for the reminder ;)

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Great point, Jennifer! Just because something is selling well doesn't mean it's a good fit for us.

Congratulations on your new series!

Mystery Writing is Murder
Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

Sheila Deeth said...

Why do I find myself remembering my shy son's second grade teacher telling him to speak with his "big" voice? Sometimes I wonder if lots of our writing voices are just too quiet to be heard unless someone finds us a megaphone.