Sunday, July 18, 2010

Creating Your Original Voice

Several years ago when I was a hungry agent looking for edgy fiction, I responded in an interview on Webdelsol that I was looking for fiction writers with unique, powerful voices. I mentioned I was intrigued by Chuck Palahniuk’s work for its brave style...or something to that effect. That’s all it took. The floodgates opened and I was soon inundated with query letters and emails from writers whose style was “just like Chuck’s!" Since likening your style to another published author is fair game when it comes to pitching your work (as long as your pitch is original), I accepted several of these promising submissions. I soon read enough first chapters to know that while these authors were indeed fans of Chuck’s work (and don’t ask me why, but so too were they fans of Irvine Welsh, Hunter S. Thompson and Ginsberg), they were only writing “just like Chuck” and sadly not “just like John” or “just like Jenny." They hadn’t yet developed their own original voice. While writing in the same voice as your favorite author is a very helpful and popular work-shopping tool, this is something you do to strengthen your storytelling muscles, not become your favorite author.

But what’s a writer to do? Hundreds of books get published a year. There’s no such thing as an original voice let alone story, is there? How come you see scores of vampire and chicks- in- high heels books out there? Isn’t that the same thing? Not really. Those are hot genre trends not to be confused with an author’s original voice. I can guarantee you, Chuck is the only Chuck out there writing what he writes. Likewise with David Sedaris, James Patterson, Janet Evanovich and Anne Lamott. All of these writers have put in years of time, discipline, persistence and dedication to the craft, making their writing voice uniquely recognizable.

One of the first editors I met in New York made this point abundantly clear: tell me a good story! Don’t get caught up in a language that’s not your own, just tell a good story! That’s what Marcela Landres communicated very clearly to this fresh faced agent while we sat in her office at Simon and Schuster. Her passion for original yet commercially viable fiction was contagious! And she made it sound so easy! But you and I both know it’s not, when it comes down to you in front of your computer ready to write…a good story.

I knew Marcela was the perfect pro to bring in to this blogshop. I asked her:

TLC: As an editor, no doubt you've seen countless submissions from unpublished authors who want to be the next Candace Bushnell or Dan Brown. How can a beginning author find and promote their unique voice in the sea of commercial fiction published annually?

ML: To quote Ezra Pound, “Make it new.” When you read as many submissions as agents and editors do, you quickly realize most book ideas are not original. Stand out either by telling a new story, or telling an old story in a fresh way. Here’s how:

Read the competition.

The world doesn’t need another thriller—unless you write one with a cool twist. New York Times bestselling author Linda Castillo did just that with Sworn to Silence, a police procedural set in Amish country with a protagonist who was formerly Amish. How many other Amish thrillers can you name?

Publish before you are published.

Many a commercial fiction writer has launched her career by first publishing articles in newspapers and magazines. Case in point, Candace Bushnell wrote pieces about women, relationships, and dating as a freelancer for Mademoiselle, Self, and Esquire. Those gigs eventually lead to the New York Observer column that was the basis for the Sex in the City book--the rest is history. Her freelance articles and column served two purposes: they helped Bushnell hone her voice, and they established a following for her work.

Write what you know.

Regardless of whether you’re a cop, a chef, or a cubicle-dweller, your life can be fodder for your fiction. For example, Cathleen Schine was born in Westport, CT, and lives in New York City and Venice, CA—all pretty affluent places. What does this upper middle class author write about? Yep, upper middle class people. Schine does such a great job People magazine dubbed her “a modern-day Jewish Jane Austen.”

If you must write what you don’t know, research.

Jodi Picoult is a happily married mom of three teenagers who spends her days writing and caring for her family. She has not experienced most of the drama depicted in her work. How is she able to write about what she doesn’t know? Painstaking, thorough research. For Nineteen Minutes, a novel about a school shooting, Picoult: obtained previously unreleased material from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, which had investigated the Columbine shootings; interviewed a grief counselor who worked with the families who lost children at Columbine; met with two teachers who survived the shootings in Rocori, MN; and spoke with a young man whose friend died at a school shooting. Infuse your fiction with the authenticity that can only come from experience—if not your own, then someone else’s.

TLC: Learn from the masters. In many attempts to improve his vocabulary and rhetorical discipline, Benjamin Franklin used to outline and then attempt to copy articles he considered written above his talent. According to Franklin’s autobiography, his goal was to “capture the logic and emotion” of the articles he admired. He would then go back to review his work in comparison with the original author’s work, highlight his faults and correct them. This discipline would ultimately lead to Franklin’s publishing success!

Your Exercise This Week:

Fiction Writers: Think of your favorite book. I know it may seem sacrilegious, but imagine if it were YOU writing the same story, how would you change it? How would you make it your own? If I were to take this on, one of my all time favorite books, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven would take place in rural Iowa. I’ll leave it at that. If you’ve ever read Sherman Alexie and lived anywhere rural, you’ll understand.

Nonfiction Writers: Think of your favorite “how to” book - something that changed you and inspired you to action. How would you write it using your voice and insights? Would the text have a different feel? What new perspective could you offer to the original text? Maybe Dale Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People becomes How to Win Friends and Influence People: Life Lessons from Sam’s Deli.

Have fun with this one!

Marcela Landres, author of the e-book How Editors Think: The Real Reason They Rejected You, publishes the award-winning e-zine Latinidad, and is an Editorial Consultant who helps writers get published by editing their work and educating them on the business side of publishing. A member of the Women’s Media Group, she has acted as a judge for the PEN/Beyond Margins Award, and was formerly an editor with Simon & Schuster.

Have any success stories or tips you'd like to share? I want to know! Email me at


  1. I love the line, "How many other Amish thrillers can you name?" I think I am going to put it on my cork board, and next time the writing gets dull...remind myself!

  2. Awesome Post! Thanks for steering me here, Marcela. ;-)

  3. Great points made by you both. It's tough to find your own voice. I think Marcela is right that the most important thing is to tell a good story and not worry so much about perfect language or trying to sound like someone else.

  4. Thanks for joining us, Terri and Julia, and for your comments!

  5. Here's a strategy I've used often in writing crime fiction about situations where I wasn't involved personally: once a situation has caught my attention, I let a character who wishes to tell that story arise inside of me. Then, all my research and imagining is done with this character's viewpoint in mind. That character determines the diction of the piece, and, of course, all this is placed within the appropriate era, locale, culture, etc.
    Thanks for a great posting, Marcela and Erin.
    Sarah Cortez

  6. Great tip, Sarah! Thanks for sharing.

  7. What a wonderful blog! I am now a follower...

    I loved 'Life Lessons from Sam’s Deli'..although, being a landscape designer for 35 years, my book (looking for a publisher)is 'Tranquility by Design'.

  8. Ooohh! I like it, Jan! Thanks for your kind comment and welcome!


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