Talking about Voice, part 2: Three authors, three books

Every person has a voiceprint. Every author does too.

Essentially an author's voice is the way that a specific writer writes. For example, this...
There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave. You could walk across a high school campus and point them out: not her, not her, her. The pert, lovely ones with butterfly tattoos in secret places, sitting on their boyfriends laps? No, not them. The girls watching the lovely ones sitting on their boyfriends' laps? Yes.
The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood. The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else. Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls.
Like Kizzy.
From Lips Touch Three Times by Laini Taylor a very different sort of voice from this.
Dirbani ran toward the stepwell. Squinting against the glare, she splashed through the road's deep ruts, pink skirts slapping her calves, her long black braid thumping her shoulders. One hand steadied the empty clay jar on her head. Mud sucked at her bare feet, but the rest of her was dry for a change. Overnight, the goddess Bhagiya had driven her tiger chariot across the heavens, chasing away her sister Naghali's rain snakes. Diribani didn't mind the mud when the fresh-washed sun beamed down on her.
Each panting breath brought rich new smells: wet earth, growing plants, a hint of curried lentils from a farmer's hut. Diribani's empty stomach growled at that, but her stepsister, Tana, couldn't cook their midday meal until Diribani returned with the water. Although their courtyard well served for washing and cleaning, its water had a sour taste. And Diribani had forgotten to fill the drinking jar at the sacred well this morning. Again.
From Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson
Or this.
There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife.
The knife had a handle of polished black bone and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you would not even know you had been cut, not immediately.
The knife had done almost everything it was brought to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.
The street door was still open, just a little, where the knife and the man had slipped in, and wisps of nighttime mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door.
The man Jack paused on the landing. With his left hand he pulled a large white handkerchief from the pocket of his black coat, and with it he wiped off the knife and his gloved right hand which had been holding it; then he put the handkerchief away. The hunt was almost over.
From The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

All three of these books are classified as young adult, and they are all considered fantasy/magical realism.  They are all written in third person. All of these paragraphs are well-written, vivid and descriptive.  So what is it that makes them so different?

It's the author's voice.

Taylor's voice is lyrical, poetic even. Her vocabulary choices in this passage are mostly soft-sounding: yearning, wistful, the sharks on the bloom of blood. Also, note the distance between the narration and the main character, as if we are being told a myth or fairy tale.

Heather Tomlinson is different. Her point-of-view is much more focused and we see and hear only what the main character does. Her sentences tend to be longer and more conversational. Even though her book is based on a fairy tale, there's no hint of a storyteller. We are right inside her character's head.

 The Gaiman passage is a stark, powerful one. The focus is the knife and other details are sparse. He doesn't tell us anything about the setting, or even why the knife is wet (though we can imagine). His descriptive language is very straightforward: wet, sharp, black, white. His sentences are mostly longer ones, but his paragraphs are short.

Some of these choices were no doubt intentional, brought about by the needs of the story. But most of an author's voice is instinctual. It develops as the author reads widely and writes consistently. It is your most valuable asset because once you've found your voice, no one in the world will write quite like you do. You will be unique.

But there is a price, and the price is time. Developing an author voice is like growing taller--you cannot make it happen overnight. There is no magic pill.

And be patient.

Any questions? What do you see that's different about these passages?

You can find the rest of the voice series here: 
Talking about Voice, part 1: What is it?
Talking about Voice, part 3: One author, three books
Talking about Voice, part 4: Viewpoint voices
Talking about Voice, part 5: Differences in character dialogue
Talking about Voice, part 6: Helpful links


  1. I think the voice that influenced me most over the years was Hemmingway. I think that somehow, my writing is an extension of his voice (though definitely not the same).

  2. I am impressed with the power of your examples and your post. Great job. I also think that we are not too much aware of our own voice, so patience is a must.
    N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium

  3. This is a great series of posts. And such an important topic. I know I struggled for a long time to understand what "voice" is.

    I love all the examples!

  4. Great examples. I love that they are third person. That really helps me and I can see the differences. Thanks.

  5. Wow... I'm finding myself at an inconvenient lack of articulation and eloquence, so will a "thanks for the post" suffice for the moment?


  6. What a great post on Voice. It's probably the most important thing to nail down because it hooks the reader. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Michael- Hemingway was VERY distinctive in his voice. I think every writer has those muses that influence how we write.

    Renee- Thanks! The books are awesome too. :)

    Natalie- I did third person on purpose because I wanted to show author voice as distinct from character voice. That's harder with first person.

  8. N.R. Sorry, got my comments out of order! I agree with you, voice is something we only gradually develop and discover.

    Director- Of course! I'm glad you liked it.

    Ellieswords- You're welcome. There's more to come on Monday!


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