#82: Getting Bored of Your Own Writing Voice

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Hi Story Nurse!

I’m hoping you can spend a bit of time talking about voice, and about how we control it. By voice, I don’t mean so much “which character is telling this story,” but more that intangible, know-it-when-you-read-it something-or-other that makes one person’s writing different from anyone else’s.

Here’s my problem/question. I have a pretty clear voice, by which I mean that stuff I write tends to sound like me. It’s not highly stylized; I write fairly straightforward commercial fiction. But there is a me-ness to it—the tone, the details that interest me, the jokes I make, and so on. If you read things I’ve written, even though the topics and time periods are different, it won’t be long before you’ll likely say “ohh yeah, that’s her, I can tell.”

So-o-o… great, right? That’s what we want. Except… not always? Because to be honest, I’m pretty sick of listening to myself.

Context might help—I wrote a novel that’s in the proverbial drawer, I wrote one that got published, and I am halfway through the next. So this current WIP is either my 2nd or 3rd, depending on how you count.

I’ve only published one book, so I have no real fear of my voice being particularly tedious to anyone else. (I mean, except for those who didn’t like it in the first place, but never mind them!) This is less about boring my future readers and more about how bored I am of myself!

I hope this might be a “good problem” in the sense that perhaps it means I’m growing as a writer. That I am aware of my crutches and am holding myself to a higher standard than before.

But the question is… what next? I’m finding that sometimes I dread even starting a new scene because I am already rolling my eyes at how “me” it’s going to be and ugh. Enough of her! At the same time, I write the way I write because that’s how I think. It’s not put on, in other words. I don’t want to fake a voice, that’s clearly going in the wrong direction.

Any thoughts or suggestions on this? How do we shake things up while still staying true to ourselves?

—I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. Pipe Down Mermaids! (she/her)

Dear Mermaids,

Voice is a great topic, and a challenging one to tackle because it is so individualized. I’ve done a little bit of vocal training, and I’ve also done a lot of podcasting and used dictation software for writing, so I’m going to draw on those experiences with my literal, physical voice to discuss writing voice and what you can do to change things up a bit.

The first thing I learned from voice lessons is that our physical voices are often more flexible than we think. I knew I could push my range higher, with practice; I was surprised to learn that I could also push it lower. Acting, taking a public speaking course, and reading books to my toddler all taught me just how much I could influence my audience and add nuances of meaning by making small shifts in tone and rhythm.You seem to have this notion that your writing voice is fixed and set in stone and just the way it is, but that’s far from true. Your voice won’t lose its essential character, its you-ness, if you change it, so let go of any worries you might have about being fake or too much of an imitation of others. Voice is a skill to be developed, like any other writing skill. Give yourself permission to stretch it and challenge it and expand it and enhance it. Otherwise you’ll just be stuck in that frustrating rut.

Any singer will tell you that warm-ups and exercises are crucial. They extend your range and make it easier to sing safely, without straining or harming your vocal cords. Writers tend not to do writing exercises very much once they’ve reached a certain level of experience, but you can still get a lot out of them! Try voice exercises specifically: writing ten paragraphs in the styles of ten very different writers, or retyping a page from a book with a distinctive prose style so you can get a tactile sense of how the words fit together, or writing dialogue in the voices of distinctive characters (your own or someone else’s). This isn’t about fakery but about stretching your range and learning new techniques. Once you teach yourself to write like Jane Austen or Kurt Vonnegut, it’s up to you to decide how to incorporate what you’ve learned into your own voice and style when you’re writing original work.

Writing pastiche of other authors has taught me that every writer breaks the rules in their own way. For example, Austen writes hardly any stage directions at all; her scenes of conversation are almost script-like. Yet her work is often turned into films, a testament to how easy it is to visualize her characters. Trying to imitate her style taught me a tremendous amount about how to convey emotion and mannerism in dialogue. Permitting yourself to write pastiche of daring writers will also help you permit yourself to be more daring in your original work—a great way of getting out of that boredom rut.

You say that you write the way you think, but we all think differently under different circumstances. Would deadline pressure change your voice because you’re in a hurry? Would writing for a friend give your work a more intimate tone? What about writing an epistolary story in which you entirely inhabit your characters’ voices, or trying a new genre that has different stylistic conventions? As above, these can all be brief exercises, though you may find you really like that new genre and want to stick with it for a while.

Podcasting always reminds me how weird our voices sound when we play them back to ourselves. What seems obvious to you—or sounds weird to you—when you reread your work may not register at all with your readers. If you frequently reread your own work, especially while it’s in progress, try breaking that habit. Treat your drafts like a game of Exquisite Corpse and don’t let yourself look at anything but the last paragraph. Then pick up where you left off. Inconsistencies will develop, and that’s fine; they can be smoothed out in revisions, and may teach you a few things about your subconscious understanding of the story as opposed to what you consciously intended it to be. If you keep visualizing a character as anxious and fidgety even though he started out as bold and brash, maybe that’s a hint that he’s been hiding something from you. Following it could lead you to all sorts of exciting new subplots.

You can also have your computer read your work to you (most computers have this capability hidden in the accessibility settings) and see how different it sounds in someone else’s spoken voice. The elements that you constantly notice and feel bored by may recede into the background while other elements jump out and surprise you. I know many authors who use this for catching errors like missing words and frequently repeated phrases. They’ll skim over the absent “the” a dozen times while rereading, but when they hear “I took train” they notice it immediately.

I’ve found that my writing style when I dictate is very different from my writing style when I type. When I type, I go back and tweak word choice as I write. (I rewrote that sentence four times—and this sentence twice.) That’s not possible with dictation. I also speak with a lot of comma splices and run-on sentences and digressions. When I use a pen, the difference from typing is less obvious, but I find that I write shorter sentences with simpler words and tend to take a conversational tone, maybe because the last time I regularly wrote with a pen was when I was in elementary school and keeping a diary. This is another indication that “your voice” is not a fixed and singular thing. My dictation voice, my typing voice, and my pen voice are all authentic voices for me; they’re just different. Try shifting your sense of your voice by changing the tools you write with. You may be surprised by what’s consistently you and what’s not.

Finally, you may just need a little bit of a break from writing. Anything gets boring if you’re immersed in it all the time, and you may be feeling so much pressure that you forget how to be playful. Consider taking a week or two away from it, and see if you come back refreshed and ready to spend time in your own company again.

Your inclination to push yourself and try new things is great, and will keep your work vibrant. Keep shaking things up and remembering how to have fun! Rediscovering your joy in writing will make all the boredom disappear.

Happy writing!


Story Nurse

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#58: What Telling and Showing Really Mean

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Hi Story Nurse,

After reading your recent post on showing vs. telling, and the examples you drew from Jane Austen (in addition to your many past Austen references) I know you’ll get what I’m going for in my writing! I’m a natural teller, and I love tell-heavy novels. But at some point I have to show SOMETHING, right? That’s where I’m stuck.

Background: After a couple years’ break from writing, I’m attempting a novel. I’ve started novels before (i.e. a few chapters written and then abandoned) and I wrote some very short (and some half-finished) stories in school, but never in my life have I finished a fiction project with a target length of more than five pages. I don’t think this means I’m a short-form writer by nature. I don’t have much interest in writing short stories and only ever wrote them when assigned to in school. In my imagination, I’m drawn to premises that cry out to be novels. In reality, I’ve never successfully executed any of these ideas, maybe because I never had a clue how to go about structuring one of the literary novels I was taught to want to write. (I mean, I do have a literary novel premise I genuinely want to try someday, but I no longer consider lit fic the Holy Grail.)

I decided some months ago to first plan and then write a commercial-ish romance set in the Georgian/Regency period because it’s a genre and broad plot type I know I can imitate (I’m familiar with period writers like Austen, Fanny Burney, and Mary Brunton, as well as the modern Regency romance genre). Initially it was supposed to be sort of a fun, low-stakes practice project—just to prove to myself that I *can* write a novel from start to finish, and to get some down-in-the-dirt *experience* writing one, experience I’d one day apply to writing literary or general fiction. I planned to spend more energy on plot and character development than on prose style. I already know I can make a nice sentence; it’s the structural elements I need to master. So I came up with a premise and sketched a rough plot. But as soon as I started drafting the thing, I realized a) I don’t want or need to choose between awesome prose and awesome plot, duh, and b) oops, this is a passion project. I fall asleep at night tweaking the plot and character relationships in my head. The problem is that now I know what I want to create, I’m still having trouble forging ahead with the execution, just like always. I’m stuck in the first chapter. I do know where the story is going after that, but the draft keeps stalling at the point where overture meets act one. This is exactly the situation I wanted to avoid. I feel so frustrated and afraid of failing yet again.

Things go beautifully when I (or my third-person narrator) am telling instead of showing. It feels right, like singing! The voice comes out pretty close to what I’m striving for (think Austen and Wharton as stylistic influences). Stuff happens. There is conflict. But when I try to shift from having my narrator tell/summarize to writing a real scene, where the pace is supposed to mimic “real” time and characters start acting/speaking onstage, the voice goes stiff and cold. Anything I force out sounds dull, cliché, and anachronistic. To test out my protagonist’s voice, I had her write a letter to a friend, and I love the results. I guess a letter is essentially still “telling,” only in first-person. The same character won’t come to life when I try to put her in a scene with dialogue. For now I’ve fallen back on writing synopsis, which at least gets the words flowing again.

Any idea why my brain is resisting actual scenes? Have I simply not outlined the book thoroughly enough? Maybe my narrator isn’t done setting things up yet, and I’m trying to thrust the characters onstage at the wrong point in the story? I’ve looked for reassurance and inspiration in the writers I admire. There’s no dialogue in Sense and Sensibility until almost 1900 words in. The Age of Innocence logs more than than 3500 words before any true back-and-forth dialogue appears. My draft is in that range. I know I shouldn’t narrate or summarize forever, and at some point the characters have to talk to each other, but how do you know when to employ one technique or the other?

—Eternal Narrator (she/her)

Today is the fifth Tuesday of the month, which means that my answer to this heartfelt letter is available exclusively to my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to see today’s post—and future fifth Tuesday posts—become a Story Hospital Patreon patron at any level, even just $1/month. If that’s not an option for you, enjoy reading through the archives and salivating with anticipation for next Tuesday’s column. I’ll be back before you know it.


Story Nurse

Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#33: Balancing Commercial and Artistic Demands

Dear Story Nurse,

How do you know if the story you’re telling honestly needs more than one POV?

I’m working on a sequel under contract and deadline to a fantasy novel. I wrote the first novel with one POV, in first person. Now for the sequel, I have a different protagonist (she was in the first book, as a character with antagonistic goals to her beloved brother, who was the protagonist of the first book) and there’s just some things about the world and the situation that she doesn’t know.

But another character from the first book has direct experience with the parts that my planned protagonist doesn’t, and her journey is really interesting. The characters are… rivals who become allies. They’re on opposite sides politically, and come together in the end to save everything.

But I’ve heard that if you write the first book as 1 character in 1st, you have to stick to that narrative model because that’s what readers expect, and switching to 2 characters in 3rd or 2 characters in 1st is a bad idea. But every time I look at what’s happening with my planned protagonist’s rival, it’s just so interesting.

I’ve only ever written romances when it comes to stories with two POV characters. How do I know when I need more than one POV in a story where romance between the characters is not happening?

—oenanthe (they/them)

Dear oenanthe,

You’ve already answered your own question: you as a writer are telling yourself that you need more than one POV to tell the story you want to tell. That matters far more than some vague gossip someplace about what readers can or can’t tolerate. But I don’t think that’s actually the question you have. Going by the rest of your letter, the question underneath your question is: “Am I allowed as a commercial writer to do the thing I want to do as an artist?”

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#24: Semicolon Surgery

Dear Story Nurse,

I don’t know if this is too much of a generalized craft question—I am currently working on a short story of about 10k words, but I have problems with this in general.

I use too many semicolons.

I use them correctly, and I am very good at them, but they show up in too many of my sentences and it’s frustrating from a rhythmic perspective. I want to make sure the two clauses are part of the same sentence because the staccato of a period doesn’t seem right and changes the way the story feels when it’s read aloud, but the repetition of the structure gets boring to read.

Here are some from the last story I wrote:
  • She was sweating nervously; the effort of trying to keep her composure was nearly too much.
  • The way he looked at her made her uneasy; there was a sort of intensity to him that she hadn’t quite prepared herself for.
  • The man kept walking; she wondered if she had the wrong man.

Do you have suggestions for other basic sentence structures that work well and can be used as stand-in for the typical two-independent-but-related-clauses-joined-by-a-semicolon construction that aren’t just to replace the semicolon with a period?

Thank you so much! (I say as I realize I have written this entire inquiry without a semicolon in sight.)

—Independent Clause (use whichever pronouns you feel like today)

Dear Independent Clause,

This is a wonderful craft question. As you’ve guessed, since you’re asking for other sentence structures, the punctuation mark itself isn’t the issue. I love semicolons; they’re great. The issue is what you’re doing with language and content that leads to the use of so many of them.

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#10: Finding Your Story’s Voice

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m struggling with voice on this particular project. The protagonist is a Yankee girl in the South during World War II. It’s a young adult historical fantasy and I want the character to sound young and naive, but without alienating the likely older-YA readers who will pick up the book. Over the course of the book, she should grow up quite a bit and confront her own assumptions and mistakes, but at the beginning, she’s off-putting to readers. I can’t tell if this is on me (the voice just isn’t working for whatever reason) or if it’s uncomfortable/unusual to have a bubbly almost stream-of-consciousness female voice in a historical fantasy and that’s what is throwing my beta readers off? I’ve tried rewriting the beginning of the novel differently but I keep coming back to the original version. Thoughts? Thank you in advance!

—Katie (they/them)

Dear Katie,

Thanks for writing in. This is one of those questions that’s hard to definitively answer without seeing the manuscript, so I’m going to noodle around some ideas about what might be going on here, and some of those ideas will be useful to you and some won’t. Fortunately, saying “Nope, that’s not the problem I’m having” can be its own kind of useful troubleshooting sometimes, and I hope it is in this case.

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