As both reader or writer, you’ve probably heard of authorial voice.
If you’re a reader, you already know how you attach to different writers for different purposes. You know about the tropes you like. Whether you’re more character or plot-driven. What you’d like to see more and less of.
As a writer, you’re still familiar with all of these things. However, when you go to read works by other authors, you can also get caught up in comparing your writing with theirs. They are the published professionals after all, aren’t they?
But what makes authorial voice vary from writer to writer? How does understanding authorial voice help you craft your own stories?
First, let’s start with five examples of the opening lines in different books. Each book is in a different genre, and the authors range from popular to indie. We’ll talk about who and what the books are after, but first, just read the paragraphs and see if you notice any immediate differences:
Logen plunged through the trees, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his head. He stumbled and sprawled onto his side, nearly cut his chest open with his own axe, laying there panting, peering through the shadowy forest.
Sophia had aced most tests she’d taken in her life; but once, just this once, she hoped for a negative result. She drew a long breath, and her russet-brown hands shook as she picked up the pregnancy test from the marble vanity. Like a fortuneteller looking into a crystal ball, she peered through the plastic cover.
Adelaide Bonham was convinced that her house hated her. She clutched her heavy comforter tighter around her bony shoulders, but it didn’t help. Mainly because it hadn’t been the sudden wave of cold rolling through her bedroom that caused the shaking in her wrinkled hands. Not entirely, anyway.
The sun was low in the sky on another perfect New Hampshire day. Henry Smith had just washed and brushed his favorite horse, Fiona, just inside the old red barn. He led her back to her stall and made sure there was plenty of hay to munch on, and then tossed the bucket of soapy water outside into a patch of lawn. The workday was over.
I was nine years old and walking myself to school one morning when I heard the unfamiliar sound of a prepubescent boy calling my name. I had heard my name spoken out loud by males before, but it was most often by one of my brothers, my father, or a teacher, and it was usually followed up with a shot to the side of the head.
Analyzing the Openings
So what are some things you noticed immediately? Perhaps it was how the first entry felt the most urgent of them all. Or that the second and third painted a picture of the main character immediately. Maybe it was that the fourth was the only one that defined the setting. Or how the fifth one being written in the first person added authenticity and humor.
Each of the openings showcased a difference in how the author approached telling a story.
Even if you know these books off hand, you can still tell that each of these opening sentences came from an author that was clearly separate from the one next to them.
That being said, each of these openings also intrigues the reader and lures them into the story in their own way.
Finding Your Own Authorial Voice
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: A really good exercise for all writers at any skill level is to write out a passage written in an already published book.
Even something like doing what I did for this post — grabbing five books and writing out their first few sentences — allows you to understand the flow and style of different writers.
From there, you can start to develop your own understanding of who these authors are and how they utilize their own voice. By choosing and understanding what you like and don’t like about that author’s style, you’re further able to hone in on your own skills to decide what you like and don’t like for yourself.
Obviously, I’m not recommending you type out an entire novel from someone else you like.
But analyzing how another author utilizes the use of their own voice is one of the many steps you can use to find your own.
So What Are These Books, Anyway?
The books from this example are The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie; Blaming the Wind by Alessandra Harris; Stone and a Hard Place by R.L. King; The Patience of a Dead Man by Michael Clark; and Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea by Chelsea Handler.
Now knowing who the authors are and the genres these novels represent, go back and read the opening sentences again.
How does each author set the tone for the book?
Is the genre noticeable immediately?
Would any of the openings entice you to read any further? Why or why not? If you’ve already read the book, what was it that intrigued you in the first place?
Developing Authorial Voice Over Time
Understanding the use of another writer’s authorial voice is one of the many tactics new and seasoned writers can practice the use of their own.
However, nothing can top the simple act of practicing over time.
Whether the books you write are good or bad, the act of simply writing a manuscript from start to finish will help you define your authorial voice and the stories you’re trying to tell.
Keep notes along the way of things you notice in the publishing trends, and try to use your own experience to shape the story into the best it can be.