Much is written about the author’s voice (sometimes called style), especially in fiction. For example, here’s a good, short, recent Medium article about authorial voice. Voice is crucial; voice is powerful; voice can draw readers into stories, through whole books and even sequels.

All that can be true of character voice and narrative voice too. (The narrator is often a character, even in third person points of view.) But the author’s voice is and should be distinct from the others. This has not always been so, but we’ve come to expect it. It may be difficult to discern or define from a single story or book, but it can draw readers through a writer’s entire body of work.

We’ll get to the author’s voice in a moment, but let’s go by way of character voice. You’ll note that I’m avoiding a systematic definition of voice, except to say we sometimes call it style. Maybe this a cop-out, but we know it when we hear it.

In Pursuit of Voice

I read some fiction, regardless of genre, simply because the voice intrigues or delights me. Here’s one of my more outlandish examples.

I am not a teenage girl — never have been — but I write female characters of various ages often enough. A few years back, when my study of voice was more focused than usual, someone recommended the late Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson (2005). I sampled it, enjoy the character voices, and bought it on Audible. Then I listened while I exercised for a couple of weeks. I was mostly walking after dark in a quiet neighborhood. If I’d been at the gym, I’d have had a fair number of looks when I laughed out loud.

Stina Nielson’s audio performance is superb, but it wasn’t just that. I read another book or two into the series of ten — actual reading on my Kindle — just to be sure. That way I got just the author, not the actor. It was still delightful. Delightfully voicy, we might say.

If you haven’t realized it already — or, if you’re a writer, if you haven’t done it already — it’s time you realized that writers do bizarre, troubling, apparently creepy things. Sweet, harmless mystery writers study exotic, untraceable poisons not to commit murder, but so a character can. Aging male writers read three or four short books into a series aimed more at twelve-year-old girls, in order to study voice, in this case character voice.

Authorial Voice

Beginning writers worry a lot about developing their voice (sometimes called style), because it’s that important. But it seems to develop on its own, as you write and write and write. Then one day, somewhere down the road, you discover that your voice already arrived, while you were busy telling stories.

It’s all very foggy and subjective and artistic. Or is it? In any case, we readers know voice when we read it, and eventually we authors know our own voices when we write them. Our characters’ voices remain a challenge, at least for me.

Speaking of Challenges

The elusive Regency romance short story

A year or so ago, an author friend of mine who writes Regency romance as Gigi Lynn described her struggles to write a few Regency short stories for promotional use. They kept turning into novellas.

Besides being a friend and a long-standing member of the same critique group, I was a logical recipient for her thoughts. I’ve written quite a bit of short fiction, and she’s read and critiqued most of it. (Self-promo: I’ve even published two books of it, or I will have by the middle of next week.)

She thought I should try to write a Regency short story. I’m more into contemporary realism, but I’ve critiqued and beta-read a lot of her Regency romance, I’ve done my due diligence with the delightful Jane Austen, and I’ve even done a bit of reading on the mores, etc., of the Regency period. So I thought that sounded fun.

Story, but not short

It was fun. But it started to go long.

I’ve been writing long enough that I approach the need to reduce word count with confidence. I figured, if I kept it to 10,000 words in the first draft, I could cut it to 5,000 or at least 7,000 words in revision. I can usually do that.

Occasionally the opposite happens. Earlier this year, I had three short stories hovering between 6,500 and 8,000 words, and I wanted to cut them to contest length, which in this case was 5,000 words. I was able to trim two of them to size, and they were better stories for it. The third resisted. I made my cuts, but the story needed some additions too, a phrase or sentence here, two whole paragraphs there. I was pleased with the result, but it wasn’t any shorter, and I couldn’t use it for the contest.

My first draft of a Regency romance story resisted too. I had characters I enjoyed, three or four scenes I liked — plenty for a short story — and a simple enough plot, I thought. But it kept trying to be a longer story, and my critique group concurred. To be slightly more analytical, those scenes needed more context and more unspoken responses amid the dialogue.

Sometimes one good scene is enough for a short story, but none of these scenes pleased me when detached from the others. I finally gave up and decided that, if I ever write it, this story will have to be a novella.

I haven’t given up on the Regency romance short story challenge, but I’ll have to start over.

It’s a first chapter now

The same contest for which I was trimming short stories (one of which took a prize, by the way) also has a first chapter contest for, you guessed it, the first chapters of longer fiction — and it’s not necessary for the longer fiction to be complete. So I submitted the opening scene of my failed-short-story-turned-potential-novella, more for the judges’ critiques than in hope of winning a prize. It was about 3,600 words — and it won a prize too.

But the prizes are not the point. Voice is still the point.

Not my voice

My wife and I have developed an anniversary tradition since I started writing fiction. We choose a local restaurant where we can have a nice meal and not bother anybody if we stay a while, and she reads my contest pieces (after the year’s main contest) and we discuss them. She’s an astute, experienced reader and a talented nonfiction writer, and she’s read a fair amount of my fiction by now.

She read that first chapter last. (I temporarily dubbed the whole project The Earl’s Third Son.) She had two comments.

First, she said, just two or three pages in, “This is Jane Austen.”

One on hand, the entire genre is Jane Austen. On the other hand, I’ll have to ponder whether I slipped into mimicking Ms. Austen in ways that I wouldn’t want to, since I’m not Jane Austen.

Her second comment bears on my point. She said the chapter was well written — but it wasn’t my authorial voice.

What does it mean?

Narrative voices come and go. The first-person narrators in the two short stories she’d just read were an elderly woman in the hospital during COVID, but dying of something else, and a scheming, odd, twenty-something man with too much time on his hands. The narrative (and character) voices there were distinctive, and both tales were experimental in different ways, but the authorial voice my wife detected behind them was still my own.

If she was right, and the authorial voice in my would-be Regency romance was not my own, does it mean Regency isn’t my genre? (I’m probably okay with that.) Does it mean it’s such a new genre to me that my voice within it hasn’t emerged yet, and I just have to write more? (We may never know.) And does that mean the author may have or even need different authorial voices in different genres?

Whatever the right answers to the first two questions may be, I think the answer to that last one is probably yes. Either authors may have different authorial voices (or styles) in different genres, or it takes a while for an author’s single voice to settle into a new genre.

Is that enough of an insight to justify a blog post? You decide.

Either way, I have a bonus for you.

Addendum: Two Fragments

This may be all that ever sees the light of day of my foray into Regency romance, but here, for whatever enjoyment you may find in them, are two fragments from that first chapter. The entire chapter is in John’s point of view.

(At the ball, before the dancing)

Another young lady approached. “And here is the middle daughter,” said Charles. “Miss Harriet Churchill, if I may, this is my friend and our guest of honor, Mr. Herbert.”

“A pleasure, sir,” said Miss Harriet.

She bore a strong resemblance to Miss Dorothy, John saw. These two younger sisters were perhaps not quite so handsome as Miss Evelyn Churchill, who was taller, but their eyes held a lively, intelligent look which their elder sister lacked. All three daughters had their mother’s dark hair.

Charles continued. “Mr. John Herbert Herbert is from Kent. He and I were great friends at university. Then we served together in the wars.”

“Mr. Herbert,” said Miss Harriet with a slight smile, “I have the honor of knowing your full name at our first meeting. Am I mistaken, or does one detect a subtle redundancy in it?”

He studied her face and eyes for an instant, appreciating her wit.

Her mother was less pleased. “Really, Harriet, your manners.”

John glanced at the rest of the family. Mr. Churchill was silent, but his frown seemed to disapprove of someone or something. There was no mistaking Miss Evelyn’s displeasure, while Miss Dorothy seemed to teeter on the verge of giggling.

“Miss Churchill,” John said to Miss Harriet, “I have long thought my name wants subtlety, but I concede the redundancy. As for Mr. Whitton’s mode of introducing me, he insists that I cannot be known simply as Mr. Herbert, with such a name as mine.”

Her smile grew perceptibly. “And how did you come to have such an interesting name, sir?”

(Conversation later in the evening, from John’s POV)

For the last set of the evening, he approached Miss Harriet Churchill again. She had abandoned her chair and now stood with her parents and sisters. He said a word of greeting to the others, then addressed Miss Harriet. “Miss Churchill, I wonder if we might take a slow and cautious turn about the room together, in lieu of dancing, for the sake of your ankle.”

He followed her glance at her father, who nodded slightly, and they set off. After a few moments he said, “Your mother and elder sister have an ample supply of stern looks, if you’ll forgive my saying it.”

“They do indeed,” she said. “Nearly as many for Dorothy as for me.”

“They seem unduly concerned for both your manners, but I find neither of you wanting.”

“I thank you, Mr. Herbert, but I am a continual embarrassment to them. I think they would prefer to leave me at home, if they thought I would bear it peacefully.”

“Pray tell me,” he said, “how do you embarrass them?”

She hesitated. “By my family’s account – I suppose I should acquit Dorothy, who also vexes them, no doubt through my evil influence – but I digress. My principal faults in society are three. I am too fond of laughter and a good joke. Though I often hold my tongue, yet I have an unfortunate tendency on some occasions to speak my mind. And I focus too little on the urgency of making materially advantageous matches, my own and my sisters’.”

“By my lights,” he said, “you praise yourself by naming virtues as your vices.”

“Indeed? Shall we add vanity to my catalogue of faults?”

“Surely not,” he said. “I love laughter and a good joke. I deplore society’s obsession with making a propitious match – and with it the dependent and subordinate state of good women, and the absurd state of eligible men when they are pursued. And when a woman has thoughts worthy of utterance, it is nothing less than a tragedy, if she feels obligated by the strictures of society to keep them to herself. Fully half the accumulated wisdom of humanity is thus rendered partly impotent, while the other half is left to wander largely unchecked.”

He had said more than one ought to say, but less than he might have said. There was something pleasant and reflective in her smile, and he was relieved.

“Are we of one mind in many things, do you suppose, Mr. Herbert, or just these few?”

She inspired boldness, but how bold dare he be? “Miss Churchill, I should like very much to discover a comprehensive answer to your question. I think it may require much time and many conversations.”

For a moment she was silent, while he reflected that he had dared to be very bold indeed. Then she said, “Your stay in Northumberland is to be a long one, then.”

“I must be in Kent tomorrow week, but it is likely that I shall soon return. If I am so fortunate, I shall look forward to discussing our respective views.”

“Mr. Herbert,” she said softly, “you may rely on my enthusiasm for the project.”

Photo credit: generated by DALL·E with prompt “pencil drawing of a bearded white middle-age male writer writing in a notebook”