Monday, October 03, 2011

What You Reading For? Voice

By Tiffany Reisz, @tiffanyreisz

JH: Today, we welcome the always delightful and usually irreverent Tiffany Reisz back to the blog to share her thoughts on voice. She has a very intriguing tip that I've never heard before, but makes perfect sense when you hear it. Fair warning, she uses a few video clips as examples and some of the are NSFW for language reasons.  

Tiffany is the author of Seven Day Loan (currently available from Harlequin Spice Briefs) and THE SIREN (Mira Books, August 2012). Find her on Twitter at @tiffanyreisz,, or in her bed taking a nap with her clinically depressed cat Honeytoast.

Take it away Tiffany...

Bradford? Well, you know, it’s the kind of place you go to commit suicide and find they have run out of razor blades. Telford makes Bradford look like paradise. You go to these places purely to experience the overwhelming joy of leaving them.
-Dylan Moran

You ever notice that everyone who believes in creationism looks really unevolved? Eyes real close together, big furry hands and feet. “I believe God created me in one day.” “Yeah, looks like he rushed it.”
-Bill Hicks
A man will cut your arm off and throw it in a river, but he’ll leave you as a human being intact. He won’t fuck with who you are. Women are non-violent but they will shit inside of your heart.
-Louis CK
Ninety percent (give or take) of what constitutes good writing is something anyone with average intelligence or higher can learn—good grammar and syntax, proper punctuation, and the organization of thought into cogent patterns. The other ten percent of good writing is voice. What is voice? Simply put (and stolen from voice can be defined as:
- the author's style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique, and which conveys the author's attitude, personality, and character
- the characteristic speech and thought patterns of a first-person narrator; a persona.
A good definition of voice, but absolutely useless. Voice is indefinable. You know it when you see, um…hear it. It’s powerful but subtle; it speaks to the reader but not directly. It’s like a foreign accent—the words might be English but the way of saying them distinguishes the speaker from the mass of sound-alikes. Good writing has an accent too, a distinguishing ring to it. Hemingway’s prose is described as “terse.” Faulkner’s is “florid.” My agent describes my writing as “covered in chocolate.” I have no idea what that means but it makes me quite hungry when thinking about it. I’m often forced to eat my words so the chocolate coating helps.

Voice—so damn hard to explain. But you gotta have it. A book without voice, no matter how exciting the plot, makes for extraordinarily dull reading. The sentences are flat, the characters lifeless. It’s a mere recitation of events instead of a novel, a story, a rip-roaring yarn.

If you haven’t noticed yet, I have a fairly distinct writing voice. In blog posts I tend to couple large technical terms with silly-williness in intentionally comically long sentences (like this one). My voice is even more distinct in my fiction. Where did this voice come from? And where does a voiceless author go to find a voice?

If you’re me, you find your voice in comedy. True, I write BDSM erotica (and the occasional overblown blog post), but the comedic voice is the most elastic and useful of all narrative styles. Comedy is powerful. A funny joke heard once is far more memorable than a dry fact repeated several times. Humor is sexy. A funny average looking guy is far more interesting to me than a hot guy with no sense of humor. The satiric voice is a voice of power, of dressing down, of setting oneself up as an authority in order to pass judgment. Look at Jonathan Swift eviscerating the English for their treatment of the Irish poor in his essay A Modest Proposal wherein he suggests that the poor Irish should eat their own children. You can only wince while laughing when reading such lines as:
I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.
Personally, I’m comfortable with eating babies, although more for taste than for any reasons of cost-savings. Delicious!

That last line was a stab at humor, by the way. Of course you shouldn’t eat babies—they’re too high in trans fats.

Every writing guide I’ve ever subjected myself to has strongly advised writers to read. And I can’t argue with that. All writers must read—good books, bad books, all books (except for Nicholas Sparks’s books—let’s not get crazy here). But rarely do you hear the advice to watch more television. You’re hearing it from me. Don’t watch any television—at least 97.432 % of it is pure liquid shit (that was an example of voice, by the way, writing “pure liquid shit” instead of saying television is “bad.” The phrasing is designed not only to express the idea “television is mostly terrible” but to create a visceral and/or emotional reaction in the reader).

The finest examples of strong narrative voice can be found in the best stand-up comics. My style of writing (spritely, verbally-dexterous, and tinged with gallows humor) is a direct result of all the stand-up I watched growing up. Let’s check out some examples of strong voice from some world-class stand-up comedians.

Louis CK styles himself a man of the people. He’s the ultimate put-upon father and husband (now ex-husband). His rants about his marriage, his children, and sex are both gut-busting and cringe-inducing.

Dylan Moran is an Irish comic best known for his starring role in the television series Black Books (it’s on Hulu and if you haven’t seen it, I judge you). His style is erudite and intellectual. He speaks of low topics—rap music, children’s birthday parties—with the high diction of an Oxford Don.

The late, great Bill Hicks was America’s finest provocateur. He was America’s Jonathan Swift until his heart-breakingly early death at the age of 32. His voice is satiric and bitter, always on the attack. Comedy needs a new Bill Hicks to come along and eat Dane Cook alive.

If the words of these comics were transcribed and presented anonymously, most fans of stand-up would still be able to tell you who the author of each bit was. The best fiction writers are also as distinguishable. If you find that your own writing is flat and without voice, then turn on the television. Find some comedy and learn from the best. And if that doesn’t work…well, I guess you can pick up a book again…if you’re into that sort of thing.

What writers do you think have the best narrative voices?

About Seven Day Loan
A trained submissive, Eleanor will do whatever her master commands...even spend a week with a stranger. Daniel has been a recluse since his wife's death, and Eleanor's lover thinks spending time with her will be therapeutic—especially since Daniel is also a Dom.

Despite her defiant streak, Eleanor can't resist giving in to Daniel's erotic demands. But while she'll let him have her body, she's determined to keep a guard around her heart. Even if Daniel wants to make Eleanor his permanently....


  1. Before I started writing, I was reading an author (back in my fan fiction days) and my thoughts were, "If I could write, I'd like to write like that." I didn't realize it was her 'voice' I was attracted to.

    I find my voice is evident when the narrative words flow. And after speaking to a group, one member came up and said, "You talk just like you write." I took it as a compliment.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  2. Great piece on voice. It's hard to explain, but you know it when you hear it.

    Like Huck Finn and Hitchhiker's and Catcher in the Rye - one line and you know no matter what they're talking about, you'll listen.

    I discovered Dylan Moran just this year, so go ahead and judge me, and all the best to Honeytoast.

  3. Loius CK is BRUTAL at times, but he is such an excellent crafter of words. Yup, crafter!

    I also love Bill Bailey; he's big in the UK. He has this weird, nerdy and intellectual humor punctuated with flat out stupid humor. The mix is hilarious. My favorite are his riffs on two men walk into a bar jokes.

    I recently read a novella with no voice. It was a memoir, which you'd think would have all kinds of voice. I would see glimpses of it, but the rest read like a book report. Sometimes it helps to read something without voice and think of what's missing.

  4. Interesting post.

    Now let's analyize Janice Hardy's voice. Hmm...from the top of my head, her sentence beginnings tend to be extremely varied compared to other writers, which is something I'm trying to infuse into my own writing.

    For my own writing, I would say it's breezy, with great sentence structure variety that prefers the short side, short paragraphs (most of the time, no more than five lines), and metaphors that are streached to their limits.

    Maybe I should try the comedic run-on more often, to constrast with my one-line snarks.

  5. Nice to meet you Tiffany, and great post. I've found the stronger the personality the stronger your voice will inherently become. Although I try to distance myself on my blog with a more cold analytical tone than my usual personality. I like to keep the distinction between topics and writing but it's readily visible in both my writing and blog.

  6. OMG, that Louis CK video is harsh! What will his daughter think when she's old enough to view it? Yikes.

    Great thoughts on voice, which of course, you are brilliant at. But hey, I read Nicholas Sparks novels. No hating, now.