Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Make it yours, but make it new

By Julie

Voice has been a popular subject around the Internet lately, with great posts on the theme from all the Writer Unboxed contributors in January, and a few this week from agent Rachelle Gardner here and here especially coming to mind. (I like Gardner's take on "Write what you know.")

Voice--it's that elusive quality we writers wish we could bottle and keep ready in our writer's pantry. But that would kind of defeat the purpose, wouldn't it? If every writer found her voice easily, without hard work and often great consternation, agents' and publishers' jobs would be either a lot easier or a lot harder, depending on how you look at it. (Not to mention, our job as writers.)

And then there's branding ...

Branding is another term you hear frequently these days in conjunction with fiction and publishing. Authors are encouraged to identify a niche that works and stick with it--to brand themselves as writers so readers and publishers may depend on them to deliver recognizable products of consistent quality. Readers are conditioned to expect this so much, it's darn near impossible to write across genres without using pseudonyms.

I believe these two--voice and branding--go hand-in-hand. But I also think authors (and creatives of any type) fortunate enough to be successful at both have another hurdle beyond that.

Consider this. I recently picked up a book by one of my favorite authors. For years, I've relied on this author to deliver a story I'll enjoy in a voice I've come to love. Only problem is, I only read about fifty pages in this most recent novel before I lost interest. (Don't even try to guess--I've never mentioned this author on the blog, and I'm not sure you'd peg me as a fan.)

The issue? Even though her protagonist had a different name and a newish story, I felt like I'd read this same character too many times already. Echoes of the author's previous protagonists rang too closely in my mind and the hook and setting weren't unique enough to draw me in and keep me. (I'm not a series fan for this very reason. I usually get bored with characters after a maximum of two books, with the exception of old characters making cameo appearances in new books, which I think is kind of fun. I like to wave at them and say hello, then get back to the exciting new folks and story the author has dished up.)

To put it simply, this author has managed to brand herself and fine tune her voice so successfully, her work is cut out in surprising me. Unfortunately, this time, she did not. I'll definitely give her next book a look--every prolific author is probably entitled to a one off--but I'll be holding her to an even higher standard next time.

Sometimes I encounter the same problem with musicians. I love music. I eat it and breathe it. And I'm disappointed to shell out the money for a new recording by a favorite musician only to find the melodies, rhythms, and lyrics are far too reminiscent of the last effort. It's a fine line. I'm disgruntled to find I'm finished listening after once through. I like to keep albums in high rotation, listening to them over and over to capture the nuances and the grace notes, delighted every time I find something new.

The moral of this story ...

Finding your voice and branding yourself as an author or creative person is not enough. We must keep surprising our audience, finding new angles, letting our voices explore and mature. Sometimes we even need to take a few risks.

My mind keeps returning to a mental picture of my foster daughter's little girl singing and dancing along with Jason Mraz's "Make it Mine" video over and over, her Mraz hat perched on her tiny head. Mraz is a musician who found his voice, branded himself without question, yet surprises his fans nearly every step of the way.

Make it Mine /Jason Mraz
Listen to your voice
The one that tells you to taste past the tip of your tongue
Leap and the net will appear


  1. Great post, Julie! I've been thinking a lot about voice lately, and wondering if my writing has it!

    Like you, I have been disappointed by reading a book that is just too similar to something else an author has published, and I have a hard time trying to find a good mystery to read, because they are all in series.

  2. Excellent post, Julie. Life is all about change. An author must allow their "voice" to mature along with them or risk getting stuck in a rut. I allow my favorite authors three strikes before I write them off. Thankfully, so far, none of them have gone beyond two.

  3. That's pretty generous, Deborah! I'm not sure I've ever seen more than two strikes, either, though, so it makes perfect sense.

    Thanks for reading and being such a faithful commenter on our blog!


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