What’s a novel without a story? What’s a story without a voice?

Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway

Geoffrey Neil wrote a blog last week that intrigued me a great deal.

He wrote about an author’s voice.

And this line really struck a nerve. He was paraphrasing Stephen King, who had once said, “Readers enjoy a great story, but they fall in love with a voice.”

Maybe, as writers, that’s the only thing new we have to offer.

A voice.

A different voice.

A distinctive voice.

A voice you don’t hear everyday.

Maybe that’s what makes one book so different from the other.

There are only so many genres.

There are only so many stories.

There are only so many plots.

And we all use the same words.

But writers have their own individual styles, their own personal ways to tell a story.

That’s voice.

Take a look at Ernest Hemingway’s voice. The Nation described it as ”a clear, vibrant, low tenor, unexpectedly youthful, almost boyish. It reminds one of a recurring theme in the fiction, that of age reaching back toward youth.” And Ford Maddox, writing in The Transatlantic Review, said, “Hemingway’s words strike you, each one, as if they were pebbles fetched fresh from a brook. They live and shine, each in its place.”

William Faulkner
William Faulkner

William Faulkner brought an entirely new voice to the literary scene. One reviewer, in fact, even gave him credit for re-inventing the novel. The Voice of America reported. “After Faulkner, few northerners were brave enough to write about a South they did not know. And no serious Southern writer was willing to describe a South that did not exist.”

Even when he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature, Faulkner’s voice rang loud and clear and distinctive. He said, as he had written, “I believe that man will not only endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

Others may have said it first.

Others may have said it more often.

No one said it better.

And who can ever forget Flannery O’Connor’s voice in The Misfits. She wrote: “I found out the crime don’t matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you’re going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it.” In the end, said one reviewer, the Misfit says that if Jesus really did raise people from the dead, then he would not be killing people and committing acts of meanness for pleasure. When the grandmother reaches out, saying, “You’re one of my own children!” the Misfit withdraws “as if a snake had bitten him,” and shoots her three times. Then the Misfit says one of the most famous lines in the short story: “She would of been a good woman… if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Flannery O'Connor
Flannery O’Connor

No one but Flanner O’Connor would have said it that way or dared to say it that way Her voice haunts us long after we have quit reading her words.

When developing a novel, I sometimes think that most writers – myself included – spend too much of their time creating characters, inventing plots, thinking up storylines, devising twists and turns and subplots, and they don’t pay nearly enough attention at all to the voice that tells the story.

But that’s what sets one novel apart from the next one.

Voice is the reason why we remember one novel and forget another.

I’ve read far too many books written by different authors but all using the same voice. It’s the one their English teachers gave them when they wrote themes. The sentences have subjects and verbs and adjectives and adverbs. And obligatory transitional phrases are thrown in to move from one paragraph or one scene to the next.

But where is the voice?

If you don’t have a voice, you don’t have a story.

If you don’t have a story, you don’t have a novel.

If you don’t have a novel, why bother writing at all?

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