Voice:

(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“So by the nature of the novelist’s artistic process, success comes rarely. The worst result of this is that the novelist has a hard time achieving what I’ve called ‘authority,’ by which I do not mean confidence—the habit of believing one can do whatever one’s art requires—but, rather, something visible on the page, or audible in the author’s voice, an impression we get, and immediately trust, that this is a man who knows what he’s doing—the same impression we get from great paintings or musical compositions.” John Gardner

“Nothing seems wasted, or labored, or tentative. We do not get the slightest sense that the writer is struggling to hear in his mind what he’s saying, the rhythm with which he’s saying it, and how it relates to something later in the book. As if without effort, he does it all at once. He snaps into the trance state as if nothing were easier.” John Gardner

“Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident. . . . Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader’s trust. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.” William Zinsser

“Melville (‘Call me Ishamel. . . .’), we may be sure, did not sit down and score his rhythms like a composer, but his ear found them—found brilliantly subtle rhythmic variations, poetically functional alliteration, and a compressed, energetic way of going for meaning. He reached authority.” John Gardner

“On reflection we see that the great writer’s authority consists of two elements. The first we may call, loosely, his sane humanness; that is, his trustworthiness as a judge of things, a stability rooted in the sum of those complex qualities of his character and personality (wisdom, generosity, compassion, strength of will) to which we respond, as we respond to what is best in our friends, with instant recognition and admiration, saying, ‘Yes, you’re right, that’s how it is.’” John Gardner

“The second element, or perhaps I should say force, is the writer’s absolute trust (not blind faith) in his own aesthetic judgments and instincts, a trust grounded partly in his intelligence and sensitivity—his ability to perceive and understand the world around him—and partly his experience as a craftsman; that is (by his own harsh standards), his knowledge, drawn from long practice, of what will work and what will not.” John Gardner

“What this means, in practical terms for the student writer, is that in order to achieve mastery he must read widely and deeply and must write not just carefully but continually, thoughtfully assessing and reassessing what he writes, because practice, for the writer as for the concert pianist, is the heart of the matter.” John Gardner

“The tale writer simply walks past our objections, granting that the events he is about to recount are incredible but winning our suspensions of disbelief by the confidence and authority of the narrator’s voice.” John Gardner

“The voice may sometimes be ironic, even blackly ironic as the voices in The Confidence Man; or it may speak in dialect, like Huck Finn. Conviction is what counts.” John Gardner

“In fiction there can be no appeal to any authority outside the book itself. . . . the thing has to look true, and that is all. It is not made to look true by simple statement.” Percy Lubbock

“Voice is the je ne sais quoi of spirited writing. It separates brochures and brilliance, memo and memoir, a ship’s log and The Old Man and the Sea. The best writers stamp prose with their own distinctive personality; their timbre and tone are as recognizable as their voices on the phone. To cultivate voice, you must listen for the music of language—the vernacular, the syntactic tics, the cadences.” Constance Hale

“My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you. Don’t alter your voice to fit the subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone: breeziness and condescension and clichés.” William Zinsser

“Finding a voice that your readers will enjoy is largely a matter of taste. Saying that isn’t much help—taste is a quality so intangible that it can’t even be defined. But we know it when we meet it.” William Zinsser

“Voice is one of the most elusive qualities in any story. We recognize it when we hear it, but it’s hard consciously to create an authentic voice. Somehow voice seems to be the natural manifestation of all the narrative decisions we’ve made so far. We discover it more than we fabricate it.” Philip Gerard

“Voice really depends on the answer to the question, Who is telling this story? . . . That will color your diction—and determine your metaphors, your sensibility.” Philip Gerard

“You will not read voice on the page; you will hear it in your head.” Philip Gerard

“You must find the right voice (or voices) for the timbre that can convince a reader to give himself up to you.” Erica Jong

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