Anyone who has gone to a writers’ conference has heard an editor or agent say: We’re looking for someone with a strong voice. For years I heard this, and I kept wondering, what exactly is “voice”? Is it distinct from style? Doesn’t it change depending on the story and the Point of View character? But year after year agents and editors kept saying this as though it was so obvious it needed no explanation or definition.
A couple of years ago I had my question answered. I submitted my question to a panel of agents and editors and it was selected. They pretty much confirmed my guess. Voice, they said, was that distinctive quality that made it possible to recognize an author without looking at the spine of the book. Jennifer Crusie has it. Laurel K. Hamilton has it. Suzanne Brockmann has it. Jo Beverley has it. It’s a particular way of viewing and describing the world that’s unique to each author.
I still think I’m right that voice can vary with a change in genre or character. (It absolutely should vary with POV, in my opinion.) But publishers, if they find an author whose books sell well, don’t want that voice to change from story to story. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Make it the same, only different. And that brings us to branding.
Readers, it is widely believed, want predictability. They go to McDonalds for a Big Mac not a Whopper. If they love an author’s past work, they will run away in droves if the author diverges too much from what worked for them in the past. As much as I’d like to say this isn’t true, that the powers that be are too cautious, I think there’s a kernel of truth here. When I bite into an apple, I will be very surprised, a somewhat dismayed, if it tastes like peanut butter. I love peanut butter. (Just ask my college roommate.) But I would hesitate a moment to decide if I want to eat an apple that doesn’t taste like an apple, and I might choose to go looking for a different piece of fruit.
Branding is frustrating to a lot of writers, including me. I have many different interests and I want to explore them all. But branding is a fact of life in today’s competitive market, and ultimately it can help a writer make a name for herself. Unfortunately, it can become a cage. I know of a number of successful, multi-published authors who can only sell a book if it’s like the book they wrote before. If they want to explore, they can, using a different name, starting from scratch like every other newbie.
Of course, we can all name the exceptions to this rule. Nora Roberts, Stephen King. But they are the exceptions.
So my advice (which I’ve been slow to take myself) is to find the sub-genre you want to live in for an extended period, and write the sharpest, most distintive prose you can. Put your voice out there. Don’t imititate anyone, however successful. And don’t give up.