An Author’s Voice

What does it mean when teachers of writing talk about an author’s voice? Is it style? Word choice? Pacing or prose? And is that something that an author can easily define, or is it best defined by more objective readers?

In the summer of 2005, with a stack of pages that comprised the first draft of Control Group, I flew across the country to the Santa Barbara Writer’s conference to find out. One voice I heard while there was that of Ron McLarty. Dubbed by Stephen King as “the best book you can’t read,” McLarty’s debut novel, The Memory of Running, reached its first audience not in print form but as an audiobook. Hearing McLarty tell his story in the rich baritone of his actor-turned-writer’s voice, I clearly remember thinking, “One day, I, too, want to share my stories in audio form.” After hearing him speak, I read his book. Then, I listened to him read it. I felt as if he represented every inflection and pause just as I’d imagined.

Yes, one day I’d love to do that. First, though, I had to write the book.

Fast forward ten years. In the fall of 2015, at a reception for the incomparable Doris Kearns-Goodwin before hearing her speak, a colleague from Children’s Hospital encouraged me to consider recording one of my books as an audiobook. Shortly after that, before a noontime medical lecture, another colleague at University Hospital said she consumed most of her fiction from, and if my work found its way onto an audiobook format, she’d love to hear it.

Maybe these two had a point. I did love reading aloud to my kids. I did hear the voices of my characters when I wrote them. What would it look like to bring them to life in a recording booth?

Finally, on Thanksgiving Day 2015, these disparate desires coalesced into opportunity. While dining with my cousin, a trained voice talent (who, ironically, has voiced the part of a doctor in commercials), I shared my desires to narrate my own work. From her own professional experience, she knew who to call. All I had to do was pick up the phone.

I did. Twelve months later.

Sol Stein’s book, Stein on Writing, has perhaps the best twelve pages on writing effective dialogue I have ever encountered. His comments on A Writer’s Voice are not bad either. According to Stein, himself an editor of American literary giants, an author’s voice is simply an “amalgam of the many factors that distinguish a writer from all other writers.” It’s as recognizable as the voice of an old friend on the phone.

The reason I waited a year before calling the studio was the uncertainty I heard in my own voice. By the time Control Group went into final production, I had over a decade and a half of writing experience—and the training that went along with that. But what did I know of recording? I knew what  an author’s voice sounded like when composed at the kitchen table and then read silently, but I couldn’t begin to digest how to verbalize that. How could I vocalize that same style when I read aloud? What if I got it wrong in the minds of my readers?

The same hobgoblins of insecurity that whispered into my ear in the early days of my writing— questioning whether I was capable of writing a novel—had changed clothes, now showing up as guardians of the mic. Of course, I was not a trained as a voice talent, but I did know my own work. Certainly I didn’t know how to call a cast of fictitious characters, but I did know the motivations of my own creations…and how they sounded to me.

By Thanksgiving 2016, I set off with a resolve I did not yet feel. I called the studio. Then, I scoured online resources, stumbling upon the narrator talents of Pat Fraley and Scott Brick. I consumed their home study courses, enlisting my children to help me with character creation exercises. I learned about slowing down my pace of reading. About guarding against a natural tendency to dip my tone at the end of a sentence. About reading with passion. I learned to modulate my characters in a scene. To throw away dialogue attribution. To ignore the punctuation if it suited the storytelling.

“That comma you agonized over? Fuhgetaboutit!”

In the end, I devoted two months of preparation before I began reading into my phone. I tried on voices like vestments from some ritual to which I had invited myself.

I sharpened blue and red colored pencils, marking up the text with places to pause. I added visual inflection to the dialogue. When the moment came to shut the door to the soundproof booth, I didn’t want to question the motivations of these characters I’d created.

As a final preparation, I abstained from audiobooks for a month before recording. Having downloaded dozens of audiobooks to my phone, I had plenty of examples of best practices in narration. At the moment of creation, though, I wanted the voice that came through the speakers to be my own. I wanted the personal style to not be a knock-off of some of my mentors, but a style that came from my own learning, my own preparation, and my own understanding of who these people were. I wanted this to be my story.

It was time for the written author’s voice to be translated into the spoken author’s voice.

On a cold and cloudy Monday morning in January, I began.

I started with Chapter 13.