Rabbi Ilene Schneider, Ed.D., one of the first women rabbis ordained in the U.S., has decided what she wants to be when she grows up: a full-time writer. She is the author of the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries: the critically acclaimed Chanukah Guilt; the award-winning Unleavened Dead; and the latest, Yom Killer. She also wrote the best-selling nonfiction Talk Dirty Yiddish, soon to be released in a new edition; developed a website of Q&As about Chanukah (whyninecandles.com); and edited a cookbook Recipes by the Book: Oak Tree Authors Write. She lives in Marlton, NJ, with her husband Rabbi Gary Gans.
When I first began to write my latest Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mystery, Yom Killer, I had a lot of difficulty. Generally, once I get that first paragraph down, the rest begins to flow. But not only did it not flow, it was deleted. I didn’t even save what I had written in a new file to be used in the future. Nothing I wrote was worth saving. I could not find my voice to write about the collapse and hospitalization of Aviva’s mother. My own mother was several years younger than Aviva’s, but she had suffered from lymphoma, both Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s, for many years. As she became progressively more frail, the real life situation was too close for me to use my usual sarcasm and snarky humor and light touch and word play. After many false starts, I did manage to find the balance I needed. I’m not sure how. The creative process remains a mystery to me.
I had already decided to write about the importance of voice in novels, when my friend writer Shalanna Collins (aka Denise Weeks) posted the following on Facebook: “Voice. That’s what I need in a novel or story. I need to be charmed into spending my reading time with this book. Many people don’t care or find it necessary, I know. . . . They just put things simply. But what is lacking is charm. I need a character with personality whose voice and way of seeing the world charms me.”
Shalanna’s comment and my own ruminations made me realize I’ve no idea how to define “voice.” So I turned to the Great and Powerful Wizard of Google, and found, as so often happens, the results were contradictory. Is it a writer’s style or something more elusive?
In her article “What Is Voice in Fiction Writing,” Ginny Wiehardt wrote: “The term ‘voice’ in fiction writing actually has two very different meanings: Voice is the author’s style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique, and which conveys the author’s attitude, personality, and character; or voice is the characteristic speech and thought patterns of the narrator of a work of fiction.” (https://www.thebalance.com/what-is-voice-in-fiction-writing-1277142)
Julie Wildhabe in “Understanding Voice and Tone in Writing” defines voice as “the distinct personality, style, or point of view of a piece of writing or any other creative work.” (http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/understanding-voice-and-tone-in-writing)
In “Literary Voice: Developing It…And Defining It,” Kat Zhang admits: “A story’s ‘voice’ is sometimes hard to define or talk about.” She then quoted from Wikipedia (no attribution or link provided): “The writer’s voice is the individual writing style of an author, a combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works).” (http://www.publishingcrawl.com/2013/06/24/literary-voice-developing-it-and-defining-it/)
I was about to conclude that a writer’s voice is a fancy way of saying “an author’s style” when I read a piece by Cris Freese, “Voice in Writing: Developing a Unique Writing Voice,” in which he separates voice and style: “What the heck is ‘voice’? By this, do editors mean ‘style’? I do not think so. By voice, I think they mean not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre. They want to read an author who is like no other. An original. A standout. A voice. (http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/voice-in-writing-developing-a-unique-writing-voice)
In other words, a writer’s voice is what makes a work immediately recognizable. Short sentences? Hemingway. Run-on stream of consciousness sentences? James Joyce. Turning language on its head by using it literally? Douglas Adams. Or maybe Gracie Allen.
My conclusion: To paraphrase Justice Stewart Potter, I cannot define voice, but I know it when I read it.