Ditching “The Book Of Your Heart” for “The Book Of My Voice”

From a Workshop delivered at the RWA National Conference
New York City, New York Copyright © 2003 Julie Elizabeth Leto To purchase an audio tape of this workshop, click here.

I’ve always had a problem with the phrase, “The Book of Your Heart.” Maybe I’m not sentimental enough for such a term, but I don’t think that’s it entirely. I consider myself an emotional pragmatist. Yes, I believe in the “art” of writing, but I believe equally in the business and marketability. And this attitude seems to fly in the face of those “book of the heart” proponents.

Additionally, I’ve never been one hundred percent sure what “the book of my heart” was, or even if I wanted to write it. As it is, I like my books, each and every one, though some more than others. I get emotionally caught up in my characters all the time—and as a bonus, they sell rather well. But what am I writing? Books of my heart…or my wallet? After all, I write very commercial stuff. How can a commercial book be a “book of the heart?” That seems contradictory. So until the NINC conference this past November, I didn’t know what kind of books I wrote. Thanks to Carrie Feron, the Avon editor, I finally know. And I’m going to share this with you in hopes that you’ll find your niche too.

First, I think I should define the book of the heart. Surprisingly, there seem to be two definitions. I learned this when I first published this speech as an article in the NINC Newsletter and received a note from best-selling author Jo Beverly, who actually coined the phrase. Apparently, the term “book of the heart” first appeared in a post Jo had written and it referred to a book that invaded an author’s psyche so deeply, that she is ravenously compelled to write it, even if she knows it will not sell because it is not marketable. The book actually blocks the writer’s more commercial work. She asked the question, what is a writer to do in this case?

With Jo’s definition, she is not advocating or even suggesting that every author had to write the book of their heart or even that every author had a book of their heart in their psyche waiting to get out. She’s not even saying that a book must be a “book of the heart” to be a break-out book or a best-seller. She just said that sometimes, this kind of book happens.

Unfortunately, somehow over the years, the meaning of the book of the heart has changed. I think what happened is that editors got a hold of the phrase and started to tell writers to “write the book of your heart” as a matter of course. The implication was that the only way to be “fresh,” “unique” or to stand out from the crowd was to write this book and only this book. This contradicts the entire original meaning.

Whenever I heard someone speaks passionately about “the book of the heart,” they seemed to preach that if this book doesn’t come from some place deep in your psyche, if this book doesn’t haunt you, if this book won’t possibly destroy your career, then it isn’t truly from your heart. Huh? I’m all for over-the-top, but this sounds a little too much along the lines of the “starving artist” propaganda for me. We’re genre writers. We don’t need to starve! The market is too hungry for our art—and our product. Marketability is not a cop-out or a sell-out. It’s business. It’s a means to reach the maximum number of readers with stories that we care about.

And there are other implications in that short little phrase, “The Book of Your Heart,” that can be very daunting. The main one, as evidenced by the article “the,” is that there is only one book in your heart and that you likely have only one story that has lingered inside your aortic chambers, waiting to burst forth and be told. So you write that book. It earns a multi-million dollar advance and is optioned for a film. Or, it tanks. Or worse, no one will buy it at all. Now what? Do you lament that “the New York publishing establishment isn’t ready for something so fresh, so bold?” Come on. The New York publishing establishment may have its limitations just like any other business, but I personally have read several wonderful books I’d gleefully describe as fresh and bold.

So, the first definition was a risky book you had to tell, even if it never sold (or never should.) The bastardized definition became something risky, potentially unmarketable that only the most brilliant editor could see for what it is. (Man, talk about making an aspiring authors job hard!)

Neither of these type of books appealed to me. But before NINC, the only alternative I’d heard to writing the book of your heart has become writing “The Book of Your Wallet.” That, I could identify with.

But it also has negative implications that nagged me—saying in essence that I’m writing a book that will sell only for the cash. We’ve all met people who’ve boasted that they would pound out a few genre books and make some easy money to afford to retreat to their bucolic cabin to write The Great American Novel, which in essence, is the same as The Book of The Heart. And we’ve all wanted to shoot these people. So the wallet phrase rubs me the wrong way, too. I’ve never aspired to writing The Great American Novel. I aspire to a career writing book after entertaining book, growing a legion of readers who enjoy the stories I like to tell.

Then Carrie Feron appeared on a book publishing panel and spoke about “The Book of Your Voice.” The cost of the entire NINC conference was justified, for me, in that one phrase. Here’s a term I can sink my teeth into, though I contend the article should be changed from “The” to “A.” Just so I can keep on writing more than one.

Before I go any further, I think we need to discuss what voice is and then explore how to find out what yours is.

Of all the aspects of the craft of writing, I think voice is the hardest thing to define, at least in concrete terms. The definition, in and of itself, is vague, because voice in and of itself, needs to be hard to define in order for it to be unique. But voice is a lot like style—they are not the same, but are inextricably interwoven.

The best definition I’ve found so far came from an article entitled, “Finding Your Voice” by Laura Backes of the Children’s Book Insider. Here’s what she wrote:

One of your most powerful tools as a writer is not your vocabulary, your mastery of grammar or even your fancy computer — it’s your voice. Your unique blend of description, character and style allows you to talk to the reader through the printed word. Without a voice, a manuscript may have an exciting plot, interesting characters and a surprise ending, but it might not get published. The voice is what beckons the reader to curl up with a book and whispers, “Pay attention. I’m going to tell you a story.”

Editors are always searching for new voices. Yet, when pressed, most editors find it hard to describe exactly what a voice is. Which is why the writer’s voice isn’t something that can be taught, but it is something you can acquire with practice. Your voice is already there, inside your writing, but it may be covered up with ideas of what you think writing is all about. Many beginners work very hard at trying to sound like a writer. They pore through the thesaurus looking for fancy substitutions for ordinary words; they create complex sentences bursting with flowery descriptions. They’ve forgotten that their goal is to communicate (…with a child…) and instead are in love with the way their words look on the page.

There are so many true statements in there, I hardly know where to begin!

First, let’s go back to what is voice. Pretend you’re a big Eagles fan. (The rock group, not the football team.) Pretend someone hands you two separate sheets of lyrics, neither of which you have seen before—and yet, you can tell which one was written by Don Henley and which one by Glenn Frye. Or, let’s say I forced you to read my backlist, then another Temptation/Blaze author and then handed you two hot love scenes we’d written. With the same character names, the same physical scenario, maybe even some of the same dialogue. I’ll still bet you could tell the difference between the two, because even though we write in the same genre and have a very similar attitude, we still each have a unique voice.

Bottom line—Voice is what makes the writing uniquely yours.

Where does Voice come from?

Like Backes says, voice comes from 1) description, 2) character, and 3) style. But it could be successfully argued that voice also springs from plot and premise as well. Let’s talk about these.

Description—some writers use a lot of it, some don’t. I’m a description girl. I love evoking strong visual or sensual images. BUT I also know that I tend to overdue this sometimes, so I work hard at cutting back, then giving extra “umph” to the descriptions I provide. Some writers prefer to leave their descriptions vague so the readers can fill in their own imaginary pictures. Other writers feel that description slows things down too much, so they keep it short, clipped. My exotic Hawaiian restaurant wafting with the crisp scent of roasted pork and tangy grilled pineapple can become the “poi joint on Market Street” in the hands of another author. Neither description is better or worse. One is evocative, the other clipped and clever. It all goes to voice. Which one best fits the way I write?

Character—one thing I’ve come to learn is that I don’t have to try and write every kind of character under the sun in order to show that I’m versatile and to keep my writing fresh. Some of the best writers—the writers with the strongest voices—have found a niche writing about certain character types. I gravitate toward strong, mouthy women and rich, powerful men. The hardest book I’ve written to date had a sweet, sexy heroine who knew when to hold her tongue and a down-and-out professor hero who’d lost his job. Did I pull it off? Readers are saying so…but it was a harder book and I think it’s because the characters were outside my realm.

My critique partner recently told me that she thought you could take two of my heroines out of my books, force them to switch places, and then the stories wouldn’t change. Now this really pissed me off. I didn’t see it that way—and after a very long and heated discussion, she admitted she was wrong. The characters can have a common thread and still be very different people.

The kind of people who interest you, the kind of characters you are COMPELLED to write about—those characters will best show off your unique voice.

Voice is part of POINT OF VIEW. Your characters provide the point of view, because in romance fiction, we don’t like author intrusion. Author voice and character voice ARE NOT the same thing—but they are interrelated. If you’re writing about a character who doesn’t jibe with you, who can’t espouse your views, then this will show. The writing will become forced.

The third spring for author voice is STYLE. Style is the most direct road to voice. Style is the combination of so many things! How do you break your scenes? What words do you use? How long/short/varied are your sentences? How do you break up paragraphs and chapters? Some writers write 10 page chapters. I know a writer who writes nearly every chapter with three scenes. No more, no less. I never realized it either until she told me, because this technique—this style—worked for her fiction.

The fourth spring for voice is plot. Do you write linear plots or circular ones? (One isn’t better than the other…just different.) Do you use red herrings? Do you always have a villain that represents the external conflict? Do you work better with lots of secondary characters or do you prefer to focus in on your hero and heroine? These are all part of how you write your books…which goes to voice.

Lastly, is premise. Premise is the story idea—the story question. Can the romance novelist seduce her former lover into remembering her? Can the ingenue seduce her landlord into giving her her first orgasm? Can the tough street girl seduce the powerful billionaire into losing control? Those are the premises of the three books I wrote this year. Sound similar, don’t they? Are they…not on your life. I’ve never written three more different books…and yet, the premise is right up my alley.

I think premise may also directly link to THEME. The more books you write, the more you realize that you will end up, subconsciously, exploring the same themes over and over. I’ve written 12 books. 7 of those books explore the theme of a woman’s quest for true independence. (PL, Insatiable, Exposed, JWM, WYP, LFT, UTNG). I didn’t figure this out until very recently—and that’s okay. I don’t think you need to figure all of this out in order to find your voice…but this is the sort of thing you need to know in order to protect your voice.

The last aspect of writing that contributes to writer’s voice…and perhaps the most important…get ready to write this down…the best way to find your writer’s voice is to…WRITE. A lot. A helluva lot. PRACTICE is the key.

This next quote is from author Rebecca Vinyard in her article, “Have You Found Your Voice?“. She wrote:

I don’t think voice is something you can create… it’s more like something that just…is. It should flow naturally from you. I didn’t find my voice right away. It sort of gradually came out as I gained confidence as a writer. When I read my earlier books, I can see glimmers of it here and there… but I can also see where I thought the story sounded too folksy or something and I edited it into something more formal. Stilted. Flat. Something that wasn’t me. I took that ‘sparkle’ editors want out of there.

Once you find your voice and start writing without thinking about working with the net of perfect writing, it makes life a whole lot easier. You stop questioning every word you put on the page and simply get down to the business of telling your story. By writing without the internal editor on, you’ll increase your productivity and be able to write more…and faster.

Let me repeat:
It sort of gradually came out as I gained confidence as a writer.

I did a lot of reading to prepare for this workshop. This is the one common element and thread I ran across over and over and over.

I wondered why…and I looked to my own past. Why did I not discover my voice until my third manuscript?

I think I know now. CRAFT.

You cannot truly develop your writer’s voice while you are striving to develop your craft. It’s one or the other. Not both at the same time.

This explains a lot to me, because I wonder about the authors who sold their first books. Almost unanimously, those books sold on VOICE, not craft. Little by little, the author may have improved her craft—learning about tighter plotting, about deeper characterization or even mastering point of view. But that first book flowed from their natural voice and that’s why they sold.

On the other hand, I came into this business looking to improve craft above all else. I gained confidence in my ability to tell a story beginning to end with crisp words on my 3rd book (I was also no longer working with a writing partner then.) My voice finally started to surface. The fourth book is the one I sold—and that third one still has a shot someday. My voice had finally developed because I was confident in my craft.

How did I get confident in my craft? I wrote!! I practiced!! I entered contests and submitted and LEARNED. Once I knew I could tell a story, I could shut up my frickin’ internal editor long enough to let my voice shine through.

Another important milestone in my quest to develop my voice—the day I realized that I was actually good at something.

Again, this all boils right back down to confidence in your craft. But in this case, there was more. Once I had the sentences, scenes, chapters, plot, etc all down pat, then I realized there are some things I write better than most other people. I write hot sensual love scenes. I write really strong heroines. AHA! So what did I do with this knowledge? I tried to write a sweet love story with a really nice, malleable heroine who puts everyone else’s needs above her own. Why? I was challenging myself! Trying to IMPROVE.

Improve on what? Idiot! My editor called and instantly saw the problem with the book. “Turn up the heat on the love scenes and make Devon more selfish at the beginning.” Duh. If I’d played to my strengths instead of trying to “be different,” I wouldn’t have run into so much trouble with that book, WHAT’S YOUR PLEASURE? which is currently a NRCA finalist.

What are you good at? If you’ve written one or two books, you may not know yet. Maybe you do. Make sure that every project you start from this point on plays to that strength. If you’re trying to write category, find a line that will appreciate that strength. I, for one, could never write for Harlequin Presents. The men are too alpha and the women too weepy for me. My heroines would use that money their former lover’s family paid her off with to hire the Italian magnate’s Uncle Guido to bump his ass off and drop his lifeless body off the coast of Sicily. But that’s just me.

Am I saying you shouldn’t try to beef up your weaknesses? No way. Just make sure you do it in a story where your strengths will shine.

Discovering the nuances of my voice has been a long process, and frankly, I think it’s an ongoing adventure. With each book I write, I learn something new. A Book of My Voice allows me to explore the stories that spring from my psyche in their truest form. My voice may grow and change as I grow and change, but the essential foundation remains the same. My voice is mine and the more I write, the more I reveal of that voice. I’m not saying there aren’t going to be people who will try to alter or squelch my voice. Of course, that happens. But that I can fight because the voice is so intrinsic, while the heart, in my opinion, is fickle. And since we all have different voices—the pressure to evoke deep emotional angst in the pursuit of The Book of the Heart is relieved. Write what you enjoy! Write from that natural part of you that no one else can copy. Yeah, I can do that.

One last note about that troublesome book of the heart—Several editors at NINC noted that in about half the cases they’d seen, The Book of the Heart was dark and depressing. That too many authors are using the “book of the heart” as a catharsis and while sometimes it works as both a healing tool and a means of entertaining readers, most times it does not. We bury our deepest and blackest moments in our hearts. Our greatest fears; our worst-case scenarios. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t tap into these intrinsic experiences when needed, but sometimes such soul-searching and personal exploration comes out as angst that frankly, no one else wants to read.

And I’m not just proselytizing, here. I’ve written a “book of my heart.” I wrote it during a scary, transitional time of my life. The story was great, the characters vivid. I hope to revive the scenario some day…but without the darkness hovering over the work like a thundercloud. Maybe for some other authors this would work, but since that book, I’ve discovered my VOICE. And my voice completely contrasts what was in my heart at the time I wrote that book. Shoot, in that one, even the baby died. Yikes!

So, I’ve talked about the book of the heart vs. the book of the voice. I’ve given you some quotes about voice, some definitions and some areas of the craft where your voice can be found. I’ve reminded you that until you’ve found confidence in your craft (not mastering the writing…we all make mistakes…that’s what revisions and critique groups are for) you cannot begin to find your voice. If you’re publishing or attempting to publish in the wrong genre, you will have a harder time finding your voice. Until you find your voice, you can’t protect it from well-intentioned editors and critique partners and contest judges.

You do not have to have a distinct voice to sell your first book, but the seeds must be there. You will not find your voice by writing and revising the same story over and over for years. You need to really practice—which means starting from scratch with new characters who have new goals. If you write the tone and story lines you enjoy, you are more likely to find your voice and be able to nurture it until it becomes more than intrinsic, but so natural, you need very little effort to bring it to the surface.

Which moves me to my final point which convinced me that the book of the heart—in the new definition—would not work for me. And this is based on my own experience with the book where the baby died. Some mega-talented authors do not write angst. None. Nada. Not a word. Their voices are fun, sassy, irreverent. They write romantic comedies, light romps and quick-paced adventures. The Book of the Heart somehow seemed to never apply to them, because the deep emotional bleeding on the page wasnst present. A Book of the Voice allows all writers to write with the one part of us that is truly unique to us and only us. It gives us permission to explore what is quirky about our individual outlooks, what is inherent to our personal experiences. Sometimes it may be serious. Other times not. It depends entirely on us. Talk about fresh and bold. A Book of the Voice. What a great term!