Genre Talk

Muse Envy: A Conversation on Author Voice


The nine muses — Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Erato, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia and Urania — on a Roman sarcophagus (2nd century AD, from the Louvre)

This post is about writing and what makes a great author voice. If you’re a writer or a reader, we hope you’ll find something interesting in it.  And in the comments, we’d love to hear which authors have voices you love.

Amber: Elisabeth recently said in a blog post that she tries not to envy other people’s muses, and “muse envy” struck me as the perfect phrase to talk about my own feelings about author voice and what to do with the nagging insecurity that comes up when one author loves another author’s work. Elisabeth, can you tell us about your own experience of this feeling?

Elisabeth: It’s tricky. I read a lot (more than I ought to given my packed schedule, really) so I’m constantly coming across things I wish I’d done or thought of. Ways I wish I’d thought of to say one thing or another. I heard an author speak who said something helpful though (and her name is escaping me, which I hate. I’m awful with names): She pointed out that wishing for someone else’s muse is like wishing for a different dog or child. Yours is special because it’s yours. That resonated with me. I try instead to pay attention to what I love about a book when I read it so I can maybe have that tool later to make my own writing stronger (Note to self: This opening sentence really grabbed me. Focus on those more in your writing!).

Amber: That’s such a great piece of advice to have learned! After taking it in, what are your thoughts on why voice is important?

Elisabeth: Voice is key. No story out in the world is truly unique (Look at the basic plot of a romance: two or more people fall in love. There’s a happy ending. BAM.). What’s most unique is how the story is told, the voice of the author and characters, IMO. I know I’m often drawn in when an author has a strong voice. Something funny, quirky, or unique that makes the me want to get to know the character and their story more. But voice is also to some extent, easy and natural. I bet a lot of authors have one without realizing they do at first.

Amber: I couldn’t agree more.  So let me ask this–what comes easily with your voice? And what’s challenging about finding/using your voice?

Elisabeth: I think we sometimes start out not knowing exactly what voice is, and how to find ours. We try to use someone else’s maybe. I got lucky, I took a lot of online writing workshops through RWA starting out, and my very first one was Write Naked with Wendy Watson. It was all about finding your voice. She pointed out some great things that showed me early on, what I was really doing was a weird mashup of my own shaky voice and some of my favorite authors, which didn’t really work (although it’s probably a common newbie habit). I managed to graduate to writing more the way I talk in real life, and then working on hearing my characters in my head, and matching their voices with their personalities. A POV course with Carrie Lofty helped as well for me to get to know my characters better.

Amber: Yeah, to add to that, I think my years of preaching probably helped me find my writing voice–to write the way I talk, to pay attention to how sentences actually sound, to consider audience.

Elisabeth: Now let me ask, what are your thoughts on author voice?

Amber: For me, voice is the way the author uses language, gets into the character’s deep point of view, but also has to do with that author’s world-view and vision.  There are so many great romance authors out there whom I admire and enjoy, but there are only a few whose writing I am so moved by that I begin to feel inadequate. Usually, these are writers that are especially skilfull at something I aspire to–complex characters, intricate but effective world building, building upon social and historical issues, powerful but not melodramatic conflict and emotion, edgy and hot sex which develops character and plot.

And not often, but sometimes while I’m reading their most excellent books, I think “I’ll never be as good as this person.”

Elisabeth:  I think every author feels that way about someone they admire sometimes.  

Amber: I’m sure that true, at least if they have a shred of humility (and most of us actually have more than our share of it). For me, I try to remember that my goal as a writer is not to be that other writer, but to be the best writer I can be.  That means listening to my muse and constantly improving my craft.  In my day job as a priest, I learned this lesson years ago–that I had to fill the role in a way that was authentic to myself, not to try to fit someone else’s expectations or be like another priest I admire. Because I would fail, and disappoint others and myself.  But even when I knew that, it could still be challenging not to feel insecure in the face of someone else’s skills.

As a romance writer, the challenge for me is to stay focused on what I can learn from the expertise of others and use it to improve my craft.  Or frankly, sometimes just to turn off my writer brain and enjoy getting lost in a story without analyzing what makes it so good.

Elisabeth: For me, muse envy can be a book I wish I’d written, or in a way I wish I’d written it. Something edgy and envelope-pushing that makes me hold my breath or stop and think. Something that makes me feel things that surprise me–I love unexpected laughter or tears in a work, or when I feel sympathy for, say, a villainous character. That’s all stuff I wish I did better. Early on I had people encouraging me not to go too far with my writing, so now I’m trying to learn how to find that line – how to write fearlessly and push the envelope without shoving it right through the shredder. 😉

Amber: You know, I took an online writing class with a teacher who also gave that advice–don’t bite off more than you’re ready for, etc.  It was very undermining, and the opposite of what I think good teaching should be, which is to help students aspire to be their best.  I understand the “master the basics” idea, but at the same time, even a simple novel is incredibly complex. I think it’s good to go whole hog pursuing your vision, and don’t hold anything back!

Elisabeth; I do think that we have to try to be the best “us” we can be. Elizabeth Gilbert did this great Ted Talk after Eat, Pray, Love about how we get in the way of our own creative genius by worrying that what we have inside of us is not enough (I’m WAY oversimplifying and it’s really a well-spent twenty minutes to consider her take on creativity). Instead, we should realize we’re doing ourselves a service just by showing up every day and working on our craft. I think that’s huge. I have been in the place where I let someone’s hurtful words stop me from writing for weeks or months. Some days, just continuing even if you don’t want to is a win – Neil Gaiman offers similar advice – [No matter what] “Make good art.”

In the midst of the “why bother?” moments, I do try to remember that I started writing because I love to read so much. My big personal goal was to someday create the kinds of stories that made me fall in love with books. So when I read a story that makes me so envious, the good news is I know I’m returning to that place that made me want to be a writer to begin with. That’s the thing, I think, that’s most important to remember. I’m envious, but it gives me something to reach toward. Not the same skill set, but an equivalent comfort level, maybe?

I dunno – I think maybe those stories we envy give us new reasons to fall in love with our own craft again.

Amber: Amen, Elisabeth. I think that’s a great place to stop.  And I’d love to hear from readers:

Which authors have a voice you adore?

What authors or books inspire your “muse envy”


2 thoughts on “Muse Envy: A Conversation on Author Voice

  1. Great conversation!
    I think a lot of start out imitating voices we admire. It can be a stepping stone to finding our true, unique voice. And I’ve definitely been flattened by one of those “I will never be this good” books!

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