Style and Voice

by sarahenni on February 11, 2013

I admire people who have a distinctive look, a personal style. For years I worked to find that same effortless thing for myself, trying and failing, always ending up trying too hard to force something inauthentic. It was only when I found what felt right and worked with it that I started to feel like I had any style of my own.

There’s a very apt writing tie-in to this (I promise!), and it’s the elusive quality that, though every agent and editor says they’re looking for it, is so hard to define: voice. It seems like every interview with a publishing gatekeeper includes the term, and they all put it way, way up there on lists that will push one writer’s work from rejection to request, from sub to sale.

Just like style, voice is something innate that isn’t so much discovered as nurtured. And in light of New York Fashion Week this week, I thought it might be helpful to provide some examples of YA authors out there right now who have some of the most distinctive voices around, and ask the most stylish person I know, fashion blogger and certified bestie Megan (a.k.a. Step Brightly), to help me relate those voices to the world of fashion1.

Voice/Style example 1

Smart and thoughtful. Doesn’t back away from intense, philosophical considerations, but careful to also include levity in some wit, winks, and nods. Definitely an established mainstream name, but has a hugely dedicated cult following.
I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.
— John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
Megan’s style association: Elizabeth & James. 
Owned by the extremely popular, yet ever quirky Olsen twins, Elizabeth & James is a clothing line loved by everyone from pop icons to indie rock stars. Mary Kate and Ashley have created a high end sports-wear line that makes basics look fancy. Their website is ridiculously cool and somewhat intimidating, but Elizabeth & James will also pop up at mainstream stores like Madewell from time to time.   The thing I like best about the pint-sized duo’s line is that the clothing is mature and made for a sophisticated woman.

Voice/Style example 2

Poetic, focused on beautiful, intricate details. Something out of a fairytale, but the nuanced, sad, complex original Hans Christen Andersen kind, not the Disney kind. Takes traditional ideas and makes something beautiful and refreshingly new from them.

“That’s how you get deathless, volchitsa. Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you’d have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines.”

— Catherynne Valente, Deathless


Megan association: The Character Sweater


You have seen them everywhere at this point, am I right? From bulldogs on cashmere to owls on wool, the ‘Pictionary sweater’ is making its mark on year – end fashions.  The fact of the mater is none of these characters are cutesy and many of them are quite the opposite. The melodramatic themes and romantic undertones come across in this crazy lady and this French bulldog.

Voice/Style example 3

Playful but clean. Relatable for the average girl, but brighter, sharper, more whimsical. Unique; an instant classic. Something you want to give as a gift to everyone.
Just because something isn’t practical doesn’t mean it’s not worth creating. Sometimes beauty and real-life magic are enough.”
—Stephanie Perkins, Lola and the Boy Next Door
Megan association: Kate Spade. 
To me, this line of bags, clothes, shoes and accessories is the definition of happiness. Every girl who opens her Kate Spade bag to find an inspiring quote from Kate  feels special. It makes complete sense that Zooey Deschanel is spotted in the line time after time. Whether it be 50s glam, 60s art deco or 70s pops of color, Kate Spade’s classic trends are bigger and brighter than average. This circle of friends exclusively gifts Kate Spade to one another.

Asking, “How do I develop voice?” is almost exactly the same as the question I’ve been asking my closet mirror forever: “How do I develop style?” You study the great ones, the icons, and try everything on until something feels comfortable.

What do you think?? Is style, or voice, as elusive for you as it is/was for me? What other great YA voices deserve a shout out?

  1. descriptions of the voices are mine

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Megan O'Connor Mershon February 11, 2013 at 10:19 am



Jaime February 11, 2013 at 1:09 pm

This is a great comparison. I think another person that really stands out for her voice/style is Laini Taylor, particularly in her DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE books. There are a bunch more I could mention too. :)


Carrie-Anne February 11, 2013 at 1:20 pm

Over the years, I’ve really grown into and found my natural voice with the tried and true third-person omniscient. I haven’t written anything first-person (outside of short interludes within a novel, like a letter or journal entry) in probably 20 years, and wouldn’t even know how to begin writing an entire book in that voice. I know some people have a hard time getting into third-person omniscient because they’re not used to reading it anymore, but for me, it’s the most personal, creative, flexible voice to read or write, so long as you do it right.


Ronni February 11, 2013 at 3:32 pm

This is SUCH a cool post. I think that Sarah Dessen has a distinct voice, as does Rachel Cohn (take a look at the Gingerbread series or Pop Princess).

I’ve lost my writing voice. At least for fiction. Struggling to get it back, though.


Sarah G. February 11, 2013 at 7:55 pm

Ooh, love this. Sarah Rees Brennan and David Levithan come to mind as two other distinct YA voices. I’d love to see Megan’s style takes on them!

Haven’t found my fiction voice yet — I’ve done a lot of ping-ponging, influenced by what I was reading when nudged by the plot bunny in question (including DEATHLESS!) — but I *do* think I’ve developed an academic voice over these 3.5 years of grad school. (The never-ending degree has given me lots of practice at academic writing.) Now that I’m thinking about it, I wonder if any of that might translate to fiction. *ponders*

PS. Dreamed the other night that I was stranded / lost in the biggest Kate Spade store of all time. It was surprisingly distressing.


Rebecca T February 12, 2013 at 1:26 pm

Urgh…. voice! Oh goodness yes, it’s such a “thing” that you have to figure out and do, but no one really knows how! You give a lot of great analogies and I think it’s so true that you just have to pay attention to the voices that stand out to you, but that you can’t emulate them, just use them for inspiration.

I smiled a little bit at Sarah G.’s comment because I was going to say (even before I saw her post) that I actually discovered my fiction voice from becoming a freshman English professor. The first complement I got on my writing voice was on my first syllabus as a TA and I totally see how that has helped me find my fiction voice.

It’s amazing the road we take to get places!


Rebecca B February 12, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Two things I love: Lola, and Kate Spade. The voices of each are so perfect together!
I wouldn’t have thought to compare personal style in voice and fashion, but what a great comparison.


Ghenet Myrthil February 12, 2013 at 9:09 pm

Such a fun post! Like Rebecca, I also love the Lola and Kate Spade comparison. So spot on!


Jessie Humphries March 13, 2013 at 6:51 pm

Holy handbags! I feel like I just got a serious education on fashion. And somewhat sheepish that I just bought an owl tank at the Rack yesterday! Umm, maybe I need to work on catching up. You must live in New York! And if/when I get a deal, I’m buying myself a gorgeously bright Kate Spade purse to reward myself! :)


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