Finding Your Voice
It can take courage to be yourself on the page. If you are writing “primly” or “correctly,” that can feel safe. Who can find fault with a voice that sounds carefully generic? But the story written generically isn’t going to come out very exciting, is it? More likely, your entire book will sound stilted or overwritten.
When I was a new writer, that was me, trying to make sure my books – even my dialogue – sounded grammatically correct. We all know that nobody speaks that way in real life. But this was a Book – with a capital B. It has to be perfect, right? Wrong. It had to be real, and authentic. Which is not the same thing. Knowing the tools of writing and being able to use them lays the groundwork for being able to write well, but if that was all it took, computers could write novels better than people. It’s the choices you make, the ways in which you break the rules to say more powerful things that is important. It wasn’t until I let my characters start talking like real people that their personalities started shining through. Even as my characters became more individual, and my writing style became looser and more comfortable, I started enjoying writing a lot more.
Developing your voice means writing in a way that is distinctive. You are making art, just as much as a painter or a sculptor. You can tell a Van Gough from the brush strokes. You can often tell a specific writer’s work from the use (or lack) of poetic language, the way diction and syntax are used, even from the length of sentences.
People get caught up on how valuable their ideas are. But ideas are a dime a dozen. Voice is so much more important. You could take a room full of writers and let them each write a story based on the same idea – and you would get a room full of different stories developed by the different voices telling them. Some of them might be clunky or raw, and give you characters full of pain and desperation, while others might be poetic and deep, leaving you thinking about the story days later. There might be spare stories, that get their events across with a minimum of fuss. And stories that run like rivers through narrators engaged in stream of consciousness. And they’re all valid interpretations. Which is the beauty of art.
Different writers also tend to focus on different aspects of an idea. This is why you can have a million different romance novels, and a million different cozy mysteries. Certain elements of the plot in those genres are predetermined. But the specifics of finding love, or finding justice are different through the eyes of each protagonist. The details of HOW these things happen, and WHY they are important are what turn the idea into a unique story. Your voice will determine the type of characters who people your story, and how your audience will react to them. Your voice will determine what your narrator notices about the story world, whether the story feels comic or tragic, and so much more.
Think about how you use the elements that make up voice. It basically boils down to vocabulary, point of view, tone and syntax. Don’t let these come together haphazardly. Instead, create a coherent world view or personality for the narrator in your story, even if that narrator isn’t a character in the story. Some elements of voice transcend individual stories (look at Hemmingway – his prose always has certain elements), while others will serve to make that story world unique from other things you have written.
Work to develop your voice, just as singers train their literal voices. What elements do you like from different authors you have read? How can you bring those elements together to create something that is distinctly you? How can you get comfortable on the page, let your own personality as an author shine through?
If you want to learn more about developing your voice, join us for Saturday Night write on February 20, 2021. More details are in the Facebook Event.
(The picture was taken in Deep Ellum while heading home.)