FINDING YOUR VOICE
When I first started to write, I did what many writers do and sought out trying to write in the same vein of other authors I read. Naturally, these first offerings were very much the same in style and content as those I sought to emulate, more an echo of sorts–a poor one I might add–then any really unique work. I was trying to "make the text work" to get the story to "feel real." In short, I was trying to tell the story in a way that made it "feel" and "read" like a "real" story. These were all terms and concepts that were hard for me to explain, let along understand–thus the ethereal nature of what I as trying to do and say. As I got older and better at my writing, I realized what I was really looking for was my "voice" as a writer.
To put it simply, the voice of the writer is the one we hear when we read their work. The voice has a unique quality all its own. How the narrative is established, the choices of phrases used, story flow, character development, and a whole host of things all come to be mixed into something of a vocal quality you can "hear" when you read. It's the author's voice that, like their own existence, is totally unique to them and thus sets them apart from others in the field. Even in the same genre you have many different voices who, if read side by side, would allow you to pick out differences that help set them apart. And it is that voice which is so key to your overall success and happiness (I think anyway) as an author.
You might ask yourself why I'm writing about finding your voice. It's not a common question I get from people I encounter. More want to know how to write–the mechanics and practices–get advice on how to get better, etc. And that's good and helpful, but only to a point. You can get all the great advice and input you want but if you don't do anything with it you won't get much use out of it. And that is what finding your voice is all about. It's one thing to know grammar and how to set scenes, build story, and so forth, and still another to know how to put it together in an interesting and engaging way that makes it seem organic and just plain attractive.
I never fully got this myself until I was in my junior year in high school. I had started to write when I was twelve and from then on really just aped what had came before me as I read. And while that got me some practice the stories I wrote just didn't have any punch or pizzazz to them. I was looking to write them like this author did or that one did and so my work was a very poor example of them when I got through. I now can look back and see this was because it wasn't me writing them but me writing like another author writing the tales. It just didn't work. It was too mechanical and forced. This all changed, however, when I started taking a creative writing class. It was there that I had an epiphany. I suddenly found my voice as a writer and since then I've been honing it to get better with each work. And it's that understanding on how I found my voice I want to pass on to you. Because when you find your own voice as a writer you'll be more excited about your work. It will seem more real and authentic to you because it will be your own "voice" sharing the tale. You won't be mimicking anyone else but will be a new, true voice to attract people to what you're saying. Best of all it will be a reward to your readers who will notice this authenticity of your work and be better able to get into and enjoy it.
Now, just like we all have our own speech patterns, dialects, and turns of phrases we've picked up from our parents, region in which we live, and social circles, so too an author's voice is a collection of what they have exposed themselves to. For example, when I started writing I read a lot of Stephen King who set up my idea of how stories should and should not be. I picked up a bit of his concepts here and there and used them in my stories. I then found other authors and took to their own way of doing things: Robert Howard's actions scenes and setting of moods I liked early on; Weis and Hickman's use of dialogue and characterization, and other things from other authors along the way.
I didn't know it at the time, but as I was picking things up from them as I merged this information with my own way of thinking and doing things. You'll find, like I did, I tended to like to open scenes a certain way, have things be explained in a certain way, and even had favored words or methods of narration that just seemed more "at home" to my way of speaking. These things, coupled with the other authors I read, took to forming the beginnings of my own unique voice as a writer.
Now, I suppose it wise to step aside for a moment and mention that not all of our mannerisms, phrases, and ways of speaking are good. Just like any good public speaker looks to eliminate the "mmms", "ahhhs", and other repetitive words or phrases that can take away from what is being said, so too must the author learn what is unneeded and remove that from his writing. This is an ongoing process you'll be doing throughout your career. I'm constantly picking stuff up and looking to get better, always seeing things that can be shaved off here or pulled around this way or that to make what I'm saying more clear and engaging.
One person who will really help you hone your voice is an editor. They'll help you see where you're coming short and lead you in ways to get better at your work. I know when I started getting published I really learned to appreciate the editors working with me. I was too close to the work, like many people, and couldn't always see what they did. When they took the time to point things out and offer suggestions for improvement I learned and my voice grew stronger because of it. In much the same way a speaker watches himself on video or listens to himself on a recording, getting some input from those who see outside your viewpoint is very helpful.
I didn't have an editor when I first started out, only beginning to get feedback when I took that creative writing class in high school. And when I started to put pen to paper in that class I found something amazing had happened. I was writing a tale that I found uniquely my own. The process of practice and blending together from other authors, throwing out what worked and keeping what felt right to me, ended up with me having my own voice.
It was still rough and needed fine tuning but as I got more practice and honed the weaker areas in the weeks and months that followed it became something I have never been fully able to do before. This was the epiphany I mentioned earlier. For the first time it wasn't me trying to do a poor impersonation of another but it was really me talking with my own words and voice. It was a major step and something I never get tired off as I work on new projects. And it's that experience I want to encourage you to enjoy in your own writing. So with that in mind here are some things I've learned and have helped me find and fine tune my own voice. As with all things I share, you'll have to use what works for you. These are just some of my own thoughts on the matter. Take them as you will.
One thing you need to do is write how you would like the story to be told in your own words. This may seem odd to some, but there are some writers, myself included, who when they start out writing have to do things a certain way. There isn't really a formula for the perfect story. There are grammatical rules and story structure, sure (you need to have a beginning, middle, and end) but that's it. There is no rule that says you have to write your work just like this author or open your scenes a certain way, etc. Find what feels right to you and start there. Don't worry if it's still rough and wobbly in parts. You'll get better.
Use your own vocabulary. This is really part of writing in your own words. When I started writing I was coming from a non-fiction background and the proper English mindset where you were very formal and used long words and so forth. This made for a very interesting and troublesome read at times. In other ways I was aping what I thought to be the "proper British English" model and so, if you read some of my earlier work, would have wondered just what was going on. It was formal and had odd nuisances to it that didn't fit that well with how I really spoke or what a lot of Americans understood. In the same way, don't be afraid to use informal language and say things the way you would or seems the most real to you. Just understand that there are still some basic grammar structures to keep in mind when you write. Speaking and describing things in your own way and manner is a big step toward getting your voice heard in your work.
Take from others what you like. Authors steal things all the time. Heck, we're always lying if you consider whatever we write to be false from the start. So what's a few more bad traits? How do we steal? From each other and the world around us. I'm always finding interesting things and experience that I later incorporate into my work. I could overhear a conversation in the grocery store that gets me thinking, see a scene in film or on TV, read a section in a story, or other places and find myself liking them enough to incorporate them into my work. You're doing this all the time. We all are. And I did I lot of it when I first started writing. After all, when you don't know how to find your voice you go to others and look to do what they did instead.
Now, I'm not advocating plagiarism or outright theft of ideas, just taking what worked and making it your own. How, you ask? Take something like Tom Robbins' books. I was introduced to a few of them when I got started in writing by a friend and learned a few interesting things. I liked the way he didn't seem to have this sense of a predictable or even really clear plot in the stories I was reading. It lent a sort of "I want to know what happens next" quality to the tales. He also was way out there in his story. He took seemingly simple things at the beginning and added an odd twist. That spoke a lot to me for some reason. So I took the idea of having a less predictable plot and more "common seeming" settings and beginnings leading to some pretty interesting results as part of what I wanted to do with my own work. Notice I didn't steal his ideas for story, I just adopted a method of his storytelling that I thought was interesting and seemed to fit well with how I liked or wanted to tell my own stories. I repeated this process from other authors and media over the years, mixing them together with my own thinking to craft my own voice.
Don't be afraid to be yourself. This is something I had to learn in my own writing. If you're writing to please people you're never going to be happy. If you live for the praise of others you're going to be devastated when even one voices their dislike of your work. Better to just write what you want to, as you're led to, and enjoy the process. Even the best selling books in the world don't reach everyone nor do all like them. Just accept that you're writing for your own audience and that audience starts with you. If you're not happy with your work then it will show and not that many–if any–will take an interest or even enjoy what you write. It's better to enjoy your work and speak with your true voice than to try and write for what you perceive to be "better" than your true voice. Again, this isn't to say throw common sense, grammar rules, and basic story structure out the window, but rather to work within them to craft something uniquely your own. You'll be happier and so will your readers.
Finally, keep writing. This is the sure fire way to get better in all aspects of your craft. So too will this be the case with your voice. As you get more works under your belt and finish what you start (that's a big key too) then you'll get more and more polished. Just living life will enrich your voice as a writer, but it won't show unless you make it a practice to write on a continual basis. It will be hard work on some days, I know, but you'll be much better off and more pleased with your work because of it.