Finding Your Voice in the Digital Age

What the hell is "Voice," anyway?

So who asked me? Sometimes I just can’t help myself, but in this case, I actually waited for someone more “qualified” to answer, but no one did.

It was on a forum I follow there are several threads deal with the arts and one deals specifically with literary art. Out of the blue, the following question popped up: “How do you find your voice as a writer in the digital age?”

I had my own opinions, but kept my mouth shut for quite a while, knowing there were a number of narrow gauge authors on this forum better qualified to answer the question than I, but after a couple days of the sound of crickets, I eventually popped off, unable to contain myself any longer.

Yeah, I know…Say it isn’t so…Dirk has an opinion? He does, and that opinion follows.

When you use the term voice, may I assume that you mean what you’ll often hear critics & acquisitions agents refer to when they use the term? I’m going to go out on a limb and guess your answer is yes, and respond accordingly, with the following caveat emptor. What follows is my opinion, as an independently published author of modest success with several books currently in print.

Let me lead with my answer, & follow up with an explanation. You “find” your voice by writing. I think that has always been true and don’t see the digital age as changing that. The times in which we live surely color that experience, but they don’t change the process.

You will often read or hear literary and acquisitions agents refer to finding someone with a “unique” voice. When you break that down, what they really seem to mean is someone with a marketable difference from what is currently available in (you fill in the blank) genre. I don’t say this to be cynical. There are both artistic and practical reasons for their emphasis. There really is such a thing, and it does matter, but at its best, it seems to me that it’s so elusive, so almost indefinable that focusing on it almost defeats the purpose.

Finding your "Voice..."

Here’s the good news. If we’re writers, we all have a “voice.” It’s not now and never has been lost, so we don’t need to find it. What we need to do is develop it and refine it. Voice is a little like sedimentary rock. It’s built up, layer by layer. An incomplete list of things that go into voice are:

  1. How what we read influences the way we write. What we read informs not only our attitudes, but how we are inclined to express ourselves. This is true even when we’re making no conscious effort to develop our own writing style. Without conscious effort, we pick up turns of phrase and literary artistry that we encounter as we read and adapt them to our own writing.
  2. How our world view influences our choice of themes. In the same way that what we read influences our attitudes, those attitudes then emerge in the form of themes that are woven into the stories we write. If we are growing as authors, both our writing and the themes implicit in them become more nuanced over time as we what we’ve learned from others influences our own thinking.
  3. How your point of view character(s) reveals the author’s views. The characters in our writing often act as mouthpieces or guides in the stories we write. As a consequence, who we choose as characters, how they speak, act and what they value emerges and evolves as we grow artistically and (hopefully) intellectually.
  4. What you choose to write. All of the foregoing then gets folded into the stories we tell if we’re writing fiction, or if non-fiction, the topics we choose to address head-on.
  5. The technical elements of your writing. (word choice, cadence, description, etc). Every author experiences this. The more we write, the better we become at it. Our word choice becomes more precise and over time, our language often becomes more economical as the natural outgrowth of that precision. Sentence structure becomes more varied and our use of cadence and pace becomes consistently more suited to expressing the mood of whatever passage we’re writing.


So how do you find your "Voice?"

You get out in the world and watch people, experience things and are shaped by those experiences. You do things that fire your soul, learn things that absorb your full attention and you ask yourself why, and why not and then when you stir all of that together in a story reflecting that passion.

You populate that story with nuanced, flawed characters in interesting situations. Characters who grow or shrink before the readers’ eyes and (hopefully) teach readers some fundamental truth(s) that leave them breathless or reflecting thoughtfully for days, or minimally, entertain them.

Then you promote and market the hell out of your first book while you write the next story and the next and the one after that. You learn just how hard it is to do both and not burn out. And each time, your voice refines itself through the painful effort of opening your veins and bleeding truth as you see it, agonizing over each turn of phrase, each image, and each scene.

At some point, you will recognize you will never find your voice, because it’s like the rabbit at the greyhound track. It will always be faster than you are. The good news is, it will develop without you making a conscious project of it. Do your best work and your voice will evolve as you do.

Dirk Sayers is a retired Marine officer, retired corporate trainer/executive and the author of West of Tomorrow, Best Case Scenario and Through the Windshield, all currently available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. Tier Zero, the pilot volume of his upcoming science fiction series of first contact will be out toward the end of 2019

At the Intersection of Art and Life

The Author's Journey...

The author (left) reading at Lit-Up, Orange County

Starting out...

When I first seriously considered how to go about realizing my life-long ambition of being a published author, I did what most would-be authors do & started writing while concurrently  researching how to get published traditionally. Almost the first thing I ran across in my research was the need to establish a “platform.” In one reputable publication for writers, I learned that a platform was, my visibility as an author, some components of which were:

  1. Who I am
  2. My personal and professional “connections.”
  3. Any media outlets I could utilize to sell books.
  4. Who my likely readers are/where I can find them
  5. What interests them

I can’t speak for other authors, but I found this definition (or more accurately description) something of a buzz-kill. There is clearly a business side to being an author, unless you’re independently wealthy and can afford to publish indefinitely, without a return on the investment of your time and/or the cost of publishing.

But building a “platform” is hard and time-consuming work. Don’t believe me? Try it. I’ll even give you a few of the steps, if you like. Start by developing an editorial calendar. Yeah, I do have one an no, I don’t always stick to it, even though I know I should. (Not sticking to your editorial calendar is one of the things sure to makesbuilding a platform hard, btw).

Once you have that calendar in place, try coming up with something interesting to say, on a regular basis…something at once thoughtful, thought-provoking. Now publish it on several platforms, tailoring it to what you think is the likely audience there also (hopefully) interested in what’s likely to be in your next book. Oh…you don’t know who might read your books? Go back and revisit items 4 & 5, above. (And don’t skip it, next time).

Every day is a winding road...

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash and Peter Danka

By now, I’m sure you getting the message. It’s a tortuous and painful road, fraught with distractions, pitfalls, relative poverty and oceans of angst, when it doesn’t pan out. And it won’t. Over and over again it won’t pan out and you’ll not only question the worthwhile nature of your dream but your ability to realize it and your own worth in consequence. 

And you’ll confront another uncomfortable truth. There are people out there who simply don’t like to read. Or they don’t like to read what you write, or what you write makes them think & deep down, they really don’t want to do that, after working all day. And if you’re serious about promoting yourself, you’re going to be talking about what you do, even when you’d rather not. 

Some people will perk up, at first, when you tell them you’re an author. It isn’t the common answer, so they want to know more. But as soon as you tell them that:

  1. You’re still working on it and aren’t sure when it will be out, or
  2. They’ve never read what you’ve written and won’t.

Some will look at you like you need your skull candled and change the subject. Others won’t say it, but they think “loser who thinks they’re a writer and don’t know any better.” You’re just another failure, who isn’t very good at what they and dismiss you without another thought, even if you’re a “friend.” At first, it hurts. Don’t think it doesn’t. But in the end, it doesn’t matter.

No one starts out with a lot of total strangers (or even close friends or family) believing in you. Get used to it. It will happen almost daily.What does  matter is that you believe in yourself and that’s true whether you’re striving to be an author, a painter or sculptor or poet. You must learn to believe in yourself and this is never more true than when you’re the only one left who does.

That’s not easy. No, that’s not entirely accurate. It’s almost impossibly difficult, after a few years.

Trust me, on this one. Unless you’re one of the almost unbelievably rare individuals who hits the first time, you will at some point, lose faith in yourself and doubt your ability to make whatever it is you’re pursuing stick. And if you happen to hit it the first time, you will forever live in terror that you’ll be a one-hit wonder…that your next work will flop.

Life's what happens while you're making other plans...

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash and Hans Peter Gauster

Meanwhile, the distractions of life and the imperatives of each day will distract you. If you’re an artist, those distractions will be that much stronger. That’s because deep down, most people consume art in any form casually. When they have time. And that, in it’s turn, is because art moves them only rarely or not at all. Few stories or paintings make our hearts souls soar, or put a lump in their throat.

But that is the mission of the artist. To put that empathy, love, insight or epiphany back in the mundane. It’s always been hard, but in our matter of fact, fast-paced world, it has arguably become an almost insurmountable task. Please not the choice of “almost.” That it is hard is precisely the reason we must keep striving for that which fires other souls.

Artists, whether authors, painters, sculptors or dancers strive (or should) to create those rare moments in which life and art intersect. For it is in those moments that we are most profoundly human and most profoundly ourselves. At our best, we are the catalysts of the heart and the birthers of truth. As painful as that may be, it is the life we chose. It is our task to be true to the call.

Dirk is the author of West of Tomorrow, a contemporary tale of corporate intrigue, romance and the phoenix living in all of us. Best Case Scenario is the first volume in a New Adult/coming of Age series, following the growth of Nyra Westensee, millennial college graduate in search of personal and professional identity, and Through the Windshield, a collection of short fiction some previously published, others in print for the first timeAll are currently available on Amazon.