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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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