46. Don’t worry about finding your voice

 

His_Master's_Voice

Here’s the bottom line – don’t worry about finding your voice, you never lost it. They tell aspiring writers you have to find your voice. Ignore the fear. Just write like yourself, not copying other writers, and you’ll be writing in your voice. No two people write alike, just like no two people speak alike.
The dread command “find your own voice” is as mystifying as it is unsettling. But your “voice” really doesn’t mean any more than the style in which you write, your typical choice of words, and the (usually recurring) issues you care about. Some writers have voices which are light and fast, others are descriptive and meandering, some are dark and brooding. All you need to do to see a writer’s voice is to look at how they write. For instance, this opening of a book:

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge Signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a doornail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a doornail.

The voice is rambling, and wordy, inviting the reader into a conversation. It couldn’t be anyone but Dickens. Of course, part of the reason for his wordiness is that his books first appeared as serials, and he was paid by the word!

In contrast, consider this, an opening from a completely different book:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

Here the voice is spare and lean. This is the voice of that champion of plain English, George Orwell. But note how the clock striking thirteen immediately tells us we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Voice is more than just style, and the style may vary depending on the kind of story. You probably wouldn’t use the same style for a crime novel and a romance novel. A distinctive voice is also created by the recurring moods and themes in a writer’s work. Both Dickens and Orwell were concerned, in their very different ways, with social justice. You may have to write for quite some time before you can spot the recurring themes and characters your subconscious dishes up. A distinctive mood is very characteristic of writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, whose magic realism style mingles different planes of reality.

Many years later as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would display new inventions.

So the secret of finding your voice is just to tell the story in your own way, and make sure not to be boring. It’s nothing more than that.

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4 thoughts on “46. Don’t worry about finding your voice

    1. Well that’s the million dollar question, Paula. If there was a formula for that we’d all be rich. But basically it’s the whole craft of writing – creating characters that engage the reader, situations that grip them, descriptions that transport them to your setting, writing that is well-paced, the right mixture of showing and telling, compelling dialogue, etc., etc.

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  1. Thanks, Neil. I know I asked a mouthful with that one. BTW, your insights on showing vs. telling would be valuable right about now. I tend to be coy with the telling the reader what my characters’s motivations and reactions are, preferring to hint at them through action. It can come off as coy and frustrates literal-minded readers who want to be told what is being felt by the characters and why. I tend to feel as a writer that I want it to be apparent through action and dialog (as it is in a movie), yet as a reader I enjoy being told a character’s inner feelings, as long as it isn’t overexplained. So my dilemma now is, how much interiority to tell, and how much to leave unspoken in favor of showing? Again, I tend to err on the side of being enigmatic, to judge by some recent comments I’ve received from MOOC historical fiction group members who started up a critique group. If I satisfy everyone’s need for an explanation, the whole novel would be one big explanation (she groused).

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  2. Hi Paula,
    I don’t know of any general answer to this dilemma. Sometimes showing is the right thing to do, and sometimes telling. Of course, with incidental details, always tell – nobody wants paragraphs of showing while you walk your character down a street. If, on the other hand, the walk isn’t incidental, often showing is better. For example, if your character is going on that walk because she’s showing off her new man, we want to feel her pride and nervousness, we want to see her response to the way her neighbours look at her. The general principle, I guess, is that when you tell you’re distancing the reader for your character, whereas when you show we’re identifying with the character and her emotions and thoughts. Thoughts are an interesting point. Unlike in a movie, where all the director has available is showing, in writing we can describe thoughts as well as actions. When you describe a thought are you showing or telling? I don’t think that question matters so much as whether it takes us out of the character’s viewpoint and into the narrator’s. It’s all in how it’s done. I’m interested that you find your showing is enigmatic. “John was angry when he thought about his wife leaving him” is a clear, but emotionally flat telling. But I can show exactly the same information with more punch. “John looked back in the supermarket queue and something punched his stomach from the inside. The woman behind was wearing exactly the dress Sonya had worn when she walked out on him. His fists balled.” Showing doesn’t have to miss out any information, or become enigmatic. Is the problem not showing vs telling, but rather whether you’re painting a full picture of your characters, their histories and their motivations?

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