Sunday, October 23, 2011

Writing Advice 18 — Voice




Perhaps the hardest thing for a writer to develop, outside of an imagination, is their voice. It is also one of the greatest contributing factors toward making them successful. Some might call it a style, but I think it is actually more of a sub-set to style, just as fantasy is a sub set of fiction and urban fantasy is a sub-set of that and so on—so to, a voice is a specific style within styles that is unique to a writer’s personality.  

Voice is an allusive thing, and it isn’t anything you can be taught. Nor is it something you’re born with. It is something you have to develop over time, like self-confidence, which is mostly what the voice is. The courage to let who you are come through. It is the way you tell a story, the attitude of the writer.

Most aspiring writers work to be like others—their literary heroes. As such they miss the point and kill most of their chances of success. Readers don’t want to read the same thing, they want something new and they known when another author is being copied. The immediate reaction is to try and come up with something completely new, something—original. Only this is like saying that because you’re tired of the same choices of food for lunch, you’re going to try finding something to eat that isn’t in the food groups—maybe dirt? The fact is, there are an infinite number of ways to reuse story elements, but most importantly—it doesn’t matter what your story is about, how cliché, or tired so long as you bring a new voice to it.

Vampires—there I said it. How many books, movies and tv shows have reused this idea. Evil vampires, good vampires, evil vampires wanting to be good, traditional vampires, realistic vampire, funny vampires…there’s a lot of vampires out there. I thought the definitive statement on vampires was made by Stephen King back in 1975, when he applied the classic legend to the modern world in a realistic manner in his book Salem’s Lot. But then Annie Rice came along, and later Joss Whedon.

And certainly no one needed another fantasy coming of age tale about a boy destined for  greatness, mentored by a wizard, prophesied  to defeat a dark lord, but then you had J. K. Rowling. Same story, but very different way of telling the tale.

These are just as much examples of combining aspects of different stories to create a new thing, but they are also examples of voice.

Stephen King writes nothing like Bram Stoker. They both tell very similar stories using the same creature, but King brings his very recognizable voice to it. And just like a real voice, other writers can do impressions. I once re-wrote a story doing an impression of Stephen King and when my wife read it, she instantly recognized the imitated voice. King has such a strong voice it is like Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, or Peter Lorre—just about anyone can do it. I think the strength of his voice is also what made him so successful. People relate well to it.  

So what exactly am I talking about? That’s a bit hard to say since it is different for everyone. King’s voice is heavily reflective—all his characters think a lot, and in ways that are random-comparative, very blunt and personal, and steeped in their time. He pushes the technique, of how to define a character by how they see the world, to extremes, not only letting you hear the raw and deepest thoughts of a character, but also going a bit over the top. Few King characters are boring or typical, they all have extreme personalities.

Consider Arthur Conan Doyle for contrast. His Holmes series are all written in the head of Watson, but the presentation is very proper and hands-off. Watson may very well get angry, but the thoughts he thinks on paper are held in check. He doesn’t swear, or think “Man what an officious little prick Holmes is being,” the way a King character might.

Ayn Rand has a grandeur to her tone. Everything, no matter how insignificant is raised up to lofty heights. Hemmingway is the opposite of both King and Rand. I don’t think he ever even uses character reflection as a tool. His voice has the monotone, fact-based baritone of a news anchor or Joe Friday. And then of course there is one of the most definable and imitated voices of all—Raymond Chandler, who defined the tough-guy reflective voice to such a degree that it has become synonymous with film-noir  detective stories, even those written by other authors like Dashiell Hammett, who had completely different styles.

The fact that I can describe these author’s voices is a testament to their strength. By contrast many writers sound alike. They often hide their voice, too timid to let it come through. They write the story with no flourish, no style. J. D. Salinger, didn’t have that problem. Catcher In The Rye starts out with a ton of flourish.

Still, a voice isn’t something you can learn from anyone. It has to come from inside you—the accumulation of your own personality, your own view of life, your own attitude toward storytelling, and the distilled sum of all that you have managed to glean from other authors. Oftentimes, it is invisible to you until someone else points it out.

I copied the styles of dozens of authors looking for my voice. I failed to find it. It wasn’t until I was saturated with the experience of understanding the various methods and tones of other writers, but then cast them all aside and gave up looking in order to just write for myself, that I found it. And like listening to your own voice on a recorder, I didn’t recognize it and I’m still trying to define what I am hearing as me.

I’ve had other writers imitate me—I know this because they told me they were stealing my style. First I was flattered. Second—my style? I have a style? I read their imitation and just like hearing an impressionist, I thought, “really, that’s supposed to be me?” Then I thought about it and realized they’re right, I do do that, don’t I? Until that moment, I never realized I had a specific voice, but I realize now that those aspects of my writing are the things that come most easily, so easily, I never noticed. But those are the things that people point to—not what I thought were wonderful prose, not the great metaphors—those things I struggled with—no one cared about those things.

I know writers who achieved their first publication, and freeze up as they consider their next piece. After years of struggle, or trying every combination possible, like Edison and his light bulb filament, they finally captured lightning in a bottle. But how can you do that a second time, when you aren’t sure how you did it the first time? The pressure mounts when you realize that the second piece you do, whether it is a book or a short story, has to be better than the first just to be seen as “as good,” because everyone else is asking the same question that the author is asking themselves. “Can I do it again, or was that just a fluke?” The common mistake is that a sophomore author tries to write as good as they can, going back to imitating others, when what made the first work great was that they knew how to write. For that one moment they discovered their own voice and it clicked. The trick then is to trust in your voice, relax and just let it come through. I think that when the writing comes easy, you’re on the right track. You might not think it is significantly beautiful or impressive, because it is not similar to the style, or voice of other authors that you might admire or respect, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Most likely, you won’t ever see just how good or distinct your voice is until someone else points it out to you and says, this—this is why I love your writing, and I just wish I could do that, too.

At this point you might blink and say, “Really? You liked that?”

“I love that. How do you do it?”

Then you’ll scratch your head. “I dunno. I wasn’t even trying, it just sorta comes out that way a lot of the time. It just feels right when I do it.”

So developing your style, or your voice, I feel is something that comes with time, with study and experience. It is the journey to find yourself in your writing, and once found, to accept and embrace what you discover. I know this sounds a bit metaphysical, but it sort of is. Writing a story is a bit like being Dr. Frankenstein. You collect parts from other bodies and sew them together, but when you’re done, all you really have is a piecemeal corpse. You need to breathe life into it, and to do that you have to give something of yourself. You need to draw from your own experiences, painful, happy, embarrassing, angry moments and have the courage to place them on a page. If you make yourself cry, you’ll touch others. Make yourself laugh and they will, too. Once you learn this, you’ll keep dumping more and more of yourself into the words and without knowing it, when you read it back it becomes a mirror, and that reflection, that thing you see, that is your voice—that is you. 

Next up: Combining the Real and the Unreal


10 comments:

  1. You suck. Thats all I have to say.

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  2. A little more information might be helpful. Would you say I suck in the useful manner of a suction cup or plunger; the helpful disposal manner of a drain; or the more grandiose and awe destruction power of a monster black hole?

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  3. I might be referring to a vampire story. I might be saying it in a useful manner, I might be saying it in a grandiose manner. The beauty of the statement is that my lack of voice allows it to mean whatever you want it to.

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  4. So if you lose your confidence as a writer... is it possible to lose your voice? Interesting thought. Nice post, Sullivan I enjoyed it.

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  5. Yes. I have laryngitis. I must immediately start drinking alcohol and take enough sudephed to kill an elephant.

    p.s. Jess-You dont suck.

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  6. Great post. Some writers speak in circles when giving their advice. You were very clear and concise on your advice.

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  7. I don't know how related this is but getting the voice of your characters right is pretty important too. That's what turned me off Palahniuk - I read Invisible Monsters first and when I read Fight Club I just couldn't get over how the male narrator had the exact same tone and general psychology as the disfigured beauty queen in the first book.

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  8. I found the information, throughout your posts, very helpful and quite clear. Your advice helped me gain a better perspective on the tools of creative writing and own inhibitions. Would also like to add that NADIR,in Arabic, means rare. Many thanks for such a rare encounter.

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  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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