Finding a writing voice can be a struggle, whether you’re writing a novel, short story, flash fiction or a blog post. Some may even wonder, what is voice in writing? A writer’s voice is something uniquely their own. It makes their work pop, plus readers recognize the familiarity. You would be able to identify the difference between Tolkien and Hemingway, wouldn’t you? It’s the way they write; their voice, in writing, is as natural as everyone’s speaking voice. Your voice should be authentic, even if you borrow a sense of style from your favorite author. But remember, voice and style are two entirely different things.
When you find that unique voice, you might not even be able to explain how it came about—let alone describe what it is. That’s the beauty of writing and discovering as you write. Sometimes the best things just happen naturally. In his book Writing the Breakout Novel, literary agent Donald Maass discusses developing a writing voice, it’s importance and where it comes from:
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“I am looking for authors with a distinctive voice.” I hear that from editors over lunch almost as often as I hear, “I am looking for big, well-written thrillers.”
What the heck is “voice”? By this, do editors mean “style”? I do not think so. By voice, I think they mean not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre. They want to read an author who is like no other. An original. A standout. A voice.
How can you develop your voice? To some extent it happens all by itself. Stories come from the subconscious. What drives you to write, to some extent, are your own unresolved inner conflicts. Have you noticed your favorite authors have character types that recur? Plot turns that feel familiar? Descriptive details that you would swear you have read before (a yellow bowl, a slant of light, an inch of cigarette ash)? That is the subconscious at work.
You can facilitate voice by giving yourself the freedom to say things in your own unique way. You do not talk exactly like anyone else, right? Why should you write like everyone else?
Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson has a unique voice. His cyber-sensibility comes through in his very choice of words. At the beginning of his 1992 novel Snow Crash, Stephenson introduces his pizza-delivery hero and, in this passage, his car:
The Deliverator’s car has enough potential energy packed into its batteries to fire a pound of bacon into the Asteroid Belt. Unlike a bimbo box or a Burb beater, the Deliverator’s car unloads that power through gaping, gleaming, polished sphincters. When the Deliverator puts the hammer down, shit happens. You want to talk contact patches? Your car’s tires have tiny contact patches, talk to the asphalt in four places the size of your tongue. The Deliverator’s car has big sticky tires with contact patches the size of a fat lady’s thighs. The Deliverator is in touch with the road, starts like a bad day, stops on a peseta.
Another distinctive voice in science fiction belongs to my client Nalo Hopkinson, a Jamaican Canadian who not only envisions the future, but who envisions the future of people of color in Creole-spiced prose that is as flavorful as gumbo. Her 1998 debut novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, won her the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, a stunning collection of reviews, and is in its fourth printing. In her 2000 novel Midnight Robber, Hopkinson pushes her voice even further. Its opening paragraphs introduce a storyteller narrator and the novel’s heroine, the Midnight Robber:
Oho. Like it starting, oui? Don’t be frightened, sweetness; is for the best. I go be with you the whole time. Trust me and let me distract you a little bit with one anasi story:
It had a woman, you see, a strong, hard-back woman with skin like cocoa-tea. She two foot-them tough from hiking through the diable bush, the devil bush on the prison planet of New Half-Way Tree. When she walk, she foot strike the hard earth bup! like breadfruit dropping to the ground. She two arms hard with muscle from all the years of hacking paths through the diable bush on New Half-Way Tree. Even she hair itself rough and wiry; long black knotty locks springing from she scalp and corkscrewing all the way down she back. She name Tan-Tan, and New Half-Way Tree she planet.
That said, it is worth noting that the voice of many bestselling authors is as neutral as a national news anchor’s accent. Some say it takes blandness of style to break out; or rather, to rub so few people the wrong way that millions can read the author without any discomfort. My own feeling is that voice is a natural attribute. You no more control it than you can control the color of your eyes—nor would you want to. Plenty of breakout authors have a distinctive voice.
To set your voice free, set your words free. Set your characters free. Most important, set your heart free. It is from the unknowable shadows of your subconscious that your stories will find their drive and from which they will draw their meaning. No one can loan that or teach you that. Your voice is your self in the story.
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A writer’s voice can vary, too, particularly when crossing genres of fiction (and nonfiction). You probably wouldn’t write a romance novel the same way that you write crime. If you’re looking to develop a consistent voice, try reading a lot of works by one author—look for patterns (and inspiration). Some of my personal favorites are Cormac McCarthy, Chuck Palahniuk and Colson Whitehead. Generally, they keep a similar style and voice across all of their novels.
It could be as simple as practicing free writing. It might mean trying exercises to find the particular voice you are looking for. For example, if your narrator is your protagonist, you might want to try develop a unique voice for him that stands out from your own. I like to come up with characteristics or traits of that narrator and create statements as if that character was saying them. “I’m a smoker.” “I have anger issues.” “I’m an insomniac.” What do these traits tell you about that character? What naturally flows from your fingertips as you write these statements? You can find out a lot about your character’s voice, or your own writing voice, by writing everything that comes to mind. By writing what’s natural. Just remember to keep writing.
For more practical guidance on mastering the most indispensable writing techniques, check out Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass.