When I first caught the writing bug in my junior year of high school, I wanted to be the next Stephen King. But after trying my hand at a number of short stories, I quickly came to a realization. There was only one Stephen King. King’s voice was unique, as well as his way of crafting memorable characters, engaging settings, and suspenseful plots.
Even several years later, when I began to submit work to magazine editors and book publishers, I was aware that a distinctive literary voice is one of the main factors that makes for marketability and longevity in one’s writing career. It is also the thing that gives your fiction, or nonfiction, an endearing and enduring quality; one that lingers long after the reading of your story, book, or article is finished.
All writers may wish to emulate King, Grisham, Patterson, or dozens of other authors, but when it all comes down to it, the only one you can or ever will be is, quite simply, you. So, how do you develop that voice and put it into practice? Here are a few tips that may help.
1. Variety is the spice of life… and reading
Remember your grandmother’s spice rack? All the different aromas and tastes in those little bottles? Each and every one was distinct. Nutmeg didn’t smell like oregano, and garlic didn’t taste like cinnamon. It is the same with narrative.
Writers work in the same fictional genres and journalist styles as countless others, but it is their individual flavor that differentiates them from their peers. If everyone had the ability or desire to write like Hemingway, Faulkner, or Vonnegut, that particular uniqueness of narrative would lose its appeal and soon grow bland and tasteless.
Find your individual spice and flavor your prose in a way no one else can. Attempt to make each sentence and paragraph you write singular to your own distinctive voice.
2. Embrace your roots
Remember the old adage, “Write what you know?” In most cases, that’s not a bad idea. If you live in the mountains of Tennessee, you may not fare so well attempting to craft a story set on the coast of Maine or in the desert of Arizona. I’m not saying it is impossible to pull it off, but it may be difficult to accomplish convincingly.
The same goes for characterization and dialogue. Drawing from people you grew up with or know personally—how they act and speak—adds authenticity to your cast of characters … puts flesh and muscle on their bones. And since they are a reflection of your skill as an author, it gives your literary voice more strength and stability.
If Harper Lee had written Atticus Finch as an affluent New York attorney, rather than a small-town Southern lawyer, the result would have probably been nonsensical and unconvincing. Instead it was memorable and legendary.
3. Draw from experience
Life experience can be invaluable in forging your writing voice. Places you have traveled to, people you have met and encountered, all can contribute to winsome storytelling.
If you are writing a book or article about mountain climbing and you have climbed mountains yourself, that knowledge and depth of experience will likely shine through during the course of your work. When writing fiction, personal experiences, even tragedy or trauma, can fortify your voice in the narrative and can give it undeniable credibility.
4. Branding is a good thing … for some
When writing genre fiction, your brand (label, tag, etc.) can signify the type of work you specialize in and identify your particular voice in that chosen genre. Since I am a horror author, my individual brand is “Southern-Fried Horror.”
This is mainly because my stories and novels take place in my home state of Tennessee and other Southern states and locales (the Appalachian Mountains, Georgia pine forests, and the bayous of Louisiana). Through this “brand,” my voice has been established and readers know precisely what to expect as far as the type of fiction I offer. The same goes for authors of romance, western, and thriller fiction.
However, some authors would rather not be pigeonholed in a particular genre. Author Joe R. Lansdale, for instance, has written everything from horror to Western, to dark crime to noir, throughout his long career, so it would be pointless to try and brand him as the writer of any single genre.
5. Practice, practice… and practice some more
For most authors, establishing their voice and solidifying it in the consciousness of their reading audience can be a daunting task. For others, it comes naturally. Like anything else you strive to excel in, practice makes perfect (or as close to it as you can get).
Attempt to write consistently with the type of narrative that makes your work live and breathe. Read reviews of your work; study what readers enjoy—or don’t—concerning your narrative.
Keeping a journal can also help. Simply writing in your own personal voice and reading it back to yourself can give you a true sense of how you relate to life’s situations and, in turn, give you clues as to how to incorporate that into your individual storytelling ability.
So, you see, building a solid and appealing “writer’s voice” can be achieved in a variety of ways. The goal is to hook readers and get them on board for whatever present and future projects possess your byline. The uniqueness of your narrative is one of the greatest advantages you can have for accomplishing that and continuously keeping readers coming back for more.