Agents and editors often say they’re looking for a fresh writing voice. The first time I heard that, I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. What is a voice? How did I know if I even had one? It’s like being a chef at a restaurant when an important patron walks in and says, “Just bring me something delicious.” Cue the panic!
This guest post is by Natalie Charles. Charles is the author of three romantic suspense novels and four contemporary romance novels. Her latest book, Seeking Mr. Wrong, is available now.
Here’s the thing: What the patron in the analogy is really saying is, “I’ll know it when I taste it. Give me your best.” Ultimately voice—like cuisine—is subjective. Of course you can’t guarantee that an agent or editor will connect with your writing, just like a great chef can’t guarantee that the important patron will love her best dish. All any of us can do is to create what is true and honest to ourselves and release it into the world. And that’s what it means to honor your voice.
Voice encompasses every aspect of your writing from the general (subject matter/plot) to the very specific (punctuation). It’s in your quirks and word choice, or in the subconscious decisions you make about the world you’re creating. It’s the reason you could pick up a story by Stephen King and know that it wasn’t written by, say, Maeve Binchy.
Allow me to give a visual example. Once, when I was doodling flowers, my best friend remarked, “If I ever saw that daisy, I would know you drew it.” You see, my daisy petals have always been slightly lopsided. The first few petals are fine, but then it’s like I run out of space and have to cram in the last one or two. I think of it as a kink in my brain that doesn’t allow me to draw perfectly symmetrical daisies—and I’ve tried. But for my friend, the charm of the daisies was in the flawed petals, not the perfect ones. The same is true for your readers, who will love you most when you show your humanity. Being yourself is a key to winning a following.
But of course, it’s never that simple. Sometimes we resist being who we are and stifle our voice. Who would ever want to read the stories that play in my mind? There’s nothing special about me! We add longer words and complicate our sentences, trying to come up with something profound.
I understand that compulsion to model your writing after a more successful writer. I’m never going to write like Ernest Hemingway. Or Nora Roberts. Or Toni Morrison. The best I can hope for is to write like Natalie Charles, and that’s kind of terrifying. Natalie Charles hasn’t sold millions of books or won a Nobel Prize in Literature. I don’t have thousands of adoring fans and an impressive sales history. I’m relatively unknown and untested, and being myself means pouring my heart out, being vulnerable, and knowing that some people will reject my offering—my warped daisies, if you will. It means knowing that if I have a strong voice, it’s likely to polarize readers. They’ll love it or hate it, and that’s enough to give me panic attacks.
But, this is all I have: this life, these experiences, these biases and fears and hopes. This vocabulary. Being a writer, honoring my voice, means surrendering to this truth. This is who I am. And that’s okay, because there is someone out there who is waiting to hear what I have to say, even if I’m not convinced it’s special.
The world needs you to honor your voice. Use the words that come naturally to you and write the stories that haunt you. Be brave, because there is nothing braver than creating art, friends. Except if you’re walking a tightrope over the Grand Canyon or something, because that’s ridiculous.
The best part of honoring your voice is that as you become your authentic writer self, you will connect with those souls who didn’t even know they’d been waiting to hear what you have to say. And at the end of the day, connection with other people is what makes this whole writing gig worthwhile.