Writers talk a lot about voice. VOICE - if I could do big sparkly letters that jump off the screen and slap you in the face, I would. That’s how important voice is. Writers know this. It’s the one thing you can’t just learn. It’s outside of craft. I’ve seen writers with natural voices, ones that pull you in the second you read the first sentence – voices that make you smell and see and feel every nuance of where you are and who you’re with in their story. A lot of people call this, ‘natural talent’, but I think it has more to do with trust. They trust their voice. They don’t make any apologies for their voice. They don’t try to change it for the market or hide it from people who are more intelligent or poetic or whatever. They trust. Those people still have to work on craft. They have to tackle plot, and pacing, and all of the variables that mean you need to put your ass in the chair and do the work, but they’re a few steps ahead of the game, because they already trust their voice.
Voice. Everyone has one. Notice I didn’t say every writer has one. That’s not accurate, it’s like saying that anyone not pursuing writing doesn’t have a voice, and they do. Choosing not to use it doesn’t mean it’s absent.
So, what happens if you can’t find your voice? I think it’s a little different for everyone. Some writers will tell you to keep writing and eventually you’ll get to where you know it, hear it. But some of us miss it completely for a long, long time. Again, I think it has something to do with trust.
Now, here’s something that they don’t talk about often – every character has a voice. Erica Orloff just wrote this post about the character’s voice. If you’re a writer, you’ll definitely want to stop there. Your writing should reflect your character’s world, not necessarily your own. Does this mean you have a different voice for different novels? Yeah, kind of. The meat of who you are is still there – writers have tells in their wording here and there, but if you’re switching from urban commercial fiction over to middle grade, well, there better be a pretty significant change in the way you approach it. Your characters have to be whole, and they have to have their own voice. And that voice, your character’s voice, should permeate the novel.
For me, voice was a hard thing to find. What I realized, rather belatedly, was that my best voice, the most authentic voice I have, is guttural. Yeah, you read that right. I kind of knew this, knew that I’m at my most powerful when I’m bringing where I come from to the table – but it hit home more completely for me when I did the My Town Monday posts for Travis, especially this one. I wasn’t trying, it’s not edited – my blog posts often aren’t. Besides all of the wonderful comments, I had emails on this one; it was even linked in a message board for people from my neighborhood. I get visits weekly on that post, from people looking up Cicero on search engines. I’ve had people message me on facebook to tell me that they liked it. So it speaks, it speaks louder than some of the things I’ve agonized over in revision. Not because it’s polished, but because it’s authentic. Because I wasn’t thinking about the audience, I was just being, without worrying about being judged. Trust.
So why the hell did it take me that long? First, I read voraciously. I know, this is actually a good thing for writers, stick with me here. I like novels where the writing disappears and it’s all about story. I like novels where the language wraps itself around you and infuses your senses. I love classics, commercial fiction, fantasy... I love literature and language, and voice... all sorts of voice. So the first part of this is easy to answer. When I started writing, I was mimicking a lot of what I loved in reading... you can see where that might get confusing as I didn’t stick with any one thing as far as what I liked.
I also had an easy grasp of advanced literature from an early age. What got me noticed by teachers was not going to be the same thing that would get me noticed in fiction... Lots of heavy concepts and over-large words... I understood it and loved the flow of that academic voice, but it’s not my fiction voice. And then a lot of the fiction that really resonates with me is on the heavy side. It’s poetic or layered, even the more mainstream fiction that sticks with me for ages, has some bit of something – this spark of brilliance in thought, or concept, or theme.
So there’s the first thing. I adore other authors, but I had to learn to admire their work without squelching my own voice. Instead of forcing poetic prose, I had to get comfortable with what I am, and realize that lyrical is not the only kind of poetry... sometimes blunt and gritty can be beautiful, too. And sometimes pretty words don’t speak nearly as loud as authentic truth.
The second thing is a little deeper. That voice I told you about – I hide it. In my real life, I hide it. I learned fairly early that if you’re outside the neighborhood and can’t speak in a more intelligent way, people think you’re an idiot... actually, worse, they think you’re low class. My accent jumps out when I’m angry, or annoyed. It thickens when I’m around other people who have one. Okay, I’m around a few ‘suburban moms’ and will occasionally let it slip out because I know it’ll make them uncomfortable... I never said I wasn’t a ball buster. But from high school on, I learned to adopt a professional voice to be taken seriously. So that’s in there. There’s an automatic fear in using that voice that I’m opening myself up to judgment... but hell, I’m going to be judged anyway. I just got to the point where I figured, just because they’re judging me, that doesn’t make them right.
So, will I always write in that voice? No. It works for this wip - these characters, this story and most of all, this place. And maybe it’ll be a setting I revisit in future works, but for now I’m keeping my horizons open. There are other worlds and stories I’d like to capture, too. Other things to be said and voices that need to roam.
How about you? If you’re a writer, does your voice change in different novels and settings? If you’re a reader, do you notice a voice change from novel to novel in your favorite authors? And I’m thinking that this might be a good premise for a writing contest. Anyone interested? I think I can even muster up a few prizes.