Friday, May 27, 2011

How Do You Know When You've Found Your Voice?

There’s a lot about writing that seems almost mystical – to people who don’t write, and even to those of us breathing in this damn, frustrating, lovely, mind-sucking, hole of death what we call writing.

One of the things you hear most often is VOICE. Big sparkly letters here, because that’s the onus us writing folk put on voice. It’s kind of like literary fiction – no one can tell you how to do it, but we sure the fuck know it when we see it. And then we get even more confusing about it – insisting that an author not only capture his or her own distinctive voice, but also capture each character’s voice. And the character’s voice has to be separate from the writer’s voice… and each character has to have their own voice so that you don’t have cardboard bullshit characters… oh, and don’t use any petty trickery or overused catch-phrases so that your reader literally rolls their eyes and tosses your book in a moldy laundry pile rather than finish it. We talk non-stop about craft and technique and grammar. We beat other works about the head and ears for feats of stupidity or, worse, purple prose.

Can you hear my voice? I bet you can. I can. I know it’s there and I know what it sounds like and guess what – it’s grammatically flawed as all hell. It doesn’t follow any of the rules. Okay, it follows some of the rules, but mostly by accident. You get to a point where you know them backwards and forwards and have to toss them out the window to get comfortable in your skin and say what you have to say. Because the bottom line in voice is communication. That’s it – plain and simple.

That’s all this really is – saying something. Saying something important, life changing, immortal, embarrassing, consuming, eloquent, clever, or blatant… I like blatant, myself. It often has a dry wit all its own. That’s all we’re trying to do here, whether it’s through articles or blog posts or works of fiction. We’re saying something – and in order to communicate, if you’re really good at it, you need to make sure your audience gets it. If your audience is full of high brow fancy schmancy types… go get a thesaurus so they don’t feel slighted by your mundane language – and leave your fucking profanity at the door. If your audience is full of deep thinkers, be more concerned with the ideas than the way they’re couched – deep thinkers don’t care what it looks like to the outside world. They’re not in it to impress anyone else. They want the essence of a story or idea that will make their mind take off… say it in pig latin, if it’s brilliant, they’ll still go with you.

But what you’re saying seems beside the point when you’re talking about voice, right? It’s part of it, but I’ll get back to that. Voice is most often categorized as the flavor of the way you say things, kind of like an accent on the page. And yeah, I can hear New York or Southern Charm, or an Irish Brogue. But it’s not just that.

Remember when you were in high school? Remember when you wanted all the cool kids to like you, or when you started digging combat boots and dyed your hair and spoke in Violent Femmes lyrics? Remember when you stole little phrases from rock stars or friends that were just too fucking cool? Remember that kid, teetering on the curb, trying to get his bearings and up his courage to walk in the middle of the road, pretty as you fucking please? That kid. The one who wanted to be someone special, but didn’t know quite how to get there so he borrowed bits from here and there and adapted other bits that might have been his or maybe they were scrapped up from somewhere else… and he wore them like a mantle of independent thinking – just like everybody else.

Yeah, well if your voice is that – you’re doing it wrong.

The problem with that kid is he was playing at being someone other people might admire. He wasn’t there yet. His confidence was low and his braggadocio was borrowed. That’s not where your voice comes from. You can’t borrow someone else’s… scratch that, you can, actually… if you’ve got a really good ear for language (and if you’re a writer, we’ll assume that you do), you can, in fact, mimic another writer… another person… adopt it and wear it and put it out there… but you won’t have developed YOUR voice.

And they’ll tell you that no one can help you find your voice. There are no instructions to get there or develop it or bring it out. Which is probably true – every journey seems to be as different as every writer. A writer friend recently told me that he could tell that I turned a corner. That my writing voice was the strongest he’d ever seen it. That I was ready. And I think I am. I am more confident in my writing and my voice than I ever was before. So how did I get there? I stopped giving a shit about any of the people who were not going to “get” me. That was it. That simple. I stopped tempering my language because people who don’t know me might mistake my profanity for ignorance. I stopped rethinking overlarge words that fit or mundane words that weren’t impressive enough, and I said what I had to say… and then I edited the hell out of it. (Anyone who tells you voice is natural and comes with no editing is a moron… writing is more editing than writing… when I find a writer who doesn’t follow that, I don’t want to read them.)

Oh, and what you have to say… remember? I said we’d get back to that. Voice and theme go hand in hand as far as I can tell. And some writers have more than one theme that they work with, some may not pay any attention to it at all… they’re just telling a story and don’t notice that their stories all have the same finite number of themes. YOU have something to say. You wouldn’t be writing if you didn’t have anything to say. There is something deeper to this profession than sheer love of words… and yeah, that’s part of it, but it’s not the whole. If I only loved the words, I’d be perfectly content to devour great works by other authors. But it’s not only that with us, we have something to say, and that something, whether deep or frivolous, something to move us or move mountains, something just to make us laugh, that’s as imperative to our voice as the way we turn a phrase. You just can’t have a voice with nothing to vocalize… it would just be a hum, or a moan, or a whimper.

So how did you find your voice? And what have you got to say? Figured out your themes yet?


Mojo Writin' said...

I'm still not sure what the hell the fabled 'voice' is ¬¬ As far as I;m concerned it means your personal style, the way you put your words together, down to the way you put words into the mouths of your characters. Beyond that, I don't know and I don't care. I write how I write and I have plenty of people who seem happy with what I write... That'll do me :)
Excellent blog, and looking forward to reading more from you ;)

Stephen Parrish said...

A writer friend recently told me that he could tell that I turned a corner. That my writing voice was the strongest he’d ever seen it. That I was ready.

You have an observant friend, and I'll bet he's damn good looking, too.

Another characteristic of voice is its confidence. You've always written well. You've never before written as confidently as you do now.

DrHoneyDew said...

sooo understand and hear your voice lol. My step daughter has hit a huge wall in Nashville and wrote a song about it.."I already Am"

The "purple cow" of the current flow can knock you hard against the side of your heart...screw em i say. WRITE ON

looking fwd to more of your expressions of thought : ) great to meet you

Anonymous said...

I think I found my voice very early on--in childhood, really--and the best writing advice I ever got came from my mom. She said that my words, opinions, beliefs, and style were expressions of my core self, and that it would be all but sinful to temper that voice in order to make it palatable to anyone else.

Come to think of it, that was more than great writing advice. It was fabulous life advice, as well.

wordvixen said...

I remember meeting someone in real life after getting to know her on a forum. After a few minutes, her jaw dropped and she just stared at me. Then she says, "You talk EXACTLY the way your write!". :-D

I think that was the first time that I realized that my mind doesn't work the same way as everyone else's. I'm not entirely certain that that's "voice", but if it's not, it's pretty close!

pbquig said...

I'm just finding my voice and I'm 61 and grandmother of 2. I think it was there all along, but I wasn't listening. Nice post
A Pirate Looks Past Sixty

Laurel said...

The hardest thing, IMO, is having a strong personal voice and writing fiction. Keeping your OWN voice out of the MC is really hard to do. Especially when you get really attached to your MC.

I think where the voice really should shine is the in-between prose. The dialogue has to be a combo of the MC's voice and the image they want to project. The way they perceive and describe things in internal dialogue and description, however, is where the meat of character exposition unfolds. Does the blood smell remind them of the kitchen, the slaughterhouse, or biting the inside of their mouth when they were 4 years old?

That multiple personality disorder trait that most writers have really comes in handy in the in-betweens. I found "my" voice years ago. It usually takes me a round of edits to find my MC's voice.

jjdebenedictis said...

Whoo! Awesome post, and yes--it's what you had to say that made it awesome, as much as how you said it (which was great--courageous and relentless. I agree your voice has strengthened.)

I'm a little worried in my WIP that what I have to say is starting to overwhelm the action, but LA-LA-LA, IT'S A FIRST DRAFT. LA-LA-LA, I'LL FIX IT LATER.

Travis Erwin said...

Ahh the oh so abstract voice.

Mine is what it is and I've been fortunate to have many compliment me on my writing voice. It is as flawed as I am but there are many times I feel like it is my only asset as a writer as I'm far from being a wordsmith.

Langley said...

Good stuff. This is an area that I need to strengthen.

Jenn said...

Voice?? Oh goodness...I don't know if I have a unique all my own voice. Maybe?? I just write...whatever is coming out of my head. I'm doing a small fiction series now. I have no idea if my voice is there or not. People who've read said they liked it...but I know most of I doubt they'd tell me otherwise.

I'll have to think more about my voice...figure out if it is something that exists and is true to me and the characters or if it is just sort of the cardboard cut of a voice. You've really given me something to think about. And of course, I love blogs that make me think!!

Cheers, Jenn

Anonymous said...

This is awesome.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Mojo,

I think "personal style" is as good of a way to categorize it as any other... it's that thing with confidence more than anything else.

It sounds like you already found yours ;-) Thanks so much, I'll stop by shortly to check yours out!

Merry Monteleone said...


He's absolutely gorgeous... and obviously brilliant, to boot =)

Thank you, my friend... you always seem to know when I need a good kick in the ass - and I appreciate it.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi DrHoneyDew,

I don't know much about breaking into the music scene in Nashville, but I'd imagine it's even harder than pushing through the publishing walls. I'll definitely go check her out. Tell her keep punching. In all things, determination and perserverence are your best traits for success.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi WerdNerd,

I loooove the blog, btw. Really awesome what you're doing lately.

Your mother was a gem! That's great advice all around.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Wordvixen,

Actually, that is voice... I love it when I can hear people in how they write. I have a feeling Travis' voice is much the same way.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Pam,

There's no age limitation to it... you come to it when you come to it. And 61 is the new 40, so that's not late at all!

Thanks for stopping in, lovely to meet you and I'll stop in shortly to visit your blog.

Merry Monteleone said...


I love you!!! That's the thing with 1st person or close 3rd, you really need to maintain the character's voice throughout, rather than your own. My MC's voice is actually very close to mine... but he's a guy, and only 16, so I have to make very sure to notice what he does and not allow author intrusion.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hiya JJ!!!

Thank you! And yes, there is that... sometimes we get so hellbent on what we have to say that we're preaching instead of storytelling... the theme should wind through the action, rather than overwhelm it. But in a first draft... get it the fuck out there and then clean it up later. Or, at least, that works better for me.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Travis,

Your voice is a goldmine. I know I've probably told you that a million times, but it is.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Langley,

Thanks for stopping in. From my experience, it's not so much that we need to strengthen our voice, it's already there... it's a matter of having the confidence to let people see us, let it be what it is, instead of trying to make it something it's not.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Jenn,

I'm going to ditto my earlier statement to Langley... you already have a voice, it's a matter of trusting it.

Nice to meet you!!!!

Alana said...

I think your 3rd to last paragraph is really interesting - the one about editing and voice. It shows just how complex writing is. In parentheses, you mention how important editing is, going back over your work and tweaking, fixing, changing - all that happens during revisions, but in truth throughout the rest of the paragraph it seems you found your voice by doing away with that nit-picky editor in your head that wouldn't let you write with your voice to begin with.

So, it seems the real lesson is - throw out your inner editor until the story has found it's way. Then bring her back to help the raw truth of the story reach its potential with a little (or a lot) of refining.

Thought-provoking read. Thanks.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Alana,

Writing is a really layered thing. I love blogging and talking in various forums to writers about process and craft - mostly, I think, because there's something awesome about getting to talk to other people who understand it. You just can't get all the layers, if you don't do this.

The one thing I find myself doing is adding disclaimers to these kinds of posts and expositions. That one, in particular, was because I didn't want someone reading about voice and mistaking what I'm saying for "Just wing it and don't edit." Really editing is a separate topic from this, I think.

And like Laurel pointed out earlier in the thread, there are a million different balls to juggle with just voice alone - yours, your characters', whether or not you want your voice to show through in the prose or leave it all to the mc. And then we get on these winding thoughts about different aspects of writing and it almost seems like too much.

For me, to simplify, I won't edit out my voice if it fits the piece. Strengthening prose, erradicating unnecessary grammatical errors, in fact most of editing shouldn't eliminate voice, only improve it... it's just that it's a balance to get there before you get your confidence. And there are so many rules, I think the best thing to do is learn all of them first - then when you're breaking them, at least you know you're doing it and why.

Alana said...

Yes, so true! Know the rules made to be broken, and then break them with purpose. :)

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

I don't worry a lot about it (voices belong to my characters, not me) but I try to concentrate on telling the story.

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Incidentally, everyone loves my blog voice and wants me to apply it to my fiction. I have a story in mind for that, but I still hold that MY voice should take a back seat to my characters' voices.

Tyhitia Green said...

I finally found my voice with my current WIP. And some writer friends said they liked my voice from page one. And I'm still in revisions. :-D

Glad you found yours. ;-) Awesome, isn't it?

Great post, btw.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hey SS@S,

I loooove your blog voice, which is also your fb voice... but I get you, with fiction writing it's a lot less about your own voice and more about your characters' voices. Depending, I guess, there are a lot of writers who are very prose-y, and that's all their voice with their character's voice only making an appearance in the dialogue. (I tend to skim over a lot of the prose-y stuff if they're not absolutely mind-bendingly awesome though)

Merry Monteleone said...

Yay you, Tyhitia!!!!

The only thing I can think of that's better than knowing you've got that massive monster nailed, is getting the sale. Keep trucking, that's the next stop.