Don’t know about you, but I’ve had a voice ever since I was born. A piercing sound box that I used to alert the armed forces I was hungry or other uncomfortable physical situations. I continued with that wail until I learned to speak, first with a decidedly New Jersey slur, not too dissimilar from the Southern drawl I later adopted the year I lived in Alabama and attended kindergarten. Even later I picked up a bit of pidgin from Hawaii when my family lived there for a few years. Finally I settled on California’s western twang after moving here on my thirteenth birthday and making it my permanent home except for three crazy years early in our marriage when we lived in Detroit. (Don’t ask, just don’t.)
My writer’s voice came in about as slowly and with as many distractions along the way as my baby and childish ones. I learned to speak and anticipate because I learned first to listen and observe. I even fidgeted when writing my first book with present tense versus simple past tense. Though this is not exactly the same thing, it does affect the writers’ voice. Fortunately I recognized that present tense is an awkward attempt to sound edgy and urgent while simple past covers content and character more comfortably. My developed writer’s voice sounds like my alter ego, notable for the realization that this is a desirable state and I should be so lucky to maintain my voice throughout my novels. Every writer reveals her voice in her work though the subject may be unique, book to book. It’s the way she depicts characters, the style of her sentence structure, and her grasp of dialogue.
Not a very specific strategy for defining the single most personality driven quality of our writing, is it? Confused? Shouldn’t be, because voice is as recognizable and distinct as other identifiable traits. After all, I’d know Beyoncé’s music from Taylor Swift’s even if they’re belting songs I’ve never heard. I can tell the difference between Beethoven’s rousing classical symphonies and the contemporary vernacular of Aaron Copeland’s ballets. I can distinguish impromptu jazz from free style rap no matter which I prefer (not telling you here.) I can look at a landscape painting of bold, thick oil strokes and declare it’s by Van Gogh or at a delicate watercolor painting of an animal and know it’s by Albrecht Durer. Writing voice is not much different, though the characteristics of voice description are a bit more nebulous. Maybe a bit harder to pinpoint, to fit into rigid templates, but still unique.
More important than being fluent at describing writing voice to comprehend the distinctions is being honest about presenting my voice in my writing. I learned early to drop the pretense of mimicking Shakespeare, whose luminous and melodic voice I can’t assume on the best of my days, or Barbara Kingsolver, whose deft mind creates stories that stick with me years after I’ve read her books but whose masterful style eludes me. Still, I have begun to write with my own voice, a skill confirmed by readers in my critique group. It comes most vividly when I allow it to come most naturally, letting the material dictate my story and the way I present characters and plot.
Aspects of my writing style come to me from my crazy quilt background, not just the way I heard and adopted dialect when I was a kid, but the way I noted how people lived in different parts of the country, how they interacted with each other and conducted their lives. It came from the sights that lured me to explore the outdoors, from the smells that tempted me into the kitchen, from the various cultures across the country, and from my joy or distress over those experiences. I discovered that reading my WIP aloud gave me a sense of what was powerful: short sentences, driving hammer-like against steel nails. Or what was poetic: comparisons between unlikely subjects, forcing them to dance duets. Or what was insightful: drawing conclusions from mystery.
My voice is subjective, wet clay of my thoughts molded by my imagination. I hope my readers will love my voice. I’ll settle for them liking it, but I have to remain true to who I am or my story falls apart like broken pottery. My rhythm and syntax must engage my reader because let’s face it: as original as I try to be, as all writers try to be, there are only so many themes and plots out there. It’s the writer’s voice that seduces the reader. I mewled as an infant. Now I howl, I whisper, I recite, I shout, and I chant. Come read my work, come listen to the sound of my stories. Hear my voice.
Great post. It’s something we writers struggle with – what’s our voice? Part of me just learned to accept that this is the the way I write and therefore this is my writer’s voice.
I agree with you, Andrew. We write best when we remain true to ourselves. Then our voice just comes naturally.
When I taught ballroom dance, I used the same sort of example: You can tell a waltz from a cha cha even without the music. That’s dancing’s voice.
I had to laugh at your comment on first person–present tense is an awkward attempt to sound edgy and urgent. I’d never quite thought of it that way.
Oops, sorry, Jacqui, I erred with my reply to you by writing it in the wrong box – please see above.
Every once in a while I think present tense presents a story better than past, as in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. He used it so masterfully that it didn’t intrude as pretentious. Another very popular book also used it but I found it unnecessarily clumsy. I’ve used it for very small sections of one of my books. When it’s used as a tiny part of a book, it has more power. Otherwise it wears out fast.
Jacqui, you taught ballroom dance? I don’t think I’ve ever known another person with as varied a resume as yours – you are a true Renaissance person. And I know you are not a dabbler but a master at all of it.
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I have yet to describe my writing voice. Sometimes present tense seems so right and, yet, at other times, within the same project, I know it is totally wrong. Same goes for being dignified or being bold and brassy. This could be why I have yet to publish a book.
Glynis, I should have been more clear: there is a difference between voice and the tense in which a story is written, though they often influence each other. Most books are written in one tense but others use a different tense, say present tense, for certain sections. It has to feel right for the book.
I think it’s fine for some stories to have a different tone from another book depending on the subject. Your voice probably is more recognizable than you think, even if your writing is more somber in one book, funnier in another.
I write whatever feels right. I know there’s a voice. Mostly I write in a ‘chatty’ voice. I guess that’s more about my ‘style’ than anything. I’m wordy and when writing allegedly funny things i’ll mix in circular references within the story or even within sentences. Then I’ll edit and take some of that out. But again, that’s probably a style thing more than a voice thing.
See? It isn’t easy to define for any of us!
OK, Rob, I’ll buy that. But you don’t write like Ray Bradbury, or Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling – and we’d know if you were trying. Maybe your style of writing is actually the method by which you create a story – write, edit, delete, write more. Voice shows up when the story you write uses your language, sentence structure, and thought process, and doesn’t try to co-opt another writer. Consider that you might tell about an incident and someone else tells the same event, but the two versions create a completely different impact on the reader. That’s the voice showing up – it’s unique to you and is influenced by the things that guide your view of life as well as your personal experiences.