How Do You Find That All-Important, Illusive, Author's Voice?

What is that all-important, illusive thing called author's voice and how do you find yours? Les Edgerton doesn't doesn't really answer the first question in his book Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing, but he does help with the latter.

Edgerton starts by talking about how we lose our voices. The process begins when we're young, when our teachers start pounding the rules of grammar into our heads. Now grammar is important. It matters that we know how to structure our written communications so our intent is clear, but the rules, when carried to extremes, suppress our natural voice. Everyone has, I'm sure, read business letters. Perhaps you've even authored them. They're full of passive sentences where things were done, but in order to protect the guilty, no one actually did them.The standards of business writing strip the author's voice out and turns the writing into a cure for insomnia. The camouflage is so effective, so widespread, that if the author's name is removed, it's impossible to tell who wrote it. That's what happens when you've lost your voice.

That appears to be the main goal for many English teachers. No incomplete sentences! Never start a sentence with and or but! Be politically correct! Don't offend anyone! As fiction writers, this is the exact opposite of what we want.

You never want to put your readers to sleep, so voice matters. It matters enough to me that I read certain authors for their voice alone.

When I read Jennifer Crusie, I know I'm going to get a humorous story and that she'll have musical themes.

  Kate reclined in her end of the boat and watched Jake fight the good fight while she ate her second apple.
  Finally, drenched and exasperated, he got the fish off the hook and threw it back in the lake. He sat looking at her, his forearms on his knees, his hands dangling in front of him, water dripping off his chest, arms and hands.
 “You were a great help,” he said.
  “If I’d known you were going to be this energetic,” she said, “I wouldn’t have brought you.” She tossed her apple core back over her head into the lake. “Now cut the hook off your line. The fish around here are positively suicidal.”
     ~ from Manhunting

When I read Harlan Coben, I know I'm going to be drawn so close to the character that I'm going to feel as though I share his peril.

  When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter.
  At least, that is what I want to believe. I lost consciousness pretty fast. And, if you want to get technical about it, I don’t even remember being shot. I know that I lost a lot of blood. I know that a second bullet skimmed the top of my head, though I was probably already out by then. I know that my heart stopped. But I still like to think that as I lay dying, I thought of Tara.
    ~ from No Second Chance

When I read Michael Perry, I know I'm going to get a wordsmith who takes my breath away.

It (a singer's voice) sounds as if it was aged in a whiskey cask, cured in an Ozarks smokehouse, dropped down a stone well, pulled out damp, and kept moist in the palm of a wicked woman's hand.

There is no chance I would confuse these authors with each other because each of them has their own distinct voice. The question is: how did they find it? More importantly, how can you find yours?

Edgerton talks about a number of ways to get back to your original voice. One exercise he recommends to uncomplicate your language is to take a recent news event and write a three paragraph story  or article about it as if you were a participant. The kicker is that, except for proper nouns, you're only allowed to use one-syllable words. I haven't tried this, but I suspect it's tougher than it sounds. The benefit I see, however, is that it will increase your awareness of word choices. It will also help get rid of what Edgerton calls our "writerly" voice. (You know. That urge to sound more sophisticated and smarter than we normally do.)

Many of Edgerton suggestions for finding your way back to your natural voice are valid. Things like reverting to your childhood voice and working your way back to adulthood. He recommends reading your work aloud. This is particularly effective I've found because you'll tend to stumble over the words any place where you've been untrue to your voice. He recommends things like writing letters because we tend to lose our self consciousness when writing a letter and our natural voice shines through. These kinds of things can be useful to help us get into the proper mindset as well each day when we sit down to write.

A word of caution however. These exercises may facilitate finding your voice, but nothing locks it down like practice. After all the years of using that industrial, generic voice you've been taught, it takes time to truly repossess our natural voice. And even when you've returned to your natural voice, it will take polishing to make it the best it can be.

To illustrate: My best writing bud is writing her current WIP (work in progress) in first person present tense. She's doing a good job with it, but there is one scene--a flashback--that caught me so off guard as to render me near speechless (an unusual occurance). She completely nailed the flashback. When I read it, my inner writing critic disappeared, and I was totally immersed in the scene. Coming out of that scene was like stepping out of the looking glass. Did she know she'd nailed it? You bet your ass she did. She knew that was the best thing she'd ever written even while she was writing it. Did she know how to recapture the lightning? Nope. Not a clue. But that scene shows what she's capable of and that she's within striking distance of her best, most authentic voice. It doesn't happen overnight, but she's worked hard to reach this point, and it's paying off.

Even once you find your voice, you may need to protect it. Be aware if you're the kind of writer who subconsciously tries to emulate the style of what you're reading. If you are, you may have to segregate your writing and your reading. It doesn't matter how much you love and admire a particular writer's style. Their voice isn't yours. The world already has the original Crusie, the original Coben, the original Perry, the original (fill in the blank). It doesn't need an imitation. It needs you, in all your unique splendor.

Before I move onto another aspect of voice, I want to say that I don't recommend Edgerton's book for newer writers. I think they'll miss the best of what he has to say simply because their not ready for it yet. His book on voice is more suited to high-level intermediate and advanced writers. If you're in one of those groups, then I think it's highly worthwhile.

Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous by Don Foster isn't intended as a book for writers. Foster is the professor who invented Literary Forensics. Some of you may remember when the book Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics (which later became a movie) came out. Published anonymously during the Clinton presidency, there was a lot of speculation about the author's identity. Don Foster correctly identified Newsweek columnist Joe Klein as the author. (Klein initially denied authorship, but later owned up.) This book details how Klein was identified by comparing his public writing to that in the book. Other cases of forensic analysis are also discussed, including the Unibomber and the Jon Benet Ramsey notes. A fascinating read but, for authors, it should also raise awareness about how intricate, detailed, and unique voice really is.

What are your thoughts on voice? Do you have any authors you read just because you love their voice?

1 comment:

  1. I'll have to check out that book.

    For me, Michael Shaara's a tremendous influence. His Killer Angels is my favourite novel, and his author's voice can be a bit informal- sentences might be a bit clipped here and there, but it's got such a grounded style to it.