Finding Your Voice

Continuing to take a serious look after my tongue-in-cheek article, the Twelve Rules of Writing, we have reached number five, which is concerned with the writer’s voice.  Here’s the original rule to remind you: ~

5. Develop a writer’s voice

In order to be a successful writer you will need to develop a style which is distinctive and immediately identifiable.  To help develop your writer’s voice, try doing impressions of other writers.  YouTube is great for this as you can download clips of writers and imitate their speech patterns.  Once you have the hang of it, you can try developing your own voice.

We are told that so-and-so is the new voice of Science Fiction and that editors are always looking for new voices. We are also told that your voice should be unique, distinctive and original. It is not revealed, however, what your voice should be. That, after all, is up to you. It’s your voice. It’s a personal quest, which only you can undertake.

What do we mean, then, by voice? What is it that you’re looking for, that seems both elusive and obscure?

Here’s Mickey Spillane, talking about his name:

I got a kid named Mike…jeez, the names they gave ME. My father was Catholic, my mother was Protestant, and because of that I got Christened in both churches, so I’ve got all these names…but my Dad always called me Mick. My mother called me Babe, and Babe is not a nice name for a guy, unless you’re Babe Ruth.
~ from an interview with Michael Carlson for Crime Time.

Your voice is not one thing, but many. It’s the pace at which you tell stories – the timbre and tone you adopt. It’s where you place stress and emphasis and where you let things trail. It has both rhythm and timing, pace and punch, and forms a unique combination like a fingerprint. It’s about where you pause for breath, and what’s in that pause when it occurs.

A singular notion dawned upon me. I doubted not – never doubted –that if Mr Reed had been alive he would have treated me kindly; and now, as I sat looking at the white bed and overshadowed walls – occasionally also turning a fascinated eye towards the dimly gleaming mirror – I began to recall what I had heard of dead men, troubled in their graves by the violation of their last wishes, revisiting the earth to punish the perjured and avenge the oppressed; and I thought Mr Reed’s spirit, harassed by the wrongs of his sister’s child, might quit its abode – whether in the church vault or in the unknown world of the departed – and rise before me in this chamber.
~ from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

For some people, writer’s voice seems to come as easily as breathing. It’s as if they’re in the room as you read, literally a voice in your head. It helps if you’ve heard the writer read their work out loud, but for some, like the voices above, you don’t need to hear them – it’s there on the page. That didn’t happen by accident. I guarantee that the writer has worked to develop that voice. Maybe it’s a reflection of their natural voice, but even then it takes art to transfer it to the page so that it comes across in writing.

What can you do, then, to develop your own writer’s voice?

My advice to imitate writers voices from YouTube may have been flippant, but the idea of imitating other writers has some merit. Writing a short story or a piece of description in the style of another writer, whether it be as Charlotte Bronte, Mickey Spillane or another distinctive voice, gives you an idea of what makes that voice so distinctive. It makes you conscious of the elements brought into play, making it more explicit. You have to step back from the story and examine the words, the placing of punctuation, the delivery, to see what makes that voice.

Be sure to take more than one example and choose as many and varied as you can. Write as Tom Clancy, J R R Tolkein, P G Woodhouse, A A Milne – though with this last, you may find yourself channelling Alan Bennett by mistake. Then go back and look at what you’ve written and ask yourself – why is that sentence so long, or that comma placed there?

While your speaking voice is the product of your upbringing and your environment, and of the language(s) you speak, your writing voice is a cultured thing – something grown, developed and exercised. Having explored other voices, you need to find the voice in your own head, and heart, that expresses the truth that lies there.

In your imagination, create your own reader – they can be family, muse, friend, or lover – and bring your story to life for them. Make it personal, intimate and close – you’re not giving a lecture, you’re telling a story under the sheets by torchlight to someone with wide eyes and rapt attention. Watch their reactions as your story unfolds, pause while they hold their breath, race when the action is pumping, but tell it in your own way for that one person.

Finding your voice can take practice and time, but it is an essential part of what makes your stories unique, vivid and enjoyable for your readers. It is worth every moment invested and will make your stories stand out where others seem to lack something indefinable and essential.

  1. #1 by Gill Shutt on January 4, 2011 - 7:25 pm

    It’s nice to know other people have voices in their heads as well.
    Seriously, I’m giving my work in progress a read through and will be using your tips to help. They are easily the best written explanations I have come across… and the cheapest! thanks.

  2. #2 by Patrick Rose on December 24, 2010 - 12:44 pm

    I haven’t written any fiction, because the ideas that I have had don’t fully appeal to me. I know there’s something there, but I can’t strip out the useless bits yet.

    Anyway, one of the fun things that’s helped the column writing (if you can call it that), now at EON ( /shameless plug), is writing something every week. 500 words minimum. I think I wrote 2 posts a week for about 6 months before realising that exams might be important so its probably wise to slow down.

    Its also wise to read other people’s stuff (in my case I spend my time at RPS or whatever Richard Cobbett is doing), and “borrow” something from that style.

    Obviously, this isn’t fiction writing, and arguably more care goes into the words used when you do, but I think the principles are similar. Its taken a year for me to find a comfortable writing style that I find fun to write and hopefully makes the people reading laugh a little.

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