The Writer’s Voice – Rise Up and Sing!
All I have is a voice.
When I started writing the Editor’s Corner, discussing voice seemed a logical springboard for all posts to come. But I put it off. And off. And, as the weeks went by, I found voice harder and harder to talk about. It was just not the naturally incipient topic I expected it to be.
Now, well along the editor’s path – and lest I paint myself irrevocably into my editor’s corner – the time has come to let voice arise in clarion clarity!
So, what is voice? Simply put, voice is an author’s distinctive style. It includes everything from vocabulary to syntax, punctuation to rhythm, subject to structure. It is the quality that, sans book cover or title page, tells the savvy bibliophile that they’re perusing Toni Morrison not Isabel Allende, C.S. Lewis not Terry Pratchett. (Just imagine James Joyce penning Wuthering Heights or Carson McCullers Madame Bovary. How very different they would be!)
On a certain level, every writer, by virtue of setting pen to paper, has a voice. Personally, I think that is akin to saying that every kid who kicks a soccer ball can bend it like Beckham. In this e-book age when everyone and their second-cousin, Sylvester, is in print, the market is awash in a tsunami of cookie-cutter books, with virtually interchangeable characters and plot points and a dearth of unique voices. In short, people are telling stories, but not necessarily telling their stories. Individual voice is lost much the way accents are lost in the press to use stage English.
Now, some people suggest that voice is a teachable thing. To this end, they often propose an empirical approach, especially for young writers: toss different styles and genres at the page and see what sticks. While experimentation certainly has a place in any artist’s development, I believe in this case, it is, at best, a starting point at the beginning of a long and mysterious journey. But, hey, what do I know?
For me, voice is less a matter of trial and error and more one of authorial evolution. Word after word, sentence after sentence, we writers make choices based on our background, experience, knowledge, passions, even gender. (Don’t get me started on the role gender plays! If you can’t tell if a writer is male or female, chances are you’re not paying attention.) The cumulative effect of those choices adds up to our voice. Granted, when first embarking on a literary calling, those choices tend towards the predictable and inside the box. We follow the rules, perhaps emulate our favorite scribes or the voix du jour on the bestseller lists. This is off-the-rack, at best. It serves well enough while learning one’s craft, but eventually – hopefully – it is shed for a proper Savile Row voice, tailored to oneself alone. Don’t expect this to happen over night. It takes time and effort to dig deep inside and find sounds and rhythms uniquely one’s own. You have to listen hard to find that which resonates with the stories you have to tell.
Of course, you may be writing in trim morning coat and Ascot, when the current fashion is denim and tees. A collision with the editing/publishing world could be just around the corner. If an editor or publisher wants to rewrite your work so it is just like every other manuscript out there, listen very politely, thank them for their time, and run. Run fast and far. An editor should be helping you strengthen, clarify, and realize your voice, not tamp it into an unrecognizable whisper. (I have this on good authority from the Editor Faërie, and I trust her implicitly.)
Voice is not about giving others what they want to hear; it’s about making them listen with to what you have to say.
It’s about finding the language of your passion and claiming it against all comers.