Writing Writ #1: Find Your Own Voice
You hear this a lot when you’re a fiction writer. You need to find you voice, write with vision, have a perspective. And when you hear those words you think, Oh, go away, you pretentious git. And I don’t blame you. The people who tell you that you need to “find your own voice”, without any further guidance, are pretentious gits.
But the fact still remains, if you want to write well, you do need to write with your own voice.
So, how does one find this voice?
Start keeping a journal – This sounds almost as pretentious as telling you to use your own voice, but please, trust me for a minute. By a cheap ass notebook, and just scribble some thoughts down. Don’t make them frilly. Don’t pretend some great literary historian is going to end up reading them when you’re famous (~coughs~ totally didn’t do that myself ~coughs~). Write like you’re talking to a friend. Be as colloquial as you want to be and just word vomit onto paper a few times a week.
Copy the voices you love – Make a short list of the writer’s you really love, and trying mimicking their style. Don’t go for a full novel. Dream up a character and a short scenario, and write with the voice of a writer you admire. One of my favourites to copy was Douglas Adams, which you can see in Moving Day. His jovial, semi-sarcastic wit is so specifically him, but it’s great fun to play with.
Pin point what it is that you like – Once you’ve had your fun playing with that voice, it’s time to get analytical. What is it that you like about that voice? Is it the wit, like myself with Adams? Is it the simple, clean prose, like myself and Graham Greene? Or is it the fluid presentation of thoughts …like me and every modernist I’ve ever loved?
Blend those voices – Now comes the tricky bit. Now, you need to take all the bits you like about the work of other writers, and apply it to your own work. Sounds complicated? How can you mix Adams’ wit, with Greene’s prose, and Woolf’s stream of consciousness? First off, relax, because here’s the thing; you’re never going to sound like all of them. And that’s fine, because that’s not the aim. The aim is to sound like you, but to develop the bits that you like the most about their writing in your own. That diary you’ve been keeping (right?) get that out, and have a read through what you’ve written. You’ll likely find you’re already doing some of those things you love so much. However, you may also find you sound like you’re up your own arse (thanks, Woolf) or that you’re close to murdering everyone (cheers, Adams) or that you manage to write a whole paragraph without giving any context for what’s happening (Greene! My man!). Once you see these things, you can start to blend the voices together better. Ease up on the 1920’s English, tone down the sarcasm and pop in a few more adjectives.
Figure out what you bring to the table – This isn’t exactly easy to do for yourself, which is why I always advocate sharing your work with trusted friends/ family/ writers. In my case, it was my lecturer, Dr Richard House, who made me realise what I added (although I’m fairly certain my mum had told a very small Emma something similar). When Richard read the opening to The End of Atlas, he said to me that I had a very filmic writing style. At the time, I thought this was really odd way to describe it, but I’ve come to realise that it’s how my mind works. When I’m writing fiction, I see things as if it’s a film playing in my head. I see the shots, and the look, and I target the elements of the scene to describe which I think will have the biggest impact. Knowing this helped me see how I was holding three very different voices together. Simplicity, fluidity and hella humour, woven together with a filmic structure. That is how I like to roll.
Acceptance – Finally, there’s one small thing you need to know and accept. You’re never going to stop fiddling around with your voice. Mainly because, if you’re any good at writing, you’re never going to write the exact same character twice (unless you’re writing a novel series). Even if you don’t write in first person (like myself), and you rely on a third person narrator, your characters will inevitably have some influence over the tone of your narration, and you will certainly need to be able to adapt your voice for dialogue. Writing is as much about acting as it is about prose. However, don’t be disheartened. Having a sense of your own voice will 1) help you pick the projects that you’re going to enjoy the most, and 2) figure out when your character is just you in disguise (I’m looking at you John Green).
If I’m honest with myself, I do worry about where I’ll go after The End of Atlas is finally finished. I’ve become so familiar with the voice of Alec, my protagonist, that he kind of feels like home. But I know, when the time comes, I’ll pick up the parts of him that are me and develop a new character, and a new project which I’ll hopefully enjoy just as much.
Hope you’re enjoying your Saturday!
P.S. Today’s featured image is a small snapshot of an essay I wrote before Easter…in which I sound like Dr Seuss.