Friday, June 20, 2014

Finding your writing "voice"

by Rich Voza

One of the greatest compliments I have ever received was from a colleague who had just read one of my sarcastic emails sent to inform the rest of the staff about something unimportant.

     Sue: “You will never get away with sending an anonymous letter.”

     Me: “Whaddya mean?”

     Sue: “Because I don’t even have to look at who these stupid emails are from.
              I can just read them and know they’re from you.”

     Me: “Thanks. I think. Right?”

     Sue: “Right.”

It was a way of knowing I had reached, found, or created my writing “voice.” It’s one of those intangible things that is very difficult to teach and not everyone can learn. If you ever read an agent’s website to find out what kind of material they’re looking for, you’ll often see they want writers with a “strong voice.” Some writers will read that and ask two things.
     What the hell is a “voice”?
     How the hell do I get one?

The short answer to #2 is “time,” but I’ll expand on that later. The clinical answer to #1 is “sentences and thoughts using an identifiable style, often formed with certain sentence structures, word choices, types of humor, genre, subject matter, or another consistent characteristic.” This might not be easy to explain, but I’ll give it a shot.

If I fast forward to the middle of a Spielberg movie or a Springsteen song and hit “play,” it’ll only take a dozen or so seconds for me to know who is responsible. I wouldn’t be able to explain how or why I would know, but I would know. With Spielberg, there’s something about the balance of sound, the close-ups during dialogue, even the way the camera pans. With Springsteen, it’s his signature sound from his Fender guitar, although there’s no mistaking any of his songs once he starts singing.

This “voice” thing also works if I flip to the middle and start reading most any book by Stephen King. If you ask me or anyone, “But how do you really know?” sometimes the answer might be “I just know.” BTW - I hate that answer, but it’s the only one I have. Feel free to leave your own explanation, and feel free to tell me that mine makes no sense. I won’t disagree. What we might disagree on is how each of us can arrive at our own “voice.” In a way, your writing “voice” is similar to your real “voice.” Follow me on this extended analogy.

Most people dislike leaving a job and becoming the “new guy” at a different job. I hate it, that’s for sure, for more than one reason. First is the obvious – that you had just been fired or laid off or something like that. Second is the annoying – there’s too much to deal with, such as new names, new procedures, navigating the layout of the building, being extra polite around others, and the pressure of doing great work because you’re the new guy. It takes a while before you can get comfortable and start expressing yourself as you did at your previous job, the one you had for about 7 years. If you think about it, chances are it took you a while to get comfortable there, right?

In most cases, if you’re new, don’t speak out. Become a ghost. Don’t do anything to stand out. Shut up, blend in, and nod in agreement at all times. Don’t express yourself. If you don’t like what they’re putting in the coffee machine, smile and learn to like it. Work. Work more. It’s your job, so work. Slowly, you will see better ways to do things. You will make little changes that save time. You will see better, more efficient ways of doing things. You will make personal touches, improvements, and others will notice. Let your performance dictate “who” you are, and then you can stretch your legs a little bit.

Others might ask what you are doing because your hard work is getting noticed. They might even ask for tips or suggestions so they can try some of what you are doing. You will be flattered, but you will also be a little annoyed. You will want to tell them to go figure out their own personal touches instead of borrowing yours, but you will also feel good that others like your innovations, so you won’t mind if they copy a little.

Eventually others will see your work results – without your name on it – and know it is yours because they have learned your style, your voice, your unique way of doing things. It takes work to get there.

No writer has a voice when they start out. If you are writing short stories, it might take 10 before you begin to feel your voice. It might take three novels. It comes down to writing, writing more, not liking what you have written, rewriting, revising, and writing some more. If writing is new for you and someone’s writing advice is to develop your voice, ask them how they developed theirs. If they don’t know, then ask how you are supposed to follow advice from people who can’t explain their own advice. The reason I push this is because I love people who give advice that they themselves don’t fully understand. Many people will say “show, don’t tell” and “find your voice,” but those suggestions are worthless without explaining how to actually do it.

Finding and having a writing voice is pretty much finding and having a comfort level. It comes with time spent writing but also reading. Think of, or find a favorite author, and try to nail down what you like about that author’s work. It might lie in the voice. Two of my favorite authors are David McCullough and King.  I’m not really a fan of most of King’s stories because of the endings, but his writing voice is fabulous. His sentences are lessons because he writes with what I call “necessity.” He doesn’t waste time with a characters hair and eye color, height or weight, favorite foods, or any of that stuff – not unless it’s vital to the story.

I recently read his short story called “Mile 81,” about an abandoned highway rest stop at which about a dozen people arrive at but only about three of them leave alive.  There were a few cops, two parents, a horse trainer, a handful of kids ranging from about 3 to about 12, and a few other people.  I can recall a physical description of only the horse trainer, a hefty woman. King knows his job is to provide us with action, not pictures. If he provides the action, then readers will provide their own pictures. For more thoughts about that, you can read this recent post.

As for your own “voice,” it comes with three things: time, practice, and honesty. That means learning to write like "you" instead of trying to write like someone else.  Voice comes from writing, not liking what you have written, and writing some more until you start to like what you're writing.  A female friend blogs often, and she is not shy about using profanity or writing about topics that would not be discussed in front of children.  She often uses short, deliberate, sometimes incomplete sentences that cut right to the veins instead of slowly peeling layers of skin.  To read her writing is like jumping onto a moving roller coaster as it slows around a curve.  It is an unusual style, but it is clearly a voice she is comfortable with.

When I used to coach a school baseball team, the infielders would shy away from groundballs for fear of getting hit in the face or chest. I would tell the kids this great lie. “Look, no matter what you do, you’re going to get hit five times this season. So just let yourself get hit and get those five out of the way now. Then you won't get hit anymore.” The same goes with your writing voice. It’s a certain amount of words, chapters, or stories away. For you, it might be six short stories, and for someone else maybe it’s two novels. However far away it is, just start writing now because the more you write, the sooner you will get there. There are no road signs, but you will know when you have arrived.

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