When I first started writing again, I joined an online forum where you could share writing and get feedback from other writers. One comment I got was that I needed to find my voice.
What does that mean?
I asked them, I asked myself, I asked other writers. The answers, when they came, were vague and, I felt, unhelpful. Tips like ‘just write’, or ‘write to an audience’: well, d’uh. I write thousands of words a week at work and do both those things but how does that help me write fiction?
I even found a site where you could post your work and it would tell you what famous writer you were like. I obsessed over that for months, and celebrated whenever it came up with Stephen King. But I can’t write with Stephen King’s voice, can I? Even if I could, should I? There seems to be a consensus your voice must be unique. That ruled out all the advice that focused on stylistic elements like using active voice: if everyone follows the same style advice, how can they be unique?
And how are you supposed to reconcile that with the demands of writing for genre? Every genre has its stylistic conventions, and the vast bulk of bestsellers in any genre broadly conform…but popular authors manage to distinguish themselves from their peers.
What is the secret?
Well, dear reader, after 10 years I think I’ve cracked it.
Voice has very little to do with tone, or style, or even genre. Authors like Colleen McCullough write in different styles and genres, yet still have loyal audiences.
Voice is to do with what you write about. The stories you choose to tell. The characters you create, the dilemmas you face them with, the choices they make—and what point of view all of that communicates to the audience. It can be subtle: or it can direct. Alex Jones of Infowars certainly has a voice: a strident, angry, hate-filled voice.
Painter Edward Degas said “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see”. What do you want other people to see, and understand about the world? Do you, like Alex Jones, want to foment hate and division, even if you have to tell lies to do so? Do you want to inspire people? Do you want to communicate the experience of the marginalised group you are part of? In short, what is it you want to say?
I’m not talking about theme, or subject here, although those choices can be part of it. I’m talking about giving your audience perspectives on things.
It was British author Kit de Waal‘s activism on working class writing that helped me see the light. The Birmingham born child of an Irish mother and Caribbean father didn’t start writing until she was 45, and as soon as her first book, the best-selling and award-winning My Name is Leon, sold she set up a creative writing scholarship for working class writers at Birkbeck University. The press the book and the scholarship got caught my eye, and it made me think about my own background—also working class—and how that informs, or could inform my work.
“A man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” C.S.Lewis
The new writing I’ve been producing recently is more confidently my own voice. It communicates my distinct, strongly held views about how the world works (or doesn’t work) and how that affects people’s lives. I do have something to say, and knowing that has informed how I say it.