Recently, a writer friend posted about a conversation he had with his agent regarding his voice. The writer is a self-confessed style chameleon, meaning he can mimic the styles of other writers, a laudable skill. However, the agent was curious what his voice would be when he wasn’t copying someone else. I tried to express what I thought the agent meant, but I’m not sure I expressed my thoughts well, so I’ve decided to tackle it here in a longer form.
If you’re a writer, or in the writing world, you’ve probably heard the term ‘writer’s voice’ before, but what is it? Unfortunately, a lot of people see it a bit like pornography in that “you know it when you see it.” It’s also one of the hardest, and most important, things a writer will do. As I’m a fan of philosophy, particularly Socrates, let’s start by trying to define the ineffable voice.
First, to be clear, I don’t mean a character’s voice. Each character (hopefully) has their own distinct voice expressed through word choice, emotional responses, and the like. A writer’s voice is a style, or feel to their writing. It doesn’t matter what genre the story is, their voice is the foundation upon which the story is told. Here’s an analogy that might help. There are some musicians who have such a well-defined style, or voice, that you can recognize one of their songs that you’ve never heard before. I think Santana is an excellent example of this because of his guitar. Mumford and Sons, the Pogues, Gaelic Storm, Tom Waits, David Bowie, and Social Distortion are a few more examples just off the top of my head. Just about any die-hard fan can recognize the style of their favorite bands though.
So how does this translate into writing? Well, like music, style is built from different factors. Not many people make it a point to sit down and dissect a piece of writing to try and find the author’s voice, but it can prove to be a useful exercise in your own work. Here are just a few examples of what makes up a writer’s style or voice:
Word choice and sentence structure is often a key element in an author’s voice. Are their sentences long, or do they tend to use shorter, more clipped sentences? Do they use a lot of descriptive terms, or are they more direct? Anne Rice is a good example of the former and Hemingway of the latter. Do they use a lot of ‘ten dollar words’? Does the use of them come across as authentic? What about profanity/curse words? How much? Is it creative? i.e. does someone get called an asshole or a bloviated shit weasel.
The pacing of a book can be another aspect of the writer’s voice. It goes without saying that most stories, and (hopefully) all novels have a pace that varies: faster in action scenes, slower during deliberations, etc. But the story will also have an overall pace. Most people have read books where a hundred pages feels like ten, and other books that are the reverse. That level of pacing is determined by things like exposition, plot complexity, and even the characters.
Dialogue use versus narration could be considered part of pacing. The more dialogue used, the more ‘white space’ there will be (usually), and the more pages a book will have. The denser the text, the slower a book tends to feel. Despite the impact they can have on pace, I think dialogue versus narration deserves its own consideration. Narration doesn’t always have to feel slow and dialogue doesn’t have to feel fast. A long stretch of dialogue can be as dry as narration, and I’ve read narration that is more thrilling and energetic than the dialogue. Genre can have some impact in which way things lean, epic fantasy tends to have more narration for example, but there are exceptions. I tend to favor dialogue over narration, sometimes too much, even in my high fantasy stories.
The tone, or feel, of a story is a bit harder to define, but just as key. I’ll use my books as an example. They tend to the darker side, but not dark as in horror. If my books were people, they’d carry the scars—physical and emotional—of a hard lived life. They’d know how it feels to be hungry, and not know when you’ll eat again. They’ve been preyed upon by someone more powerful, and regularly come out on the losing end. But they still cling to hope, and in fact derive their strength from it. I’d classify my books in the neighborhood as Richard Kadrey and Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files particularly). This obviously begs the question: doesn’t the individual story drive the tone? Of course it will have an impact, but with my work at least, I find the story adds depth to the tone rather than wholly defining it.
Lastly, there’s plot. I don’t just mean complex versus simple, but how the plots tend to be constructed. Does the story have seemingly disparate pieces that don’t come together till the end, or is each branch obviously part of the whole? Does the author use misdirection, throwing twists that turn out to have nothing to do with the main thread? Do they rely more on subtext, or are the hints more overt? Does the plot twist and turn, or does it just emerge from the fog? Again, the plot structure can shift from book to book, but it can also be a common thread that adds to the writer’s voice.
I could list other elements that can define a writer’s voice, but I think these are the easiest to see and breakdown. But style isn’t a recipe. Some writer’s might find their voice from all the examples I listed, some from only a couple, and others from elements I didn’t list at all. As writers we tend to start by mimicking the style of writers we like, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. The more you write though, the more you’ll probably see your own voice shining through. There’s no secret to finding your voice, and no timeline. I started to find mine by the second book I wrote, and really felt like I’d found my groove by the fourth. Some people may need more time and some lucky bastards might find their voice right out of the gate. It’s okay to hate those people, we all hate them.
However long it takes to find your voice is how long it takes. It isn’t a race and taking more or less time to find it doesn’t make you a better or worse writer. Regardless, I hope this post helps you along the way. It’s rarely an easy journey (unless you’re one of those previously mentioned lucky bastards) but it’s an important one, perhaps the most important. At least that’s my opinion.
Seriously though, if you found your voice the first time you sat down to write, screw you.