Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Finding One's Voice

I find it odd, this thing called voice.  I read quite a wide variety of authors, both classic and contemporary, and with the good ones, no matter the genre, voice is always king.

Fellow Pacific Northwest native Tom Robbins, of which I've spoken before, has one of the most distinguishable voices there is.  His voice is magnificent!  It rises from whatever depths necessary to envelop the reader with pearls of wisdom, still wrapped in the gooey funk of the underdeep.  He grabs the reader by the stack and swivels, and woos you face to face with his wisdom and wit, whether you like it or not.  He's the only author I know who shatters George Carlin's plea on writing:

The only story I know of where clouds are important was Noah’s Ark!

- George Carlin

Tom Robbins does better than that.  "A rank of ample black clouds had been double-parked along the western horizon like limousines at a mobster’s funeral. Rather suddenly now, they wheeled away from the long green curb and congregated overhead, where, like overweight yet still athletic Harlem Globetrotters, they bobbed and weaved, passing lightning bolts trickily among themselves while the wind whistled 'Sweet Georgia Brown,'" he writes in Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates.  And in another novel, I forget which at the moment, he describes clouds as "nuns having a pillow fight".

That's voice, folks, pure voice.  Few others can equal that ability to trick images to leap into our minds from a few carefully placed words on a page.  None can mimic that exact cadence and poetry he employs.  And even if he's just talking about the weather - something writers are constantly advised not to do - you want to keep on reading.

Robbins isn't alone in displaying a unique, discernible voice.

Stephen King has a voice.  So much so that people called him out on his pseudonym Richard Bachman, because after a few novels they had it figured out, just by the sound of the voice.  His voice is one of the things that sets him apart from other authors, and one of the main reasons I believe he's had so much success.

David Eddings had a unique voice as well.  So much so that one could easily identify the author just by reading a few passages of his character's dialogue.  His dry, sardonic humor seeped into his characters so well that it made them easily recognizable and made them react in familiar manners when faced with obstacles in the plot.

And that, I think, is one of the problems of having such a distinctive voice.  All authors put so much of themselves into their work that it shows through in every character, every passage of narration.  But by doing that, they give it a sense of sameness, of consistency.  And while this is good for the overall tone of the book, it has a tendency, as we've seen with some of Eddings' writing, to give all the characters a similar voice.  And if they all sound the same, it's hard to make them unique.

A certain adaptation to character is needed.

It would be nice to have a certain way of adapting to whatever voice was needed at the time, a kind of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse way of slipping into a character and making it your own.  To create characters with a sort of schizophrenia, allowing completely different personalities to seep into each.  This is why perhaps, a pool of writers such as in a television series allows a more diverse group of characters.  It's easier for different writers to focus on different characters, instead of pouring themselves into each one.

And it seems some characters lend themselves more easily to voice than others.  I have one in particular who is so insistent on being an individual that he stands out easily from the others.  He's less subtle, I guess, which helps.  He's a little harder to write because he's over the top a bit, and yet I don't want him to come across as too much so.  It would create too much of a caricature out of him, when what I really need is just the emotional energy he provides.

I think a distinctive voice comes down to two things, and both stem from copious amounts of writing.

The first is experience, simple time spend pounding the words into story.  The more you do that, the more your voice begins to take shape and the less it imitates your sources of inspiration.  You begin to see how to hone your writing, to delete excess words, identify overused words, and craft tighter sentences.  All of this lends to your voice, making it more distinct and more identifiable as yours.

The second thing necessary is an understanding of your characters.  The more a writer knows about a character, the more distinctive their voice becomes.  When they're loosely shelled out, with vague goals and moods, they're harder to define.  They have no substance, no value behind what they do and say; they're simply doing or saying those things to advance the plot.  When that happens, they fall short as believable characters.

In the end, it's just hard work.

It takes time to hone one's voice.  Time spent cloistered away from living companionship, lost with those who live only in your own mind.  It takes hours and days and months and years sitting there, crafting words, blowing them up, and crafting them all over again.  Even a cursory look at the great writers will show that they put their devotion to writing above all else.  They prioritized it, even when they had to work other jobs to put food on the table.

They say it takes 10,000 hours of doing anything to master it.  I think I've easily surpassed that mark, probably years ago.  But I think that's just the first tiny step in the longer journey of honing one's voice and mastery of storytelling.  There is always much room for improvement, and still so very much to learn.


  1. I agree it takes time, but would argue the inspiration portion. While I read, I am listening to the voice but have found no emulation in my writing. I credit this to refusing to read all the written works of any one author, especially a contemporary. Fortunately for me, the authors I have read their complete works were translated from another language.

    Nice to meet you,

  2. I think much of one's voice comes with time spent punching out the words. There are no two ways about that, for sure. I do think, whether subconsciously or otherwise, one picks up something from reading other authors in terms of style. Some more than others, at least as I've experienced it, but at least a bit.

    And the funny thing about translations is often the voice is lost, or at least melded with the voice of the translator. As a polyglot myself, I've seen how a phrase or sentence can be said many different ways, each with a particular nuance, which lends itself to voice. It takes a very talented translator to nail the voice of the original author completely.