Monday, 5 December 2016

A Writer's Voice - What is it and Why Does it Matter?

Hi guys,


The wonderful cover art was obtained from SelfPubBookCovers:

Well The Wolves of War went out just on a week ago on kindle {and two days later after much hair pulling, wailing and gnashing of teeth, on CreateSpace!}And so I find myself with a little free time on my hands to blog.

This time I thought I'd turn my attention to voice. That almost indefinable something that gets mentioned a lot by writers, and hardly ever explained. But here I thought I'd set out what “voice” is in my view, and why it matters so much.

For me the simplest definition of your voice as a writer, is that it's who you are as a writer. Many people tend to define voice as mostly about prose. Your style of writing. To me it's much more than that. It is the gestalt of everything you are when you put finger to keyboard. So it includes your prose. The way you express your thoughts in writing. And of course it includes things like active and passive writing, purple prose, sentence length and structure and all the rest. But it goes much further than that.

It includes things like word choice and phrases you use. So note that before I used the term “finger to keyboard”. Why? Because it's more representative of current writing methods? Maybe. But also because it sounded better to me to use it there than the more familiar term, “pen to paper”. That is a part of my voice. Where and when I choose to use a more common phrase and where I prefer a one off.

Voice of course goes well beyond this. It impacts on your character creation. What are they like as people? What do you want to say about them? Does it matter to you as a writer if they are pretty people? Good people? What flaws and qualities do you want to write about them? Voice is there in your world build too. What parts of your world do you want to describe? Does architecture matter? Are you more about the detail of the world? Do you prefer instead to paint in broad brush-strokes and metaphor? You see voice in the pace of your writing. Whether you choose to use short, punchy sentences, have lots of action, and be light on description. Or if you prefer longer sentences and to lovingly linger over descriptions.

It's even there in the choice of stories a writer wants to write. Do you like sci fi or fantasy? Romance? Western? Do you want your story to be happy? An epic tragedy? A contemplation on the meaning of life?

And so in everything a writer writes, his writing voice is there. It informs and guides him in a thousand different decisions. And most important of all, those decisions are not usually either right or wrong. They are simply choices.

So if that's what voice is to me, the next obvious question is – why does it matter?

Now here I'm going to start by saying that every writer is or should be on a journey. A writer's journey as they slowly become more aware of who they are as writers, and what they like and dislike. It's not just about becoming a “better” writer, it's about becoming the writer that you want to be. It's about learning to express whatever you want to express, how it seems best to you. And it feeds into self confidence which is absolutely critical.

Many of the best writers I know and love, have very distinct voices. Voices that are so strong that you could pick up a book by one of them, and know who wrote it without needing to check the cover.

So who stands out to me? Stephen Donaldson as always with his longer sentences and detailed, lovingly crafted descriptions. And also with his underlying sadness, which shows through in all his characters and their story arcs. Against him the wonderful Clifford Simak, with his simple writing and bucolic charm. The warmth that shines through in his worlds. And the wry humour too. JRR Tolkein again with lengthy prose and detailed description like Donaldson, but also with a dated {obviously I suppose} style of prose and an almost poetic turn of phrase. And perhaps most important in his work, a clear focus on moral rights and wrongs / values. Dean R Koontz for his not so horror filled horrors where you can open the book and know before you begin reading that his heroes will do okay in the end, and that they will all be remarkable characters with bad pasts who have turned their lives around somehow to become impossibly successful, and yet are just ordinary Americans. {I admit, sometimes that gets to me a little and makes me feel inadequate. Damn – if only I'd been born into unbelievable suffering I could have grown up to become an unbelievably talented and successful artist / writer / detective etc with an utterly virtuous heart!}

Anyway the point here is not that these are good writer's voices. They are in my opinion, but that's not important. What does matter is that these writers have at some point in their journey, discovered who they are as writers. They've found their voices. And as a result they've begun writing their best work. And by best I don't mean that their work is of great literary merit. It may be, but that's not the point. Nor that it is commercially successful. Or that it will go down in the annuls of history as masterpieces. By best I mean that it is true to who they are as writers. It says what they want to say how they want to say it. It is true to them.

By contrast there are a great many writers out there, most of them new to the craft, who are determined to write the next JK Rowling or Stephen King. Not that these are bad goals to aspire to, but are they the right goals for you? Do you want to write the next schoolboy wizard or sparkly vampire? Or do you really want to write the story that's in your heart? The one that's going to emerge onto the computer screen and fill you with pride? The one that's going to be “truly yours”?

As I said at the beginning, I think every writer who is serious about writing, should be on this journey to find their voice. It is probably the most important part of a writing career.

Because of this I would simply add this to those starting out on your journey. Throw away all the writing guides you have. They may be full of wonderful words of wisdom but they are of no use to you at the start. The only book that should matter to you at the beginning in terms of your becoming the writer you should be, is the book you are writing. Instead of reading what others tell you about what to write and how to write it, write what you want to write, how you want to write it.

Yes there will come a time before you are ready to publish, when you'll need to put your work out there for opinions. And it will be hard to show your baby to others and hear criticism about its eyes being too close together. That is just another, difficult step on the journey. But if you've completed the first step in your journey, you should then be able to accept the criticisms and after the tears have dried up, step back a little and dispassionately listen to what was said and ask yourself the most important question. Is what they're saying true to what I wanted to write? Or if I do as they suggest am I betraying my vision?

That is the most important stage in a writer's development. It's hard and it takes self-confidence. But if you can achieve it. If you can hear criticism, weigh it, measure it, decide if it's right for you, and then either use it or put it away when you have to, you have moved from being a generic wannabe writer slavishly doing what other people think you should and following trends, to becoming who you want to be.

You have found your voice.


Cheers, Greg.