Write On: Hear my voice.

Most of what I have to say on this subject, I have already said in an earlier post in which I was vehement about voice. I decided to repeat that here, and add a little bit on the bottom about how you develop your voice.

If there was one thing that came out of the UK Meet for me (and actually there were several) it was the importance of voice. Let me say that again, because I don’t think I used enough emphasis. It was the importance of an author’s VOICE. Aleks Voinov speaking on behalf of publishers everywhere, and Jenre, speaking on behalf of reviewers, both emphasized strongly how much, when they cracked open a new book, they were looking for a unique voice.

It’s all very mystical, and possibly vaguely amusing in an ironic kind of way. Because the internet and ‘how to write’ books appear unanimous that the way to good writing is an adherence to action verbs, and a willingness to pare down ones adjectives and adverbs to the absolute bare minimum. Cut, cut, cut, people say. Make your language transparent, so that it doesn’t get in the way of the story. You don’t want to throw out your reader’s suspension of disbelief every other sentence with a gorgeous phrase or a word they need to look up in the dictionary. Have good characters, have a story hook in the first paragraph, keep piling on the tension, break for a black point three quarters of the way through and set everything on its head at the half way point.

If this is advice on ‘voice,’ this is the advice to write like everyone else.

How can you write like everyone else and still have a unique voice? You can’t.

When I listen to this advice about paring down your words to the minimum, I think about the writers whose books I love and it applies to none of them. Tolkien, with his chapter-long descriptions of scenery and his insistence that you had to spell ‘dwarfs’ ‘dwarves’ because obviously it was formed on the same principle as ‘loaf’ and ‘loaves’. That if you spelled it differently, you denied it its history. Tolkien who taught me what a hythe was, and gave me the gift of finding out that ‘gore’ isn’t only blood, or a triangular panel in a skirt, but it’s also a spear-head shaped piece of land. Tolkien who never flinched from a right word just because nobody but him remembered what it meant.

Patrick O’Brian, with his rampant, laughing lists of 18th Century words, and his puns and his sometimes-roaring, sometimes sly delight in combinations of phrases that make you chortle.

China Mieville – oh Lord, I just finished reading ‘Kraken’. There’s another man who loves his words when they’re decked out in carnival costumes and on the trapeze:

“Subby Subby Subby,” whispered Goss. “Keep those little bells on your slippers as quiet as you can. Sparklehorse and Starpink have managed to creep out of Apple Palace past all the monkeyfish, but if we’re silent as tiny goblins we can surprise them and then all frolic off together in the Meadow of Happy Kites.”

You may not particularly like any of these writers but, lets face it, they are incredibly successful, critically acclaimed and widely regarded as being at the top of their respective genres. And none of them are writing stripped down transparent, zero-added-value prose. They all have VOICE (imagine that said in a Doctor DOOM tone. I know I do.)

It doesn’t mean that your voice as a writer should be like their voice. If you don’t like obscure words and you don’t feel strongly about how to decline ancient nouns, don’t rush to use them because you think you should. Voice is about being you, after all. But I find it comforting to think that so many writers who’ve said ‘fuck you’ to the transparent-prose-style-gurus, so many writers who’ve reveled in the language they’re using, dived in and splashed and played with words, should have reached so high and done so well with it.

Partly this pleases me because I like to see the internet pundits proved wrong. But mostly it pleases me because it gives back to every writer the chance to do what the hell they like with their own voice. Maybe you like stripped down prose, where a very few perfect descriptors give the effect of a splash of colour in a minimalist white house. Good for you – do that then. Ursula LeGuin does something like that, although she also makes sure the rhythm of her sentences sounds like poetry. I love her stuff, but don’t have the elegance to write like that myself. I’m just glad to know that I don’t have to try to. I’m free to discover whatever it is that I want to do with my words instead.

When I tell my words how high to jump, I want them to ask “d’you want me to be wearing the sparkly skirt with that?” Not to worry about how other writers do it. They’re my words, after all.

To quote Terry Pratchett (another top hatted master of the three ring word circus): “If cats looked like frogs we’d realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That’s what people remember.”
Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies


Having said that, how do you go about developing your author’s voice?

The first thing I would say is that IMO it’s not something you need to worry about when you’re writing the first draft of your first novel. Actually it’s not something you need to worry about at all. Your voice is simply what happens when you learn to express yourself in the way that comes naturally to you. So all you have to do is write lots of stories, and your voice will happen by itself.

This is not very helpful advice, is it? You want to know how you develop your voice right now. You don’t want to have to wait until you’ve written 15 novels, all of which you’ll look back on at some time in the future and think “that doesn’t even sound like me!”

And this is true. If you don’t want to find your voice by churning out lots of text, making mistakes, correcting them and trying again – the way we learn to walk – much can be done by reading advice on style. Only so long as it’s the right advice – advice which is congenial to you.

Out there on the internet there are hundreds of people who will tell you to mangle your grammar by removing the word ‘was’ wholesale. There are people who will tell you that any verb ending with ‘ing’ is ‘passive’ and must be annihilated by nuclear warheads (when actually a verb ending in ‘ing’ indicates that the action of the verb is continuing. Ie they didn’t ‘run’ in the past, they aren’t going to ‘run’ in the future, they are ‘running’ right now as we speak. You can’t get much more active than that.)

If you’re going to take style advice from someone, look for advice from the writers you love. If you love their writing, chances are their advice will tend towards producing writing like that.

I thoroughly recommend “Steering the Craft” by Ursula LeGuin and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. These authors do not lay down hard and fast rules about which words you’re allowed to use and which you aren’t, they encourage you to pay attention to the way words sound together, to hear them like music or poetry and allow them to have rhythm and character and fun. They also give you some exercises to do to develop a style of your own.

Just as I would say “go for style advice to writers whose style you admire” I would also say “look at the writing of writers you admire and try to work out how they do it.” If necessary, try writing something in their style, so that you can figure out which bits seem to fit you and which bits feel horribly awkward.

I trained myself to write settings, description and atmosphere by imitating Tolkien, who I consider a master of the creeping ambiance. I trained myself to look for the most concrete words instead of vague ones because he said that was how he did it – and I think it works. You may start off imitating, just as a new dancer starts off imitating what they see the experienced dancers doing, but before long the parts that come naturally to you will become your own, and you will drop the other parts and be left with a new amalgam which is specifically your own.

If you see a device being used with lots of panache by another writer and it speaks to something in you that says “Oh God! I want to write like that!” then do. Steal the technique (not the actual words, that would be wrong) and apply it yourself. I love Patrick O’Brian’s sentence fragments. They spatter the book with a flying spray of words like sea foam flying past the bow of a ship. So I started doing it too.

Editors aren’t terribly fond of that aspect of my writing, so I’ve dialed it back a little these days, but I still feel that some of the exuberance of the technique has made it through to influence my own voice. And after all, I don’t want to sound too much like someone else. Take techniques that work from anywhere you see them, but use them in your own way.

How will you know what your own way is? It will come naturally. It will be the only way you can write. It will be the sentence you look at and think ‘yes. That’s right.’ The simile only you could have thought of, because no one else seems to have had the same experience, the turn of phrase that makes you grin like a sickle moon. Trust yourself and write on.

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