I believe there is an urge in most writers, to stand out from the rest. To be unique. To write a sentence, a paragraph, a book–and for any reader to take one look, and know immediately that it is their writing.
This was not, in fact, a subject that garnered much attention from me until fairly recently. When I first started writing, I was most interested in story. This was my personal most naive writing-self: it was the events, the action, the progression from start to rising action to climax that got me excited to write. The concept had to be novel, the plot points, larger than life.
Along with that, and with greater gusto as time went on, was emotion. Even to this day, the feeling is one of the first things I consider when writing. What do I want the reader to feel, and how do I evoke those sensations? Actions without an emotional charge are just bullet points, an A, B, C list of what-next. What I really want–even wanted when I first began to write, though I could not name it–was for the reader to feel something. I wanted the audience to be carried on prose, to gasp at betrayal and giggle with joyous victory.
I have concerned myself, since, with other aspects of the writing process. How to tap into one’s creativity, how to actually finish a piece, how to write action scenes, how to avoid repetitive language, how and when to edit…
But as for voice? I had not thought much on it until recently, when I realized I had begun to find my own.
I did not search for it. It has come about mostly through writing, and having over ten years to experiment with style, borrow sentence lengths and language choices from other writers. Over time, I’ve settled into small conventions and tricks that not only work for me, but evoke a feeling in me.
And there it is, again: feeling. I come back to emotion because I feel that my voice is guided a great deal by emotion, and how I personally go about making feeling.
That may sound peculiar, how you go about making feeling. But bear with me for a few moments. I want to take you through a realization I recently had, with regards to how different people make sense of the world:
My mother is a visual learner. It is a simple fact: she thinks in pictures, in beauty, and colors. She can plan an entire room in her head, can purchase paint without chips and have it match the rest of the decor, and seeing things out of place grates on her like none other. If she ever took up writing, I have no doubt that she could set scenes for historical fiction, describe the far-off places of fantasy and sci-fi, or organize the steps, rooms, suspects, and evidence all of some fantastic murder-mystery.
I, however, am an auditory learner. Messy space does not bother me. However, my mother will start playing news or a Netflix show at the same time as music is playing in the living room. The discordant mish-mash of noise doesn’t bother her. It does not sound to her ear like a miserable cacophony of competing sense. It does to me. I stop the music when she plays her programs, and she tries to assure me that the music was not bothering her watching or listening experience in the least.
Important to note, as well, is that I used to dance. Not only does sound make sense to me, but the way that sound moves, and the way one moves to sound all make sense to me. There are beats, rhythms, breathing pauses and quick footwork. There is, inherent in sound, pulse, motion, and emotion, too.
When I go to write, a lot of what I look for is whether it sounds right in my head. Do I need the punctuation of a short paragraph or the lulling thrum of a long one? Does a monosyllable fit best, or a polysyllable? Am I looking for hard consonants, t’s and k’s to make the piece hop and stutter, or am I looking for m’s and s’s that give it a gentle, lullaby quality? How does the rhythm of the passage change if I put an aside at the beginning of the sentence, or at the end?
And again, because all of this sound has movement, all of this decides what the prose is doing. Whether it ramps up tension, whether it pauses and inquires, whether the passage flows or trips or stands up tall… All of this, for me, is decided by the sound of it. These things help determine feeling.
When I think about voice, this is where I locate it. I have experimented in loads of different styles: one novel draft was done while eyeball-deep in Vonnegut, where I was charmed by the matter-of-fact bluntness and over-explanation of his prose. Another novel draft was done while taking an entire course on Faulkner, and my periods became evermore elusive as the book went on. What you read can certainly affect your style. Adopting and trying out what has worked for another can be incredible for opening doors, and seeing where you may have yet to go.
But as for my voice: it is nothing but a melting pot of different styles I’ve tried, things that have stuck, and an awareness of how I personally like to write. I do not know if there is a way to get to one’s voice except to practice. To keep writing. To pick up what works and carry it forward, and to always try picking up new things.
I do not think I could write a how-to on finding your voice, because I think it will be different for every writer. What I will say is that I feel more in-tune with my voice since I have begun writing stories I truly and deeply care about, and since I have had years of practice to get to where I want to be. Know yourself as a writer–know what works for you, and locate where the magic happens. Chances are, if something marvelous is tickling you, it is because something true to your own voice is shining through.