Brad Leach once again brings us his viewpoint that is both fascinating
Don’t Mess Around with an Author’s Voice!
“Agents and editors often say they're looking for a fresh writing voice. The world needs to honor your voice. Use the words that come naturally to you and write the stories that haunt you.” Natalie Charles
What is “Voice” when you write? Is it another word for your story? Is it the distinctive way each character speaks? Is it an ongoing message woven in each story or novel? I’ve heard it billed as “an author’s style.” But what is that?
Voice is one of those confusing writer’s terms kicked around by pipe-puffing, cardigan- clad, sophisticate-writers in loafers, chatting up Susan Sontag wannabes in urban writer’s groups. He’ll toss it out in reference to his Hemmingway experiment. She’ll talk about how her younger New York experience formed it. It’s the je ne sais quoi of the writer’s world. It’s what you say when you don’t know what to say.
After exploration and drilling that mandated an OSHA permit, I’ve excavated a definition. It’s how the author chooses to write something.
“What?” I hear you ask, teeth grinding. “All this fuss and it’s simply what words I choose?” And at its heart, the answer is “yes.” But remember, how you choose to write something impacts the reader’s images and moods. It will appeal to some and put off others.
Take Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s cliché phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night.” That’s how he decided to open his 1830 Victorian novel, Paul Clifford. But how many ways can someone open a novel with a storm or bad weather?
“The storm broke. Hard.” Or, “Tidal winds poured even amounts of fury and rain across the alien jungles on the planet’s dark side.” Or, “Rain for her tears and rents of wild wind for her scratched soul, she was as broken as the sky when lightning tore through it.” How about, “Rains lashed against umbrellas, black as the clouds, while nasty winds threatened to pluck them from the hands of their proper owners.”
Each of these choices might illustrate authorial style and could open a story. The first I was thinking of Louis L'Amore’s style. The next how Alan Dean Foster might open a fantasy. The next pulls my mind toward a gothic romance voice; the last I envisioned Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (Authors/estates forgive me if I’ve missed the mark.)
My point is the author’s “voice” is simply what you choose to say and how you choose to say it. Some authors are pithy or laconic; some verbose and labored. Some love description; some loathe it. Some want to set the scene then hit the dialogue and action. Others work the setting into the dialogue or action. It all creates your unique voice or style, like you can recognize a singer by their voice and how they deliver the song.
You may have had an article or book writer tell you to pick a favorite author and study his or her voice. Can an author work on “voice” or is it something you’re born with? Parallel question: Can I sound like Johnny Cash or am I stuck sounding like a braying mule? The answer is “Yes.”
I can train my voice, discipline my breathing, adopt pauses, and work on vibrato. I can study what allows Cash to put a song across. I can improve all those things. I still won’t sound like Johnny. But my braying will sound more cultured. With enough work, it might even merit a nod or two from fellow mules.
Now there is a subtle danger to copying anyone’s voice. In the movie, Ray (based on Ray Charles), Ray is auditioning in a studio, but he’s intentionally sounding like other artists, hoping to get a contract. A booth producer complains that nobody wants to hear another Nat King Cole or Charles Brown. Ray’s agent, Ahmet, wanting to save the deal, tells Ray they don’t want a copy-cat. Ray says that’s what the people want. Ahmet suggests Ray do a song Ahmet wrote called “Mess Around.” Ray asks to hear it. Ahmet asks if he can play stride piano in a “Pete Johnson” style, then he sings it. Ray listens. Ray had already learned to play various styles of piano. He already knew when to breathe or break his voice for emphasis. In a magical moment, Ray took the song and added his unique style. It was a hit, and Ray Charles took off.
This is what we all are trying to do. Study techniques. Analyze successful author’s styles, yes. Not to copy them but to incorporate what they do well into our own words and sentences. Read, write, absorb techniques; let them inspire us. We can even practice short snippets. But then we step back into our own stories and write our own words. Form our own sentences. Try writing an opening two or three ways.
Master literary techniques. And if some of the ways you say things sounds a bit more like your favorite authors, great. But ultimately, strive to be the unique voice other authors will hope to incorporate someday.