The Grand Adventure To Find Your Voice

I completed a really cool interview over at 52Reviews, and there I answered a question about voice, and the answer, I think, may be of some use to readers here. Go check out the interview, as I talk a bit about writing craft and The Blue Blazes and also about pointing guns at ponies. (Don’t worry, the pony is still alive. Sheesh.)

Anyway, here’s that quote on voice:

“Every author decides to go on a grand adventure one day, and that grand adventure is to find her voice. She leaves the comfort of her own wordsmithy and she traipses through many fictional worlds written by many writers and along the way she pokes through their writings to see if her voice is in there somewhere. She takes what she reads and she mimics their voices, taking little pieces of other authors with her in her mind and on the page.

Is her voice cynical? Optimistic? Short and curt, or long and breezy? She doesn’t know and so she reads and she writes and she lives life in an effort to find out.

This adventure takes as long as it takes, but one day the author tires of it and she comes home, empty-handed, still uncertain what her voice looks like or sounds like.

And there, at home, she discovers her voice is waiting. In fact, it’s been there all along.

Your voice is how you write when you’re not trying to find your voice. Your voice is the way you write, the way you talk. Your voice is who you are, what you believe, what themes you knowingly and unknowingly embrace.

Your voice is you.

Search for it and you won’t find it. Stop looking and it’ll find you.”

38 comments

  • I’m of a few minds on this one. On the one hand, the ‘your voice is what you write when you’re not worrying about your voice’ thing is kind of what happened when I was writing Geekomancy – Ree’s voice is largely my voice, just filtered by the character and the situation.

    But on the other hand, I also want to write things that tend to call for a voice different from my own – epic fantasy, space opera, etc. I could try to write a wisecracking intermittently foul-mouthed and grad-school grandiloquent epic fantasy…but that might not go over too well.

    I guess much of this could come down to the gradation between narrative/character voice and authorial voice. I think your idea of the Grand Adventure is most applicable to what I’d call authorial voice, that throughline in writing that lets someone go ‘I bet this is written by ,” where each book can then have its own voice within that authorial voice/range.

    Something I’ve been wrestling with, and will face head-on as I head into my new series. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. They’ve bounced off my brain in intriguing ways, and I will consult the impact bruises for wisdom.

    • @Mike –

      Sure, though some of that is a function of style, too — you can change your style somewhat while still retaining your voice. (King always reads like King to me even when he’s writing EYES OF THE DRAGON.) Character voice, too, is very separate from all this and this speaks more toward authorial voice, indeed!

      – c.

  • I have what might be a dumb question: what exactly is voice, anyway? Is it writing style? Common literary techniques (e.g., sarcasm) or favorite words? Common sentence structure? Common themes or prominent elements? That mystical pornography-like thing that no one can define but all can identify? A hackneyed blend of all of the above?

    • That’s not a dumb question at all, Tia Kalla. On the contrary, it is the principal question.

      Voice is style, yes. Style is how you present your story. Style is complex, but it’s not a mystical thing that can’t be defined.

      In literature, as in every art, there are fundamentally two and only two components: subject-matter and style.

      Subject is what you present. It is The What.

      Style is how you present it. It is The How.

      Style is the way in which an artist presents her or his subject. It is why the same bowl of apples painted by five different painters will nevertheless look distinctly different in the hands of each artist.

      Style is the most complicated component of art because so many factors go into making it. Style is largely a cumulative process, gathered over many years and absorbed through practice into the subconscious, until one’s style becomes almost automatic. It’s why unpracticed writers don’t have a developed style.

      Voice is one component of style. Voice is part of The How.

      A writer’s voice can be prolix and confusing — e.g.:

      I study and read. I bet I’ve read everything you read. Don’t think I haven’t. I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives. I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.” My instincts concerning syntax and mechanics are better than your own, I can tell, with all due respect. But it transcends the mechanics. I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions. Some of them are interesting. I could, if you’d let me, talk and talk.

      – David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

      Or limpid and precise:

      I recall one particular sunset. It lent an ember to my bicycle bell. Overhead, above the black music of telegraph wires, a number of long, dark-violet clouds lined with flamingo pink hung motionless in a fan-shaped arrangement. It was dying, however, and everything else was darkening too; but just above the horizon, in a lucid, turquoise space, beneath a black stratus, the eye found a vista that only a fool could mistake for the spare parts of this or any other sunset.

      – Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

      Or poetic:

      “I hate that dreadful hollow behind the little wood.”

      – Lord Alfred Tennyson

      Or sophisticated and strange, as Walter Pater’s unforgettable description of the Mona Lisa:

      “She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave.”

      Style can be dry. Style can be light. Style can be vulgar. Style can be beautiful. Style can be ugly. Style can be surreal. Style can be many, many other things as well, including many, many cross-combinations of those things.

      Styles are as diverse as fingerprints.

      Styles are ultimately epistemological:

      The clearer your thinking, the clearer your style.

  • Loved this! Had a momentary Dorothy & Toto flashback. “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire I won’t look any further then my own backyard. Cause if it isn’t there i never really lost it to begin with.” (Bet those were Flying Penmonkeys in Oz.)

  • May 3, 2013 at 2:07 PM // Reply

    True. Profound. Exact. I never searched for voice in my writing, it just happened. I think stepping out of a writing comfort zone, established by what we typically write or enjoy writing, only further develops our voice. At worst, it lends itself to creating another voice which may be used to further enhance creativity and style. Guess it’d be like penning a sci-fi adventure when only constructing short story horror… The creativity is there, but the voice comes–eventually.

  • Very Confuciusy! In all seriousness, I love this post because I think it’s right. And like any other amount of writing advice, the only way you can find your voice is by writing a lot. And when you think you finished, write more and then read some other stuff. And don’t let anyone tell you how to write. Learn how to write.

    –Julie

  • Thanks for this. I find that my writing/blogging voice is clearer and more articulate than my real-life voice where I… um… have… lots of, like, pauses and my mind drifts and the area under my left eye starts to twitch. Not sure what that says about me, except that I prefer to write (to an audience) than speak. And the more I write, the stronger my voice becomes.

  • Nicely said, Chuck. I think when one first begins writing their voice is timid, a whisper, but after many hours spent in front of the keyboard it gets louder, bolder, clearer. At least that’s what I’ve found.

  • I used to try and mimic writers, and then discovered that it’s nearly impossible to do so without your own voice showing through. I will say however, that if you read an ample amount of a particular genre or author, that voice will start to rub off on your own. This explains why I tend to write in a more poetic, old-fashioned voice.

    • Karoline,

      I find that ‘rubbing off’ to happen to me, as well. That’s why I try to read different things over time to make sure everything evens out, and that I read the best possible material I can to make sure that what influence I *do* take is of high quality.

  • May 3, 2013 at 5:29 PM // Reply

    I completely agrees with you and thank GOD that I did not go out to find my voice, I actually wrote my book before I decided to learn all that I could about the Industry and what was right for me.

  • May 4, 2013 at 2:01 AM // Reply

    Yeah, no. It’s just not that simple, at least it hasn’t been for me. As a newbie writer, published-author-wannabe, I’ve been struggling with this for the last six months (slow I know- writing is not my day job).

    I had a breakthrough last week, but before that my voice flopped about, barely recognizable as the same author from scene to scene. They were all my voice, all me- but seriously, who has just one “me”?

    Personally, my word choice, grammar, use of colloquial expressions, sentence complexity, frequency of profanity and humor all depend upon the situation I am in, not to mention my mood- yeah, maybe mostly depending on my mood. I have dozens of different voices, one for each emotion and nuanced by whether I’m speaking for business, for my yoga friends, for my Girl Scouts, for the hot guy who walks his wiener dog at the park.

    I finally decided that my writing voice should be the one that makes my smart friends laugh ’till they spit their coffee across the table. I know, it took me 50,000 words to realize this? Maybe I’m not bright enough to write a book after all.

    But that voice is not any more “me” than the others. Or it is exactly as “me” as the others.

    How do most people know which “me” is their writing voice? Crap. Have I picked the wrong one?

    • You have to give it more than six months before you get to declare that it is or is not that simple.

      It took me ten years to realize I didn’t need to find my voice, that I had one all along.

      – c.

      • May 4, 2013 at 7:03 AM // Reply

        Ten years. OMG, shoot me now. Seriously, ten years? I don’t think I can do this.

        Guess I’ll just have to read your stuff. :-)

        • Bless your heart, yes – six months is but the blink of an eye in terms of building yourself into the writer you want to be. That’s not meant to discourage you – it blimmin’ shouldn’t anyway, if you’re serious about it ;) – it just means that you shouldn’t go beating yourself up because you’re not yet at the place you want to be. Don’t believe all the hype you see/hear/read in the media about all these authors who apparently became million-selling mega-famous hits ‘overnight;’ hype is all it is. Yep, even a certain Ms E.L. James, who in reality is rather a world away from the ‘shy housewife’ she is always painted to be!

          When it comes to getting good at writing, there’s no literary equivalent of liposuction or plastic surgery, so you gotta want to be in it for the long haul.
          But think of it this way; ten years doing something you love – that you’d do anyway even if you didn’t have to do it – won’t seem that long in the end, because you’ll have had the best road trip of your life along the way. :)

      • You sure it wasn’t ten years chopping, mixing, marinating in your subconscious and the result was a nice your-voice souffle?

  • Woo! I feel like I just read an undiscovered chapter of the Tao Te Ching there!

    My own approach these days is not to worry about my own voice, but the voice of whatever I’m working on (novel, blog post, sext message). Seems to work pretty well. At the very least, I get lost and confused a lot less often.

    Consciously trying to find one consistent voice and tone to carry all my words, regardless of context, is just a lost cause. Hell, my handwriting undergoes major shapeshifts depending on what kind of pen I’m holding and what color my mood is. My spoken accent changes depending on who’s around. The only logical answer is not to actively try for it. Voice, in a way, comes down to an advanced exercise in Not Giving A Shit.

    But it’s like they say about Zen: simple, yes; easy, not so much.

  • I like to liken voice to a disco-ball. One of those big cheesy seventies disco-balls that is so obnoxiously just there. At first glance it seems like one single thing, but when you look closer (it helps if you’re sober when you look, and not drunkenly doing the funky-chicken to the BeeGee’s Stayin’ Alive) you see that it’s not one single thing at all.

    It’s one single thing covered in a hell of a lot of tiny mirrors. That mirror over there was the voice I used when I wrote a piece from the first-person perspective of a frightened child. The mirror in the centre is the voice I used just this morning, when I was writing from the third-person perspective of a weirdly naive-yet-somewhat-jaded woman who spends far too much time with aliens. Over here is another mirror, the voice of a dead man speaking beyond the grave (and he’s pretty pissed about it, too)

    The disco-ball of voices is kinda like the moon; when you look at it, you only see one side of it, because the disco-ball-moon has more than two dimensions. On the other side of it are even more mirrors, voices I have yet to use or discover or voices which were used so long ago they are now mostly forgotten. But despite the many tiny little voice-mirrors all over the disco-ball-moon, they are all my voice. They’re all a part of my overall being, but just like an actor slipping into and out of characters, I can choose which voice to use for any given situation. They’re all just me.

    That’s how I see it, anyway.

  • “Search for it and you won’t find it. Stop looking and it’ll find you.”
    I got this as dating advice once, and it was solid there to.

  • Totes agree. The ten year thing and all. I’ve been doing this for that long and I, now, write off the cuff and know it feels better than trying to write in what I thought might be my voice. Never find it while looking for it.

    This year, or next, I’ll finish my shit and get published like a good penmonkey. It just feels right, so I know it is.

    Top post!

  • This kind of “screw you bastard, you’re a writer!” approach is what makes me return to this blog over and over… You’re like the teacher in school who laid it out without the sugar-coating and I have developed for you a grudging respect where I listen but pretend I don’t give a damn.

    Thank you very much…

  • May 6, 2013 at 9:18 PM // Reply

    Very zen-like.
    Voice is one of those things that you can’t find when you search for it. like the meaning of life. Or “that place where you were before you were born”.
    Fuck voice.
    Just write.

  • I didn’t know I had a voice (per se) until my mom told me she always knew when a piece she was reading was one of mine, even if there was no byline. And she said this in reference to nonfiction training articles and interviews I used to write for a professional organization’s association magazine. (Some appeared without attribution, as they were filler or straight news pieces.)

    That was 10 years (yikes!) or so ago.

    For the past 6 years, most of my writing, infrequent as it has become, is in the form of blog posts. And, sure enough, my handful of loyal readers have told me they love how I write and that they’ve missed my voice during my periods of “slackenbloggen.”

    Now if I could only get past the fear that I don’t have anything worthwhile to say and that I will only prove this if I ever sit down and really try to write fiction, who knows what I could do?

    At least I know I will sound like me if (when?) I do it.

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