Vicki Hinze © 2003-2011
Some experts, and most editors, consider a distinct voice a writer’s greatest asset.
Voice is not the style a novelist incorporates to depict novel elements, event or theme. It goes far deeper than that.
Voice is unique to each author. It’s his or her individual perceptions and penchant for relating everything from phraseology to story and character development.
One prominent editor said, “Voice is writing the way you talk.”
Now, if we think about this, then we’ll appreciate the wealth of insight we’ve been given in that deceptively simple description. How we talk is an outward manifestation of how we think. Typically, we don’t censor our thoughts. But we do censor what we say to temper the reaction of the persons to whom we’re speaking.
In writing, we temper, too. We reveal only those things we feel will enhance the story we wish to tell and elicit the reader response we desire. Yet our uncensored thoughts still affect our perceptions, and those perceptions translate and help to define the slant of our story.
For example: in our story, we have a wise and gentle woman, an elderly, secondary character, who lives on a fixed income. She’s preparing to attend a good friend’s wedding and sews herself a dress. It’s white polyester and, we think, totally inappropriate for this upscale wedding. But we admire this woman and have no desire to hurt her or to make her feel anything less than comfortable—in her clothing, and in her skin. She bluntly asks if the dress looks cheap. It does. But our perceptions of tact, discretion, compassion, and respect for this woman prevent us from saying so. Instead, we say it looks good—and that we’ve got the perfect black jacket to go with it.
Now each author would take this situation and depict it accurately but differently. His or her sincerity and commitment would shine through. But no two writers would choose the same words. Each writer would choose a different setting, pacing, and tone. Each would choose different details to project the emotional tone s/he wants conveyed, and each writer would incorporate his or her favored style. And no two authors would use the same voice.
Now why is that?
Because each author would deal with this situation, and therefore depict it, in a manner familiar to him. The author would process the elements in his or own unique way and through his/her own unique frame of reference, and then relate them.
Identifying voice isn’t mystical, it’s simple. It’s the same principle as having four people look out the same window on the same scene and each document what s/he observes. Each person will see different things—or the same things, but in different ways.
Pick up four novels. Read one page of each. Close the books. Then randomly choose a page in one book. Can you identify which of the books that random page belongs to? Likely you can. And the reason is the author’s voice.
Some writers attempt to mimic the voice of other writers. Sometimes consciously—as when writing novels under a publisher-owned pseudonym in an ongoing series—and sometimes unconsciously—as when reading a novel that has a profound impact on the writer and it transfers to the writer’s own story. A type of unintentional, subliminal transference. If you’re prone to this, and most writers are, then restrict your reading to works unlike the one you’re currently writing.
To an extent, a specific novel-in-progress can alter the writer’s voice, though not entirely. Particular phraseology, the way the author attacks structural development, as well as author theme typically remain consistent, novel-to-novel.
But the writer may alter voice somewhat to better suit the needs of the story. S/he may adopt a more formal tone, more or less formal verbiage. S/he may choose a more lean, spare writing style for a particular novel. But the writer’s natural voice will remain the same at core level—identifiable as that particular author’s work. These changes subtly manipulate voice. No more than that.
I’ve been asked many times what a writer can do to develop her voice. My advice is this: write naturally. Write the way you think—before the censors click in. Allow nothing that “feels” stiff or formal (not “sounds” stiff or formal, because that could be your goal) or inappropriate to your story to remain in it. And continue to feed your mind. The more you know, the more you can relate. You’ll deepen your creative well. The more that creative well holds, the more there is available to draw from and use. With a deep well, the writer has additional tools to make that unique voice even more distinct and articulate.
Voice is what engages the reader. It gains his or her trust, makes him or her say, “Yeah, I want to give up a couple hours of my life here and go along with this writer for the ride.” A distinct voice—one that comes across solid and strong and sure—encourages the reader to suspend disbelief and buy into the premise, to become emotionally involved with the characters. The sincerity and conviction of the writer never wavers. Nothing is wishy-washy. Everything is deliberate, intentional, steadfast and honest and faithful to the vision promised. That creates and maintains the fictional dream from first page to last.
Voice can be mimicked, but never honestly duplicated because writers are individual human beings and not clones of each other. In attempting to emulate another author’s voice, a writer insults himself and dishonors his gift of craft. That emulation can be done in spurts, but it simply can’t be maintained.
The reason why is simple. Every plot advancement, every detail related, every new bit of information that is revealed impacts the whole novel and requires the novelist to make choices. Each choice brings about new events, new advancements, and then those require new choices. No two people are going to consistently make the same choices for the same reasons for the same characters through an entire novel.
And shouldn’t we be grateful for that? The world doesn’t need another Shakespeare or Grisham or John Saul. It already has them. What it doesn’t have is you. Your voice, which expresses both your universality and your unique individuality. This is your gift to readers. This is the core of your voice.*