Friday, December 08, 2006

The Shape and the Power of the Voice

Voice is the difference between fiction and a sort of journalism of events that never happened. Strong voice is "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this our sun of York," instead of "My brother's victory made me feel good." Strong voice is "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," instead of "things were mixed."

The single most important element of fiction is storytelling. And that can be broken into having a good story to tell and telling it in a compelling way, i.e. strong voice. It is one of the more difficult aspects of craft to master, and the vast majority of writers begin by copying someone else's voice. To have a strong consistent voice that is distinctly yours is a significant achievement.

There are series of steps where it comes to voice which most professional writers must pass through on their way to mastery:

1. Recognizing and understanding the idea of voice.
2. Writing with any voice at all (usually imitated).
3. Finding a voice of one's own.
4. Using that voice.
5. Doing so with consistancy.

There is a 6th step as well, but it's essentially optional. It is creating voices that are distinctive and personal and that also suit the tone of the written piece perfectly, so that each story is both completely yours and completely its own. That last one is very difficult, and I don't know anyone who does it with real consistency. But 6 isn't necessary to a long and fruitful career or to excellent writing. There are any number of writers whose work I love and respect who only ever go as far as step 5. Whether they could master 6 if they wanted to is, of course, an open question since it has to be exhibited to be judged.

So, any thoughts on voice? Have you found yours? If so how? The steps above? A completely different process? If there anyone whose voice you particularly admire?


Anonymous said...

I think I'm at the point where I've developed my own voice, but I have to be careful. If i'm reading a book while I'm writing (which I usually am) I may find myself imitating the voice of the author I'm reading.

Fortunately, that usually comes out in the edits.

Kelly McCullough said...

Uh-huh, that's always a danger. I try very hard not to read anything similar to what I'm writing while I'm working on a project. It can be hard sometimes. I often get "oh, you're working on X? So-and-so did a great book about that, here let me (lend or give) you a copy." In response I generally pick up whatever it is and set on my to-be-read pile to await the finish of the current project.

Anonymous said...

Same here, Kelly Y. and Eric. Any extraneous voices I've picked up comes out in the edit, and I try not to read what I'm writing. Right now I'm working on a YA novel, so I'm staying away from the Westerfelds and the Rowlings.

As for how I found my voice ... wow. Explaining that is like making a sand castle without water. I think what helped was realizing that I wasn't going to get published overnight and therefore, it didn't matter if anyone liked what I wrote. I stopped writing to please others and started writing to please myself. Once I got that concept through my head, my voice took shape.

Kelly McCullough said...

Kelly X, that's an extremely important realization and a useful one-sanity saving at the very least. Have I mentioned recently that I have no doubt you'll continue to crack the sales front if you keep at it?

~ Mari said...

Thanks for the post! I've kept a copy in my files.

As for how I found my own voice. That's a tough one, although I can say that it's changed quite a bit, especially over the last three years. Going back and reading older material recently made that abundantly clear.

Kelly McCullough said...

Oh yeah, voice is definitely something that continues to evolve. The best examples that I've found of that are actually in cartooning, where the (voice) art slowly grows and evolves but stays true to the feeling of the artist. If you go to a web toon like Questionable Content and look at comics from about every four months it's pretty dramtic.

Anonymous said...

Kelly Y: Thanks, dude. How is it you know how to encourage me when I need it the most? Just today I had a low-writing-self-esteem day.