You hear about a writer’s voice all the time, no?
And I bet you recognize the style of the authors you love, which plays a big part in their unique voices. It’s a sound, isn’t it. A cadence that sings through your mind and you swear you’d recognize it anywhere. And do.
The sparse prose of a Hemingway. The lyrical magic of Maclean or Ford. The stream-of-conscious of McCarthy or Faulkner.
Funny enough, an urban legend is running through publishing circles now, which says that having a unique voice is no longer a good thing, especially in genre fiction. Instead, having that bland comforting sound of a national news broadcaster serves you best.
You know, Pablum for readers.
But I would strongly disagree. In book editing, as in reading, I can tell an author’s voice from the first sentence. And that holds true for a voice I love, as well as one that clangs in my ears.
Having a distinct writing voice is what sets you apart from the field. It makes your work uniquely yours. And having one that sings causes readers to come back again and again.
But how, exactly, do you find your own voice?
Here are 7 ways to get you on track.
- Which authors do you love?
Who do you read most for pleasure? When answering this, try to take the genre out of it (unless all you read are books in your own genre. Which if so, is an issue! Read widely). Just think of the authors/voices.
What is it about their voices that tweak you?
Is it the sparseness of the prose? Or the iambic pentameter of the poetry underneath? Or even the precisely perfect word of a Shakespeare?
Study them. Dissect why you love them.
- Emulate those voices.
Now, this goes contrary to what everyone else in the industry says! “Beware of sounding like this author or that one.” “Take care that you don’t intuit or imitate someone else’s voice.” Even to the point of: “Don’t read fiction while you’re writing a novel or the author’s voice may infiltrate yours!”
Hogwash. If others on the planet could write like Hemingway, they would. In fact, contests are held around this! And the winners are usually in the humor category.
Besides, we’re talking about finding your voice. Which means, you haven’t honed in on it yet.
This is simply an exercise in writing in another’s voice. You’ll be amazed at what you learn. It’s akin to using different exercises to work the same muscle.
- Write in completely different genres and even media from what you usually do.
Are you a novelist? Try your hand at poetry. Write a political speech for a candidate you admire. Write an op-ed piece for the newspaper.
With my book-editing clients, I often suggest this. Especially short fiction, which cleanses the palate between a novel’s first draft and the revising of it.
If you write narrative non-fiction, try writing a haiku. Or a stand-up comedy skit. And especially in this case, give a short story a go.
Just write in a genre you haven’t before (and may never again!).
- When speaking, what are your favorite words?
We all have them. Pay attention to yours. What word patterns do you use the most? Are they the same as your favorite writing words?
Then, do a little etymology research. I have to confess to being such a word nerd that this tweaks me all over the place. Finding word origins and how their forms and meanings have changed over the decades and even centuries, well, that makes me love words all the more.
And aren’t we, as writers, lovers of words?
This will spur your creativity, while increasing your vocabulary, and in an organic rather than a stilted/thesaurus manner.
- Find the rhythm in your prose.
It’s there, even if you’re just beginning to write. Even if together they sound more like a screeching cat than a seamless symphony, there’s still a rhythm burbling under the words.
Somewhere underneath that cacophony of sounds, pretty music is playing.
Find those sounds. Listen for them. Focus on those strengths, however small they may be at first, rather than your weaknesses. Martin Seligman wrote about the psychological studies that show if you do the former rather than the latter, your success grows by leaps and bounds.
- Read Aloud.
Yeah, I know, scary. Time to get over that fear though. I’m not saying you have to go out and read at Barns & Noble, or even to the local writers group. At first. But rather just to yourself, read aloud. It’s amazing how the false notes stand out. But so do the beautiful ones. Then see # 5 above.
You’ll hear how to tighten your prose, which enhances your voice.
Because eventually, you’ll need to muster the courage to read to that writers group. That’s how you practice up to read at your book signings once the book is published.
Yep, the old standby. There just is no way to hone your voice except to write. And write. And write. And . . .
But I promise, if you do so, the clutter from your words will begin to disappear and the jewels shine forth.
And that’s the point of all of the writing exercises, no? To help you to become better and better?
So that one day, someone will read your words and say, “Ah, I know who that is—he’s my favorite author.”