It takes a long time to figure out your voice as a writer. As much as I wish it were the case, I am still aware of the fact that my own voice is still in its nascent stages, a fetal thing growing new appendages and organs. It is also losing those traits that were deleterious to its survival. But this is something that has been going on since I was writing. My first story, at least the first one I can reliably remember writing, was a detective story about a serial killer. I wrote it when I was maybe six. From there, I graduated to sea monsters, then zombies. Then came my personal Ice Age. A period in which I put nothing to paper or word processor. Finally, a story called The Mist by Stephen King put me back on the wagon. And after that I became a national best seller and had groupies in at least 8 continents (one of which I made up because I was so successful and you can do things like that when you’re famous). No. Actually, from then on, in addition to honing my skills, I’ve been working on developing a voice of my own. (Though I still have my own continent. I swear.) Before I go any farther into what it takes to develop a voice, I’d like to discuss what that even means.
If you’ve read enough of a particular author, you’ve picked up on it. In fact, apart from genre, I bet the voice of the author is why you keep buying his or her books. It’s not something you can point to. Instead it’s the way the author writes. It’s how the author phrases things. What the author concentrates on in descriptions. The length of sentences. All this contributes to the tone and voice but it is still more. Are they generally funny? More serious? Maybe the most concise way I can describe it is that the voice of the author is the voice you hear in your head when you read. When I read, in addition to the movie playing in my head, I hear the words as if I were listening to the story being told to me. In those moments, the voice of the author becomes most clear and I can really feel the story come to life through the writer’s words. But those moments of conscious awareness are rare because the voice is consistent and the cumulative effect is that I am totally transported into the story which has become a seamless world in and of itself. But this effect is difficult to create, especially if you are still learning the ropes which is why I’m writing this post.
Developing a voice is one of those things that seems to happen when you’re not looking. For me, the less I think about it, the more strongly I find my voice emerges in a work. But that’s not to say getting to this small victory is easy. At first one naturally emulates those they admire. For me, it was H.P. Lovecraft. My style was byzantine. Each sentence was a maze of clauses and only the most esoteric word would do. After a while though, I found that I lost momentum. I had to strain more and more to put anything down because that was not my voice. Sure you can eventually do something to the point where you become it (this is kind of the basis for behavioral therapy) but when you write, you end up showing who you are whether you like it or not and if you fight it or are still figuring out what tone and style is yours, then your writing process will be slow and painful. I’m not saying that writing isn’t sometimes slow and painful even after you’ve figured out your voice (tales of writers going insane from writer’s block are more true than you can imagine) but without finding your own, unique voice, your writing will not reach its full potential. So to get to the point at which you can write in your own voice, I highly suggest looking inwards. What are you like when no one is there to judge you? How many things that you don’t say to others would fit your story? Does what you discover frighten or disappoint you? Well put it in the story! Stories need emotion and if you cut out your emotions for fear of disapproval then you can’t write as well as you could if you finally just let go and relinquished control and part of that is acceptance of who you are. Every need, want, hurt, and hang-up is just the thing that the story needs. When you can look at yourself and see all of it and accept it, you are closer to writing in your true voice.
Another thing that might help get you there is to talk to yourself. I’m sure you already do this. I forget what percentage of people talk to themselves, but it’s higher than you think. And I’m not talking about talking to yourself in your head. I mean actually vocalizing and talking to an audience of one: yourself. Try narrating the story as if you were talking to someone you could trust, someone you could tell your most intimate, embarrassing, and painful secrets to. At first it will seem odd. In fact, I’d wager that it will make you feel even worse at first. But keep with it. If you can slug it out I think you’ll find that it becomes easier and easier to just flow and that is what you want. You want to have the feeling of freedom. Freedom to say what you want, how you want.
Part of the problem with being able to express yourself in your own voice also comes from the inside, from those other voices. The ones who tell you not to say this or that. They tell you some things are not to be said. They might also say that if you say it like that, it might sound stupid. It won’t sound professional. Stephen King wouldn’t say it like that! Well of course! You’re not Stephen King! That’s the whole point. The more you listen to these voice, the harder it will become to actually write because you are shredding yourself for really no reason other than feelings of inadequacy. How do you get around this blockade? One useful tool is free-writing. When you free-write, you aren’t supposed to think of anything but writing. If you can’t think of what to write, just write “I don’t know what to write,” or something similar. An odd thing is that the things you come up with to write will probably reveal a lot about your voice. And if you do know what to write, then free-writing can help bring out your voice by keeping a constant flow of words coming through your fingers. At this fevered rate, your brain doesn’t have time to analyze the emerging words and so you can’t calculate which word would be better. Whatever hits you is what ends up on the page and this spontaneous creation is probably what you’ve been meaning to say all along. For this next bit of advice, I would suggest locking the kiddies in the next room… or in the cupboard. Whatever your style.
Hunter S. Thompson once said, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” Now I’m not going to tell you to go out and buy several hits of LSD-25 and then start writing (because I’m a responsible adult and citizen and if you want to trip then you don’t need me to tell you to do it!) but what I am suggesting very delicately is that having some whiskey or a poison of your choice on hand isn’t a terrible idea. Don’t make it a habit but I don’t think it’s a terrible idea to have some liquid Muse on hand, just to see what comes out of you. But again, I don’t think you need to be an alcoholic or a junkie to be a writer. That particular myth has done more harm than good. I’ve seen some of it first hand in people who mistake being a hardcore boozer with having talent. But when your inhibitions are lowered, you can finally write how you want to write without considering anything but the next key-stroke.
But the best and surest advice I can give is to just keep writing. Your voice will emerge. Writing is like any other skill. We copy in order to have a sense of how its done. We do it because if others have been successful in doing it a certain way, we can hold onto their sleeves and support ourselves till we get the strength necessary to walk on our own. And if you keep writing, you will get to that point where you realize that you have an individual voice and that you want to tell your stories with that voice. Getting there is time consuming and takes a great deal of patience, however, that is the whole game of writing or any other skill worth practicing.