Your Voice Sings Like an Angel! (remove one letter from that sentence, and you have a much darker theme: Your Voice Sins Like an Angel!)
Yep. I’m a NoWri. Not a NaNoWriMoWri. Just a NoWri.
Here is a long post. I apologize ahead of time: I understand some might have time constraints, but I love to write about voice, so I’m going to give it all the respect it deserves. Thank you.
You, writer, have a voice. The voice doesn’t have to be consistent throughout the life of your novels. In fact, you’re possibly damaging the book if you do so (unless you’re Edgar Allan Poe… but then, he never NoWri’d in his life: he believed it was beneath him). It doesn’t have to sing. It simply has to be yours. You must be comfortable in it.
But Chris! Nobody asked me, How do I find my voice? I feel deaf in this sea of words!
Excellent you asked, Nobody. Allow me a long post to extrapolate.
I write only because
There is a voice within me
That will not be still.
In high school my voice was a chaos chime burned on poetry. It bloomed around the volcanic soil of a smoldering confusion my family life created. It was florid and difficult to wade through, people talked the same, were of equal intelligence, fought against each other with equal, complex passion. My voice contained the exploration of words, and combinations, and extensions. I pursued a grandiose vocabulary, and then pursued a thrumming beat to the words. My books were first epic in scope–an entire world constructed to house the magical philosophy I wished to contain–yet the characters were profoundly two dimensional. I wanted my voice to break the reader like Mozart, allowing space for the reader to grow. My sentence structure sucked.
My voice has since grown, and shriveled with my introduction to diabetes, and grown again when I redeveloped. It isn’t easy to grow your voice. Like a singer, you can’t just pull up a microphone and belt, perfect pitch, a song.
Now, my voice is restricted intensity. Sometimes it comes through much stronger with caffeine, sometimes it’s melancholy and destructive in its exhibition, and it always tries to hold back the sarcastic snark–the leftovers of said chaotic family life. With each impressive person added to my life I’ve developed my voice, piecemeal.
So. Enough about me.
Your voice. Mas importante.
Part 1: Examples of Voice in the Wild
(From Wikipedia) The writer’s voice is the individual writing style of an author, a combination of their common usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works). The “etc.” in the previous sentence can be a pretty big one. If I were still in college I’d start with Faulkner and Dickens as examples to understand voice. Now that I’m safely removed (but maybe not for too much longer! Fingers crossed!) from that academic plane of existence, I’ll start with something a little more accessible. Movies! Yaay!
Movies are the new novels. Unfortunately. Quite unfortunately. Let’s look at some of the Fantasy/Scifi directors.
Directors have their own voices. Some of the more avid readers of my blog might remember my post about studying two movies Guillermo del Toro directed and wrote. He tends to be much more creative than the average director, with artistic flair given to not only the visual, but the philosophy of the characters, the construction of the plot, setting, conflict. He is earthy, like loam. He cares about details, of submerging the Observer in environment. He cares about his villains, if indeed they are villainous and not misunderstood protagonists. He puts a lot of emphasis on subconscious symbolism. He breathes his work, in and out.
Christopher Nolan is another example: his focus seems to twist, sharply, around a strong narrative with compelling characters. It isn’t surprising he gravitated toward superhero movies. They are the cowboys of the modern age: defining, polarizing, powerful. Yet, he prefers to insert flaw and vulnerability: humanity is much more important to Nolan than anything else (See: Superman kills someone in the movie). I’d consider him a humanist–and not the Atheism way, but in a focus on the power of the person. Why people do things, to Mr. Nolan, is much more important than the how. Or the what. His works are tempered steel, sharp and distilled and precise.
Peter Jackson licks fantasy and magic. He’s a dreamer. As the director, and writer, of the Lord of the Rings series, and Frighteners even farther back, Mr. Jackson enjoys the Jungian archetypes, the what-ifs, the magic of fantasy. His scenery reflects the mood, his characters reflect ideals and are often no larger than the focus: they are tools, extensions to the swords or in some cases, the cameras (as in King Kong), to fulfill a greater story arc. He sees his movies where the Observer sees them, and for this reason, his end results often have the “catalogued” feel of someone telling a story (again, as in King Kong).
Stephen Spielberg as been around so long his voice has grown and changed and evolved. His voice is as different for war movies like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan as it is for Jurassic Park, Super 8, and E.T., and cartoons like An American Tail and Animaniacs. He’s directed in almost every genre. He is powerfully commercialized, which makes his voice difficult to discern from all the other hands in the pie. His focus is mainly on characters, and the conflicts they survive. He is a powerhouse for commercial movies. He hasn’t written a movie since A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
I love watching the movie a director makes after he makes it big, because it’s often the movie he’s always wanted to make, and is the most inspired.
Three of the four of these directors work exclusively in the same genre: scifi/fantasy. They all have unique, different voices. Their results are different, though they incorporate similar ideas. If you study them, you would know the movie is theirs simply by details you find within. The same goes for painters, musicians, dancers, sculptors.
You must have a reason for what you do. Must. You must have a focus, a why behind the how and what.
Part 2: Developing Your Voice Through Others
So you like JK Rowling’s voice, and want to emanate her. How do you do it? You study her work. Or Pratchett’s. Or Simmons’s. This doesn’t make you a sell-out. This doesn’t make you shady, or crappy as a writer. It makes you diverse. It develops you by expanding your horizons beyond what you enjoy most.
Take it a step further? Find a “classic” novel you HATE, something you simply can’t stand, be it Catcher in the Rye or Moby Dick or Faulkner (love sigh), or even Gandhi’s autobiography, and study the first two chapters ONLY. What about their voice do you hate so much? What about the voice do most people like? Why are they considered “classics” when clearly you dislike them? This is a huge part of the process for me because I’ve learned so much about myself simply by looking at what I dislike. Just because vegetables taste gross doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat any ever again. Just because medicine tastes bad doesn’t mean it won’t help your body get over a sickness. This is fundamental to my development as a writer because these writers? The ones you hate? They’re still here. Some after their deaths. Many of them ten, twenty, fifty years dead. Still here. Why? And what makes you so good you think you’ll outlast them?
Maybe you don’t want to. Maybe you only care about writing for the sake of a story to share. Which is cool. Write away.
ONLY BY SEPARATING YOURSELF FROM YOUR VOICE CAN YOU UNDERSTAND HOW TO IMPROVE IT. ONLY THROUGH READING ANOTHER’S VOICE CAN YOU UNDERSTAND THE POSSIBILITY OF GROWTH.
I can’t stress this enough.
Example: I’m currently reading Don Quixote. Heralded as the birth of the “modern european novel,” it’s a novel written by a man who lived a colorful life, and was a writer, poet, and tax collector. The first portion of the novel was written while he was imprisoned for tax fraud, while the second part was written while he “enjoyed” the successes of his writing. His sentences, while in the native Spanish, might be delicate and delicious to read, are a chore to read in English. The language of the time (around the 1600’s), was also difficult to discern in modern-day reading, and most translations try very hard to keep the original voice intact. The end result is long, bountiful sentences describing, in a poetic and oftentimes artistic manner, very simple and mundane things Don Quixote does. While there are so many lessons to be learned it’s downright scary, it’s also a total slog. For me.
Which is why I’m reading it. I want to be a great writer. I want to be the greatest, in fact. I will get there. In my opinion, we must become uncomfortable in order to grow in a healthy manner. We have to want to grow.
Needless to say, I recommend you study the basics as well: Elements of Style, elements of fantasy/science fiction, of dialogue, diction, syntax, sentence structure, etc. Otherwise nobody will take you seriously.
Part 3: Your Voice Must Stand for Something
It must. Otherwise everyone else will continue to write while you try desperately for someone to read. Whyfor will nobody read my story, you might ask? Because it isn’t saying anything the reader wants to know. it doesn’t posit a learning experience–or even an enjoyable story–so why read?
If you love to write about baby dragons living in dragon grade school, where their parents prepare charred Princess for dinner and fight by breathing fire, go for it. But ask yourself, Why do you want to write about them? Is it because you had a difficult childhood and this is a great way to explain your interactions with people, your hate for red meat, and your strained relationship with your parents? Is it because it seems fun and quirky, and you want to share cute stories with others? Is it because you have a whole lot of free time while taking care of your newborn baby and your nipples are on fire from all the suction, and you want something for him to read when he’s a little older? Is it because you love to have fun, feel you are really funny, and want to tell a humorous story? Do you hate dragons, so you want to satirically destroy them for everyone else? All valid reasons.
I have a complicated relationship with my works. To some extent, everyone’s writing is “based on a true story.” Even if it’s about spacefaring dinosaurs that eat stars. We have personal experiences that directly affect us. We have people who directly affect us. Some writers come from a “I want to write great Dragonball Z Fanfic” perspective, while others delve into a life of gardening to put it on paper, while still others have fantastic dreams that shape their waking lives (me).
More than one reason? Great! No problem. This boils down to knowing yourself and knowing your work. Your work, and your voice, must serve a purpose. It won’t be for everyone. Hopefully, it’ll be only for that one ideal kind of reader. I read this awesome “how-to” blog on developing voice, and I wholly agree with the top ten list.
Ultimately, you should write for yourself. If you don’t enjoy it, it should at least be accomplishing your purpose in writing it. My Of Salt and Wine novel was a difficult thing to proof, given the fact the main character was based off my ex wife (not an ex at the time of writing), and it woke a lot of dark things in me. It was worth it, but difficult, and not enjoyable. Ultimately I felt a huge surge of relief when I finished, and I’m very proud of myself.
Part 4: My Voice Throughout My Books
I know I said “enough about me.” But screw it.
I’ve begun writing over twenty books in my short time on this planet. All of the novels I’ve been passionate about, and finished, have had similar thematic elements: dream symbolism, sociopolitical situations, a strong amalgamation of spiritual elements. Not all contain magic. Not all are fantasy. Not all are from a male perspective, or even a white male perspective. My works exist within two extremes: a scientific focus with dry, unadorned words and a Lost Boy childlike thing that knows everything is like everything else, and we are more than we perceive through science. They come together somewhere in the middle.
Several of my novels involve a mentally unstable person as the main character, due to my psychiatric background with family.
I currently prefer to bend the writi
ng rules, put a comma everywhere (a la Christopher Walken), and feel much more comfortable communicating feel and environment through non-conventional sentence structure. Example: David and His Shade, a novel written from the 3rd person limited perspective of a 13 year old boy trying to get into a school of magic, contains sentences that exist as single words. Paragraphs, single sentences. Ideas, all hanging and disconnected from the rest of the story. He lives in his head quite extensively (like me), so the writing is sometimes stream-of-consciousness. It is sometimes poetic. He is a boy, learning how to be a boy, so he is how I imagined myself to be in that time of his life.
Alternatively, I started a project a few months ago titled Prisn, where the female MC is very real, guttural, distilled, dark. The first paragraph of the book is as realistic as I could make it, with the first sentence being, “Between his legs, he smelled of rot.” It is a detached project dealing with insecurities, the oppressive weight of male privilege, and a woman falling in love with a man who doesn’t exist. I want it to have a Noir-like feel, so I pursue the gritty details, as disgusting as they might be. It hurts to write on this project, but every time I step away I see what I wrote and find it beautiful.
It is like a tattoo on my skin.
Then I have another project focusing on a super-snarky guy that hates himself, who also did a few too many drugs in his youth and runs around seeing dream-symbols in real life. He’s on the run with a kickass pistol-toting chick he’s in love with, doing all the action-adventure stuff most guys like to do. It’s a coming-of-age, but with a totally different voice than the previous one, even though it’s dealing with similar problems in both. This one is all about perspective, so my focus doesn’t stray from that lesson.
I’m trying to inspire direction through this post. When I started developing my “voice” a while back, it felt quite daunting. What’s most important about this whole post is to tell you, the writer, that no matter what you do, you’ll have a voice in your writing. The moment you put a single sentence down, you have a voice. It’s as natural as breathing.
Go forth and develop yourself!