Monday, March 23, 2009

Finding A Unique Voice: The Path Of Least Resistance

I constantly struggle with developing my unique voice. Ever since I was young, this was something I personally found to be important. Loving Yasunari Kawabata and Leo Tolstoy, I couldn't decide which voice was my favorite. So, I wanted my voice to be a combination of all the great writers I encountered, and usually I accomplished nothing because I didn't even know where to start.

Only recently did I come to understand that these writers were not opposites of each other. Great writers cannot be placed on two ends of the same spectrum. Sure, if you focus on a particular element, they may appear to be that way. But, each writer is unique, like a point on a star, or a branch on a phylogenetic tree. They may originate from a common source, but they evolve and move in their own direction. It was this realization that helped me to recognize my own voice.

Voice, for me, is a combination of every technical component of writing. Voice includes vocabulary, sentence construction, rhythm, metaphor usage, punctuation, pacing, length, perspective, point of view, and many other components. For every page we write, we make hundreds of small decisions that affect our voice. With all of these decisions, it's impossible to create anything that is a successful compromise of previously written work.

Now, while I think it's important to study the writing of others, whenever I try to consciously use a technique I've learned from someone else, I feel myself being pulled away from my own sincere thoughts. If I study a writer to find out how they transition from scene to scene, then I learn how they transition from scene to scene, not how life transitions. If I study how someone creates dialog, then I learn how they create dialog, not how dialog really sounds. Every attempt to use someone else's technique suddenly makes me use a different part of my brain and less of my heart. It feels like study rather than play. It feels like resistance.

For me, finding my own voice is a matter of following the path of least resistance. Whenever someone else's book changes my style, I become a follower of that book and its writer. A book that tries to be the next Anna Karenina may always be inferior to the original. It may be limited. Its glory, if it finds any, may have a lifespan. The components of that writing that will be unique will probably only exist between those followed elements in the story--maybe even only in the places where the writer has failed to follow accurately.* On the other hand, a book that tries to be itself will be harder to compare to anything before it, and, thus, harder to make inferior.

I'm sure that I will always flip through the pages of great books as I'm writing, but I find myself trying harder and harder to invent my own technique and let my writing flow out of me as resistance-free as possible. The better I get at writing, the more I realize the importance of not forcing myself to sound like anything at all. When I can no longer hear my voice because it is so perfectly tailored to me, that's probably when I'll have created something truly unique for the first time.

*This week I'm planning at least three posts about voice. And, as the opinions I'm expressing are not all my own, they will contradict each other. The failure that I mention here will come up in a more positive light later.


  1. Great post, Davin. I find this happening as well, and it can be frustrating when I read someone like Zadie Smith and then Jhumpa Lahiri while working on the same story.

    This is also on point for something a post I am working on--I've been tagged to list the 25 authors who "influenced" me most and influence is a sticky term. But as I read your post here, I am curious about your 25 (also b/c you write lit fiction as well). Would you mind if I tagged you and forced you to reveal them? (Feel free to say no way, because I've been tagged with some things before that I didn't want to do--and didn't do--so I would totally understand.)

    Will be checking back for the next posts on voice.

  2. Great topic and great post. Voice is that mysterious element that is hard to define, quality-wise, but holds the ultimate value for any written work.

    I agree with you that trying to mimic the voice of a successful author is kind of like karaoke writing.

  3. I don't think about voice at all, at least not in terms of the uniqueness of my own writing. That sort of concern became a distraction to me, so I stopped. Certainly I'm aware of other writers' voices as I read, but I don't think I take it any farther than "hey, that's fine writing" or "hmm, that's not the way I'd do that."

    When I'm writing, I'm really only concerned with how well what I've written seems to work. I don't think about whether it sounds like *me* so much as how it *feels* while I read it. Which might be something like what you mean when you talk about the path of least resistance.

    My current novel is written in first person, from the point of view of an educated 16th-century man. It grows increasingly uncomfortable for me to write in his voice, because he has a unique voice that isn't mine, and I have promised myself that after finish this book, I'll never write in first person again. But that's a different topic, really.

    I am aware that my writing is informed by wordy authors who write dense sentences, and that this dense wordiness is perpetually battling it out with my love of Hemingway's spare prose, but I don't think about it much.

  4. Once when I did a reading for an agent, she said it had a strong voice. This surprised me because I don't think of my writing as having a voice. My main priorities are to keep the sentences and scenes true to the characters and world they inhabit.

    I.e., since the culture in my fantasy novel has no hinged doors, I avoid not only literal but metaphorical "knocking at the door" or "finding the key" or "like a squeaky hinge". No doors means no knocks, no keys, and no hinges.

    Does vocabulary alone make a voice? Probably not. But I'm not sure I understand what does.

  5. Finding our voice is difficult, but I think you've hit on a great point: Voice. Must. Be. Unique.

    And unique comes from being yourself. This is one of the reason I don't read while I'm working on a WIP.

    I don't try to find a voice. I try to remain true to the work I'm creating. That seems to bring out a unique voice to each piece. I hope, in the end, I'll have a consistent voice threaded through all my works.

  6. I agree that when we try to make ourselves sound like something outside of us that we are not true to our own voice. I've struggle with making my writing my own and letting MY voice shine through. This is one of the things I've noticed with beta readers making suggestions. It doesn't sound true to me. I have to take the idea they give me and make it my own.

  7. "The better I get at writing, the more I realize the importance of not forcing myself to sound like anything at all."

    I've come to realize this too, though sometimes I forget.

  8. Jennifer, Thanks and tag away. I love stuff like that!

    Rick, Karaoke writing is a good way of putting. I agree.

    Scott, I think you make a great point. In my mind, what you're doing is a slightly different thing than what I wrote about today, but it matches better with what I was planning to say tomorrow.

    Tara, Seems like you have a similar strategy to Scott and Lady Glamis. More on that tomorrow.

    Lady Glamis, I know what you mean. It's sort of a weird dichotomy of making each story unique and finding that same thread. I think it works out, but it sort of boggles the mind.

    Lotusgirl, I agree. Even the best advice from a reviewer must then be translated through our own voice before it fits into the story.

    Justus, Yes, I forget all the time too. Unfortunately. I've considered make a list of things I need to keep track of when I write, but the list always gets too long.

  9. Davin,

    I thought my comment was just a clumsy restatement of your post; apparently I didn't read your post closely enough, if I appear to be saying something different!

    The only time I've consciously tried to write in the voice of an author I've read was when I wrote my awful first novel. I've given up even trying to imitate, because I'm not good at it. Maybe it's that my writing is better when I just write as myself, or maybe it's that I'm awful at applying lessons learned from other writers; hard to say. It's hard enough just getting from the noun to the verb in my own voice, you know?

  10. I have become so 'voice' conscious that I have found myself speaking in the voice of my main character when not writing the book. (To the dismay of those around me) :)

    I believe you can't THINK about writing like any other author other than Davin. Only Davin can write the book in the voice that will be right for your story. That said, I too have been guilty of trying to have a voice that sounds like a particular author that I admire. It doesn't work! We all have our own unique voice just as the title of your post said and it's our job to find it for our readers.

    Can't wait to read more this week. Great post.

  11. Davin, cool. Consider yourself tagged.


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