Friday, March 26, 2010

How to establish my own unique voice in my writing?

The title of this post is from one of the google searches that have led people to the Literary Lab blog. It turns up frequently in our statistical visitor analysis. Yes, we have statistical visitor analyses; we're almost like a professional blog, you know. Anyway, I have been considering the idea of voice lately and even though Davin, Michelle and I have all written previously about voice, I'm going to prolix on about it a bit more today.

What do writers mean by voice? The Oxford English Dictionary gives this definition: "A mode of expression or point of view in writing; a particular literary tone or style."

Tone or style and point of view seem to be the most important and most easily discussed parts of this definition. Let's tackle point of view first, mostly just to dismiss it and thereby remove it from the discussion. No matter what the literary point of view from which the story is told (first person, third person omniscient, etc.) there is always an "I" even if that "I" is disguised. There is always a narrator, always a narrative presence from whom the words flow. This narrative presence has a tone or style that draws attention to itself or draws attention away from itself. Aside from recognizing that there is always a narrative presence, I don't think that distinguishing between first-, second- and third-person POV matters in what I'm discussing; let's just agree that there is some sustained voice (or some sustained voices if you have multiple narrators) that is telling the story to the reader. Whew, this paragraph is dense and dull but thank the gods we're done with it. Let's talk about tone and style instead, okay?

But no: the point I just failed to make is that some writers have a mistaken belief, that as soon as they create a first-person narrator for their story, they have created a unique voice (because, like a snowflake, every person is unique). Did I say "mistaken belief?" Hey, I did. I meant it, too. Too often, I hate to say and sound like an old crank, these unique first-person narrators are characters we've read elsewhere and they're not unique at all. Holden Caulfield has ten thousand clones, as does Bella Whatsername in Forks, as do uncountable hardboiled and cynical detectives and plucky young heroines. My real point is that a lot of you are trying too hard, and you're aiming your energies at the least important (though possibly most visible) aspect of voice. If you have a narrator who is actually a character in your story, work on that character's character rather than how they present themselves.

Why? To paraphrase John Gardner, "The best narrative voices, from Tolstoy to Lahiri to King, are invisible and similar; they don't draw attention to themselves." Let me give some better examples. Of the last ten Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction, only two of the books had narrative voices that stood out purely as voices: Junot Diaz' "The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" and Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." McCarthy leans heavily on Hemingway and Faulkner, but even so, once you get past the first 25 or so pages, his prose creeps into the background and no longer self-consciously draws attention to itself. He makes himself invisible and you see the story in your mind's eye, not the words on the page, not the narrator. Diaz, on the other hand, is entirely self-conscious and intrusive and personified and a great deal of the hoohah surrounding that book is entirely about the voice. I'm going to opine that McCarthy's book is better, because its strengths are in characaterization and storytelling and revelation of humanity and Diaz' book is a lecture on the Dominican Republic and immigrant experience disguised as a story. But that's just me and hey, who the hell am I? I digress.

Tone and style, though. Let's talk about those. First off, there is an idea floating around that a writer will "find her voice" at some point and will have a way of writing that sort of ties together all her work once she's "matured." For some writers, this is maybe more-or-less true and a page from one book can--stylistically--be slipped into any of their other books and none could say but that it was from the same author. Antonia Byatt and Gunter Grass and J.K. Rowling and John Cheever and many good writers fit into this idea. Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner and James Joyce and Cormac McCarthy and Peter Carey, for examples, do not.

So let's think about tone and style applied to story and not really think about narrative voice. Here are two excerpts:

She had lost all sense of the direction she’d been traveling and so she picked a path that looked easy to follow through the brush. A loose vine swung down and hit her on the shoulder and Hope screamed until she saw that it was not a snake and then she laughed and then she bit her lower lip and began to cry. John would be along any minute, she thought. John would be along and then they’d go back to the cabin and then they’d eat that boiled chicken and corn and have a pipe and a swallow of whiskey and it would be fine. She pushed on through the swamp and slipped again, twisting her right knee awkwardly and then going down forward into the mud, barely keeping her face out of it. Hope sat up and her knee hurt and she sucked in a sharp breath and knew she couldn’t go on. She would sit there in the downpour, in the mud and filth, and wait for the storm to end, wait for John to come and find her.


I stood there in the frozen air and let my eyes be drawn down to the patterns formed by the blood on the ice. It is a star chart, I thought. The king stands in Orion while Fortinbras drags his wounded foot through Cassiopeia and spits a mouthful of bloody sputum onto the Pleiades. I wondered if Fortinbras had any regrets. If he did, he did not have long to live with them. He swung wildly at the king, missed and fell to one knee as his lame foot slipped on the ice. He knelt in Perseus. There was frost and blood on the face of his helmet. King Hamlet stood in Taurus and brought his sword down in a mighty blow, cutting Fortinbras’ left arm apart at the elbow. Fortinbras bellowed like a wounded bear and dropped his sword and then the king rained death down upon him, hacking him to pieces. Bright blood spread onto the ice, flooding over my imagined constellations. King Hamlet, still ruler of Denmark, stood over his dead cousin. He pushed up the beaver of his helmet to lick some of Fortinbras’ blood from his blade. One barbarian had killed another, and the rebellion was over.

I may be no judge, but to me, the narrative voices in these excerpts seem different even though they're from the same writer. The difference between third-person and first-person is not, I don't think, the primary difference in the tone and style of these narrations. The first is more casual, with longer sentences that tumble along imprecisely, chaining ideas together to accumulate power. The second example is very high-flown and formal, with shorter sentences that are more precise in their meaning. The narrative styles, I claim, use different tones because the stories themselves have different tones. Which means (to finally arrive at something like a point) that it is the story that should determine the narrative voice, and not some ideas we writers have about uniqueness because we're told that we need to find "our own voices."

My claim is that by writing out the story, we will naturally fall into the proper voice for that story if we pay attention to the needs of the story and ignore everything else. Disingenuously I have used examples from my own writing above, and I arrived at those particular voices not deliberately, but by just writing the stories and thinking about (in the first case) the mood I wanted to set and the vocabulary I wanted to use, and (in the second case) the idea I had of the what the first-person narrator would think about when relating this story and the metaphysical/scientific language he'd use to talk about it.


  1. "it is the story that should determine the narrative voice". Nicely put.

    After hearing/reading so much talk on blogs about voice, voice, voice, I had gotten to a point that I really started to worry about it especially because an earlier draft of a query letter for a previous novel I completed was said to have "no voice".

    As I continued forth on my current WIP, I started to really understand that the language of the novel needed to be appropriate for the character and for the type of story I was writing and hence, I found the voice for the novel.

  2. "My claim is that by writing out the story, we will naturally fall into the proper voice for that story if we pay attention to the needs of the story and ignore everything else."

    I agree with that point a lot. I've written some different stories that have very different voice, because those were the voices that the story called for. I'd hardly try to bring the voice of one into the other story. It wouldn't fit at all with the tale I was telling.

  3. Scott, this is an excellent post with excellent points, especially your main point. I think writers will often have an overarching thing many people call "voice" - but that it shouldn't be called voice at all. I don't know what it should be called, but say for instance, O'Connor. I know her writing because of specific themes she always touches on, the types of characters she creates, the angles with which she approaches things. Much of that seems consistent to me, but not overt, and not ever hindering the work.

    Voice is something entirely different, and I think you've put it in terms I can finally agree with, unlike so many other definitions I've run across and even come up with myself.

    Every piece I write has a different voice. Some of them I like better than others, but I think it's a mark of a seasoned writer when they can allow a piece of their work to shout its own voice. I think many beginning writers try to stifle that. I know I've tried to before. It always ends in terrible writing.

    Crimey: I'm so happy to hear that you're figuring this out. It makes me smile!

  4. And I totally screwed up my comment by saying "shout it's own voice" when you quite clearly said it should be invisible. I think invisible is right, but when I read a work I especially love (like Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto that I read yesterday), I feel like the voice is shouting itself from the rooftops because it is so beautiful and unique and just stands out to me. It IS invisible, but to me, it's audible. If that makes any sort of sense on this Friday morning. Probably not.

  5. Michelle: I think that what's cool about Banana is what she points to in the stories as important. I think what's cool about O'Connor is the intent of her stories and her matter-of-fact, absolutely no-bullshit way of presenting things exactly as she thinks they are both physically and spiritually. For both of those writers, I thinks what we're seeing is not voice so much as it's vision.

  6. Good post. Sometimes I note who wrote a post here before I read the post, but I really don't need to. I've read enough posts from Scott, Michelle, and Davin to know their voices for this blog.

    To Scott's point, though, that doesn't mean I could identify the voice in the narrativer prose of one of their novels.

    In one of my earlier drafts of RUDY TOOT-TOOT, there were three distinct voices within the same novel- a funny voice, a formal educational tone, and a deep literary voice. It didn't work. I had to pick one and run with it (and the funny one won).

    The voice of FATE'S GUARDIAN is very different from RTT, and EARTH'S END is different from both. there may be elements of the writing style that make each manuscript identifiable as my writing, but the voices of the novels are unique.

  7. Scott, that's exactly the word I was searching for! :)

  8. Crimey: My main purpose in writing this post was to say that we should concentrate on story, and voice will follow. Not to worry about voice so much, especially because agents and editors don't really even know what they mean when they talk about "voice."

    Dominique: Yes, the tale we're telling is what matters. We ought to focus on that.

    Michelle: The voice of the narrator in my first novel was so important to me that I didn't pay attention to little things like character and dramatic arc and internal consistency. Fail!

    Rick: Some books work with multiple voices, but for a book like RTT that would probably have just confused your reader. Irving Welch's "Maribou Stork Nightmares" has three very different narrative voices, and I think it works.

  9. You're so right to point out that voice is in large part determined by the story. (I don't think you were being disingenuous, actually.)

    As for the idea floating around that a writer will "find her voice" at some point and will have a way of writing that sort of ties together all her work once she's "matured." (Your use of quotation marks makes me think you don't think much of this idea :))I think it's more than less true. It's by writing a lot and constantly reviewing our own writing and refining it that we come to the point where we can do what you said:

    "that by writing out the story, we will naturally fall into the proper voice for that story if we pay attention to the needs of the story and ignore everything else"

    Anyway, thanks for coming out and discussing a much-heralded book that you have a problem with.

    Your thoughts here have prompted me to write a post. *thinking, thinking.*

  10. I'm on the fence here, because I did have that experience of "finding my voice" when I had all that time to write last year. Somehow, I got to a place where the voice in all my stories felt natural somehow. At the same time, there is the variation in my stories, like you say, Scott. Red Man Blue Man, Rooster, and an autobiographical story I wrote called Sacred Bodies all have different voices, and yet there is something uniting them that I don't think is present in all of my earlier work. Honestly, I'm not sure. This is something I ponder a lot because it's so much more fun for me to write in that natural place, and yet some stories do seem to call for something different. I wonder if I lose some sort of authenticity.

  11. "My main purpose in writing this post was to say that we should concentrate on story, and voice will follow. Not to worry about voice so much, especially because agents and editors don't really even know what they mean when they talk about "voice."

    Scott, got it and I agree. To clarify my previous post, when I started to really focus on the story I wanted to tell, that's when all the elements of writing the story came into line. Voila!

  12. Davin: I am skeptical of the ideas of "natural voice" and "authenticity." What I believe is that we find ways to write that achieve our goals for what we're writing, and when we do it's nice and enjoyable and easier. It feels "natural" and "like us." I guess what I'm saying is that "authentic voice" is a sort of illusion or red herring and there's really just being comfortable and facile or not. When my writing is awkward, it's just as much me as when it's elegant.

    Of course, this is all just my way of looking at it and your mileage may well vary. I plant my flag and defend my position while, just four feet away from me, someone else has a completely different view of the terrain and wonders what language I'm even speaking.

  13. Yat-Yee: Once I got into it, I liked "Oscar Wao." I just thought that Diaz was trying too hard with the voice and it felt fake a lot of the time. It's also one sloppy narrative and the prologue and occasional footnotes were simply laziness.

    Davin: Maybe you could do a post about your ideas of authenticity and natural voice? Even if you are on the fence about it, some of us might like to see you tottering atop that fence.

  14. Far too many people like to see me tottering on a fence.

    Okay, let me ponder this.

  15. this sounds New-Agey but it has always worked for me- speak your truth

  16. Ee Leen: No, that's perfect. I have two basic rules for stories, and they are:

    1. Something has to happen
    2. You have to say something true.

    If you just concentrate on those and try to say exactly what you mean to say, how you say it will follow. Maybe not the first time, but after enough attempts we begin to get closer and closer to saying exactly what we mean as honestly as we can. That personal honesty and exactness of meaning are what will supply the voice of the piece. Sort of.


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