Monday, 23 July 2012

"V is for..." the troubling subject of voice

It’s the most important thing for any writer yet it’s the hardest of all to master. Largely because so few people seem to be able to give a coherent explanation of what it is. A few years ago I wrote a couple of pieces about it (here and here) but starting a new advice blog for self-publishers (and having three more years of getting to know the work of thousands of self-published writers) seems like the perfect time to revisit the subject of voice.

I very rarely see self-published authors talking about voice, which is a shame, because it’s an essential topic. And, to be perfectly blunt, you can spend an arm and a leg on proof reading, editing out the holes in your plot, and whizzifying your cover, but if your writing’s voice doesn’t sing off the page and make your work stand out from every other author in your area then you will never develop your 1000 true fans or have a long, sustainable writing life – your books will be interchangeable with any similar book. The way to proof yourself from that kind of reader indifference is to have a voice that is unique, to make *your* next book a must have.

The problem, of course, is it’s not as simple as saying “I’m going to get my voice right” the way you can with selling or even ironing out your saggy middle. A genuinely original and brilliant voice is something very few writers achieve. I do think, though, if you’ve got one it can often get hidden if you’re not letting it sing out – which means there *is* an appropriate conversation about voice.  

And a lot of that conversation will involve understanding what voice is and what it isn’t. You will sometimes see people distinguishing the voice of your characters from your voice as a writer. To me that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what we’re talking about. The “voice of your protagonist/character/blah” is simply a tautologous way of saying “your characterisation”. Which is important. Vitally so. But it’s not your voice. Brilliant characterisation can only take you so far. Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury is one of the most perfectly-drawn characters in literary history. But if he’d spent the book using his “voice” to talk about eating his greens for dinner the novel wouldn’t be quite the masterpiece it is thanks to Faulkner having him focusing on oblique references to the slow and systematic abusive deconstruction of his sister, Caddy. Which is as good an explanation as I can think of for what voice is – and isn’t.

Your voice is, at its most basic level, what you have to say.

Now that’s a hugely knotty thing to say, I know, because at least a gazillion awkward sods will jump on it to assume I am talking about your book’s message. I’m not. If you know me at all, you’ll know the one thing a book shouldn’t have is a message. But you should have something to say. And the success of your voice will be a combination of what you have to say and how successfully (clearly) you are able to say it.

So, what is the difference between what you have to say and a message? At a surface level, quite possibly nothing at all. But the dynamics are very different. Your voice, the thing you have to say, feel compelled to say, is simply what it is – it comes from you and you have done your job if you take it from inside and put it out there clearly. A message seeks to go beyond that, sees your commentary and your articulation of that commentary as simply a means of persuasion. There are all sorts of reasons why I think that makes for lesser literature – from theoretical assumptions about what you can and can’t communicate to the practical observation that if your writing is made subservient to some kind of higher purpose then the writing will suffer and the reader will feel (and be!) used.

The second reason people struggle to find their voice is they are not really sure what they have to say. There can be many reasons for this, from writing for a reason other than the compulsion to write through trying to channel that compulsion to write into marketability to confusing your characters and their dilemmas with the thing you have to say.

The first two of these I won’t talk about here. There’s nothing wrong with writing for a market and many many people produce wonderful books by doing it. But this blog isn’t primarily for them. The third seems strange. Isn’t everything about your character and what happens to them? Well, on one level yes. They’re the nuts and bolts that comprise your book. They’re how you hook your reader in. How well you characterise (the fact I’m using that word, the one I’ve said isn’t voice, should be a big clue), and how well you plot are part of the process of ensuring your voice is heard. But they aren’t *it*.

Let’s have a look why. Now, my writing process/journey is probably like many of yours. Characters, situations, plot snippets, dilemmas, times and places pop into my head all the time. I write them own an see if anything more comes of them. Most of the time nothing does. But sometimes a fragment will stay with me. Its tendrils will creep out, take root, throw up shoots of their own, and before I know it there’s the seed of a story/poem/novel. The first time it really happened was when I started Songs from the Other Side of the Wall. I couldn’t shale this teenage girl, Szandi, looking out of her bedroom window over a vineyard covered in morning mist, catching sight of another young woman and falling instantly in love. It’s a vignette. Like hundreds of other vignettes I’d noted down. But *this* one wouldn’t leave me. *This* one kept growing. She would never see the woman again but her life would be shaped by the desire to find out more about her. This desire would pull her into a different world, one far removed from her rural family life in Hungary. It would take her to England, to the city, it would leave her caught like a bug in a spiderweb ever more tangled with every step as she was pulled apart between tradition and modernity, east and west, country and city, art and commerce, family and lover, mother and father, living in the past or creating a future. Now, Szandi was interesting in herself. I wanted to spend time with her. But the thing is there was a reason why I found her interesting in a way I hadn’t found other potential protagonists interesting at all. Her story as it unfolded in my head said something to me. It resonated with me, with my fascination with modern Europe, with the way we construct our identity, with the way we define ourselves by some of the choices we make and not others.

For me, if you leave it with the characters not only will your voice be unclear, it’s rather uninquisitive (a better word than lazy) of you as a writer. The key to it all is why you are attracted to this character, and why, having chosen them, you are drawn to a particular part/time of their life (there is a reason why so many novels are set at transitional moments in our lives – and, conversely, why seeing this there was a new wave of writers in the 80s and 90s looking at non-transitional moments). And once you have latched onto that you have reached your Archimedean Point.

And it is using that fulcrum as just that – the point of leverage for your entire novel, building up the layers of character and story always and only as they come back to, are illuminated by, or are fleeing from that single point – that you will make your voice clear.


  1. Excellent post - and I do wish there were more like this, and that we debated this kind of thing more often. We get so bogged down in the nuts and bolts of editing and beta readers and critique groups and how to publish and publicise, and seem reluctant - really reluctant - to discuss the most important thing of all. Which this is!

  2. I like this post, how voice is that desire to write about and explore an idea that won't let go. It is how my writing comes about and for me explains why it happens as and when and can never be planned. The more I try the worst it gets, but if I let it be it happens. Thanks for reminding me of that.

  3. Thank you.

    Catherine - yes, all the beta readers in the world won't help us if the actual material isn't there in the first place and we have to start alone with an idea and an empty page - I think there's a lot of emphasis these days in how-to blogs about getting lots written so that we then have at least something to work on. And there's a lot to be said for that, but sometimes that doesn't work and can lead to us getting further and further into tangents and dead ends that needed to be sealed off and retraced quickly. The very best blog that regularly deals with this kind of thing, which I'm sure you know, is Emma Darwin's superb This Itch of Writing

    Andy - I think your use of multimedia, and your very short prose are both testament to the clarity of your voice. There's no ambivalence, nothing superfluous, just a need to express something and the expression of it

  4. I found this such a confusing issue that I ended up writing about it too. Thanks for making me think.

  5. Great piece. From the editor's perspective, I completely agree. You can't edit voice into someone's writing. A heavy-handed editor can certainly edit the voice out of a piece, however. I also believe it's one of those 'I know it when I see it' things that is nearly impossible to define. A writer either has it, or they don't. Perhaps more accurate to say a particular piece of writing either has it or it doesn't. The writer probably has that voice, but didn't capture it in a particular work. Perhaps hasn't 'found' his/her voice yet. If I can't define it, I can't edit it into a work, I can't tell someone how to create a voice, then what? My only advice is to keep writing and writing and writing...eventually your voice will develop and appear. I'm hugely jealous of those whose voices come through so naturally and effortlessly that they don't even know how they did it, or may not even recognize it themselves. You know, the prodigies. Most of us have to keep working at it and eventually it may appear, and sometimes inconsistently. But it usually shows up when we write from our souls, then edit with our brains.

  6. For me, voice is the glue that holds it all together. The difference between writing which just pours out of the end of your fingers from somewhere in your subconscious and writing which is such hard work it feel forced. I can see it so clearly in my own work.

  7. Not a lot I could disagree with there, Robb. Writing from your soul is definitely essential. I think you're also right about keepig on writing but I think there are critical questions we can keep in mind when we are doing so, as outlined above, that will help us to use that time well

  8. you're right, Debbie - it's how we unlock it that's so tricky

  9. share words of motivation
    Learn from those above you. Enjoy life with them at your side. Do not underestimate those below you.
    may be received, and I wait for a visit behind ya: D