Years ago, when I had a dozen or so publications under my belt, my old writing teacher Jack Bickham remarked to me: “When I read your copy, I don’t detect any authorial voice at all.”
I was crushed. At the time, I’d worked so hard on my writing craft, yet here was another thing I didn’t know about and didn’t provide in my stories. Voice? Voice? Where was I going to find one?
The answer is, of course, inside myself.
We aren’t always ready to face that one, are we? Writers can be walking bundles of insecurity, contradiction, angst, doubt, and fear. We doubt that anyone’s going to read what we’ve written. We doubt that anyone’s going to enjoy our story. We doubt that anything we create has value or worth. And if those doubts and fears are strong enough, they can muzzle our voice until we silence it completely.
Do so, and you will write stories that may be well-crafted and smoothly paced, but they’ll lack the essential connection–the link–that keeps readers coming back to your work.
So which writers appeal to you the most? Which are your favorites? Chances are that their voice is a major part of why you enjoy them so much.
This weekend, I was reading a YA novel called Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer. It’s a ripping good adventure, very enjoyable. I’ve read it several times. Is there a central antagonist? Not exactly. The story instead relies on a series of adventures as the protagonist skips her way from one mishap to the next. What makes this fast-paced pirate yarn work, however, is Voice. Presented in first person, we’re given Jacky Faber’s voice in spades, and what a voice it is. She makes the book work. Her personality is vivid enough to sweep readers along.
Characters that distinctive don’t come along every day.
Another writer with a strong voice is Jim Butcher. His series protagonist is the wizard P.I. Harry Dresden, and Harry’s snarky view of the world in which he inhabits helps lift the stories above just another paranormal tale.
John D. MacDonald’s authorial voice is powerful. His soliloquies on anything and everything from jazz to gin to repairing a boat hull to the mind-numbing stupidity of television are wrapped up in the guise of protagonist internalization. And once again, they lift the Travis McGee mysteries out of the ordinary.
Dick Francis wrote with a very distinctive voice that came through every novel he produced.
All these examples are writers who use first-person viewpoint. Is that the answer? Just write in first-person if you want to develop a distinctive voice?
Not the answer. Maybe a step toward finding it.
Consider Dorothy Sayers. She wrote her books in third-person viewpoint, but her voice is distinctive. A few other authors of third-person viewpoint and strong voice:
The list is endless. By now, I’m sure you’re wondering why I haven’t included your favorite novelist.
Voice shouldn’t be muffled. It shouldn’t be whispered. It should shout.
It’s what you love, what you care intensely about, what you value and honor, what you abhor. It’s wrapped up inside your protagonist, and it’s not preaching a message. It’s sharing your view, your opinion. It’s saying, “Here’s my insight. Here’s what I have to say.”
It’s being brave enough to let that come out, to take the creative risk to reveal a bit of yourself to people. It’s stringing your words together in a style that mirrors what you are. That kind of honesty or self-exposure is natural for some authors, difficult for others. But if we want to be read and remembered, we have to stop creeping in the tracks of writers who have gone before us and make our own footprints in the snow.