This is something that I’ve seen asked so many times, and I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring (as though the ring wasn’t already overflowing!). Voice (and by extension, style) is such an intangible concept, so hard to explain beyond, “Something compelling about the writing that makes me want to read on.”
I think the trouble comes precisely when we attempt to define what makes voice. It’s unique to each individual, and though it may be very different between our characters, it’s still something that’s very much you. So, how do you go about finding it if you don’t even know what you’re looking for?
Personally, I’ve found that once you understand the basics – how to string a decent sentence together, getting your grammar down-pat, understanding why all the ‘rules’ of writing are there, knowing the fundamentals of plot structure – then what comes next, finding your voice and style, is something you have to learn for yourself.
This is a point where having people tell you what to do will likely take away from what makes your writing unique. In my case, that was through working out which ‘rules’ I wanted to break, and why. If the rule is there for a reason, to prevent something, then how will breaking it change the style of my piece and affect my reader?
(Note: I’m not condoning a wholesale breaking of the rules – this is on the assumption you are in command of all the basics above.)
It’s a discovery process. It’s trying, failing, trying, failing; writing another novel or two or a ton of short stories or blog posts and seeing what works and what doesn’t (generally, what doesn’t). It’s months and months of feeling like you’re not moving forward at all and possibly moving backwards instead. It’s periods of certainty that you are a terrible writer who doesn’t have much talent, and wondering why you even bother. It’s styles or voices that work brilliantly in your head but collapse like a rapidly-deflating kiddie pool when you try to put words to paper.
But there will be a day when you write something, a chapter or a story or a post, one that you might not even think is great at the time. But it will stay with you. It will keep you up at night. It will get its hooks into you and demand that you go back to it. And when you do, you’ll realise that you might just have something special here. You might show it to a trusted friend or two, who will tell you that this really is a step above your old writings.
Then you take it, and you run. You run until you are exhausted and the premise has fizzled out and everything you put on the page looks like something a grade schooler would write but you stumble on until you hit the end anyway. Because as much as you hate the writing when you’re vomiting those words onto paper, when you’re done you’ll look at it and realise you have something that is totally you, yet completely different to all that you’ve written before. You’ll realise that your writing has changed and improved. And that perhaps those months of ‘horrible’ writing weren’t so useless after all.
Obviously there’s still a lot more to learn, but the experimenting and stretching and constant improvement is something you’ll be doing the rest of your life. So better start now!
photo credit: via photopin (license)