Of all the characteristics that make up a writer, “voice” is one of the most elusive, and potentially the most powerful. It’s difficult to define, but unmistakeable. It’s that moment when you pick up a book, and you realise within a few sentences that even if the name on the cover had been blacked out, you would have known who wrote it. It’s not about being literary – Jackie Collins has a voice, as much as does James Joyce. It’s not about being deliberately quirky, or self-consciously high falutin. It’s simply there; it’s the essence of what makes a writer who they are, and it’s the greatest advertisement for your work that you can get. So how on earth do you go about getting one?
Perhaps there are some writers who go from cradle to grave with the same essential voice. I’m not one of them. When I look back at my early notebooks, they read to me not so much as the work of a child from the 1980s as one from the 1920s. My characters all use words like “ripping”, go around in wide-brimmed hats and faint at the slightest provocation. Of course, this wasn’t my voice – it was Agatha Christie’s. As a child I devoured so many of her books in quick succession, and admired them so greatly, that what I was producing were ultimately pastiches, or to be kinder, homages. Later, in my teens, my voice shifted dramatically. Now all my characters were Cockneys, or at least Mockneys; they made wry observations on life, fought and drank and had unsuitable sex, and there were occasional wild veerings-off into bitingly cynical authorial observations. Yes, I had been reading a lot of Martin Amis.
Slowly, I grew to realise that the trouble with being a writer is that you are generally a reader first. Most writers have role models to emulate, and in the absence of a voice of your own, the easiest thing to do is to latch on to someone else’s. I readily admit that my first published novel, The Art of Losing, was inspired by Maggie O’Farrell’s After You’d Gone. But somehow, when I finished the novel and read it back, I thought I caught something else there – a voice that was not hers, or anyone else’s, but my own. I couldn’t quite define it; I still can’t, but when I wrote what will be my second published novel, I tried to hang on to it. Suddenly people were describing my writing as distinctive. It was one of my proudest moments when my agent, having read the opening scenes of Novel 2, wrote to me and said that within the first few pages, she knew that she was “reading a Rebecca Connell novel”. Of course, this voice isn’t set in stone, and I fully expect it to develop over time… but now at least I feel I know where I’m going.
In my own case, I think my themes found me my voice. Finally I was writing about issues which suited me, and about which I had something to say. Others might find their voice through characters, or settings, or something else entirely. So what do you think? Have you got one, and could you even begin to sum it up?