Friday, 24 July 2009

Finding Voice

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?

11 comments:

Rosy T said...

Fascinating post. I must admit that thinking about 'voice' is one of the things which scares me the most, in terms of writing craft. I can absolutely see why you were so pleased that your agent recognised your second novel as indefinably 'you', Becky. It must be so nice to feel that you are distinctive and original.

But my problem is that, at the same time, I fear all my characters will be the same. And if we are telling our stories in our characters' viewpoint - which we usually are, whether it's first person or third - then the story should be largely in that character's voice, shouldn't it? And we don't want this MC to be just like the last MC, rehashed. So, our own voice should be distinctive and recognisably the same as in the last book, but our characters' voices should be different...

You see my problem? It drives me round and round in circles.

Rosy T said...

Sorry, me again, still mulling over the same point. OK, there might be themes that we come back to as authors, which are distinctive of our work. But beyond that, at the level of language, surely our narrative voice should change with the narrator character? Our voice for each new book should be the new MC’s voice – not only her constructions and syntax, the imagery she employs, the rhythms of her thoughts and speech, but also her daily preoccupations and the way she sees the world. Because if those things are recognisably ours, as author, then isn’t this character the same as in the last book but wearing a blonde wig and different shoes?

Susannah Rickards said...

Rebecca, that's a beautifully written post.

Voice is elusive. I know when it's there because the prose seems suddenly invisible to me - the story flows and comes alive. When it's eluded me, words pop out of the page looking ungainly or like they're trying too hard to create an effect.

Rosy for me, voice is separate from the quality or tone of the character. It's to do with how you as an author put words down on the page to create that character. (Such as, you mentioned once you never describe your characters visually - you enter them via a different route. That's an element of voice.
For me it's about capturing the words that tell the story effortlessly but with a singular energy. Words and syntaxes which are so natural to a given writer, that even if another person wouldn't dream of phrasing that way or choosing that vocabulary, they accept it when put together by another author because it's right. It fits.

Like the way people dress. If it's all M & S it won't get you noticed. If it slavishly follows the fashion pages, it's not original however outlandish. But there's a way of putting it all together which is true to oneself, so it feels good, looks effortless and is right.

Samantha Tonge said...

I agree with Susannah, Rosy - i think any author has a distinctive voice which carries through all their novels, and is separate from the narrative voice of all their different MCs.

I would say your voice was distinctive in that it is quite poised and erudite, regardless of plot and character.

I found my voice with my second novel when i realized i wanted to punch every paragraph with humour. I've inherited the desire from my dad to litter my speech with jokes and one-liners and it took me a book to realize that this was also my literary voice. In comparison my first book is quite deadpan and - now i can see, not 'me' at all.

I simply think experience helps you find your voice.

Great post!

poppy said...

I love AYG, Becky. Have pre-ordered TAOL in paperback, so am even more excited about reading it now!

Rosy, i think your writing voice is very distinctive, and as the others have suggested, not the same thing as character voice, although I would say not entirely separate either.

CarolineG said...

Hmm...am not sure whether I have one or not :(
Great post though, Becky, and can't wait to read book 2.

emmadarwin said...

Lovely post, Becky. And, yes, it's simultaneously the most important and the most elusive thing, which is, apart from anything else, why agents and editors say it's what they look for. They can (if they have time and think it's worth it) help you sort out plot, character and dialogue. But if the voice isn't there, at least most of the time, there's very little they can do.

That also means it's terribly frustrating for aspiring writers, because how can they catch something which is elusive? What is 'Voice'? Louis Armstrong knew he didn't know: 'Lady, if you gotta ask, you ain't got it'...

In my experience, though, some excellent writer's voices are often invisible, or rather inaudible, to themselves. I'd know a novel of yours, Rosy, even though the characters are different from book to book.

At the risk of being impossibly pretentious (you shouldn't throw fascinating posts at me on a PhD day) I want to quote Bakhtin, making the contrast with poets, who have only 'their' voice:

"For the prose artist the world is full of other people’s words, among which he must orient himself...He must introduce them into the plane of his own discourse, but in such a way that this plane is not destroyed."

In other words, the voice of a novel or story is a synthesis of the writer's 'native' voice, and his/her experience of others' voices (including real people, but of course also including what s/he has read, Christie and all).

I know that, for instance, the three different voices in A Secret Alchemy are all mine in a very real sense: I'm sure if you ran some fancy computer program over it you'd find my characteristic cadences and patterns in all of them. But, equally, they're all different in a very real sense (I hope). Even though I didn't specially set out to make the modern Una's voice different from mine (it is, if you like, how I'd write a novel as a neutral, omniscient external narrator) it is also her's, because what she says springs from who she is, and she is not me...

But how it gets like that? I have no idea. I can analyse grammar, syntax and vocabulary, I spend a lot of my time talking, thinking and un-picking technique, and I don't use an iPod because I'm always eavesdropping. But it's the one writing thing which - like all those agents and editors and aspiring writers - is still a mystery.

Claire Moss said...

Great post, and something I'm struggling with just now as I'm trying to make sure Book 2 is similar enough to Book 1 without, as Rosy says, the MCs being too similar.
I think a great example of a writer who has a distinctive voice (or just 'way of writing' if you prefer) is Curtis Sittenfeld. The main character in Prep is a different personality in very different circumstances from the MC in American Wife but the way you are totally drawn into their world through a million tiny intimacies is managed in the same way in both books. I'd just love to be able to do it half as well as she does ...

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Interesting post, Becky. I think 'voice' is something to do with the atmosphere or energy that a writer creates. Like the scent they wear, you can kind of feel their presence through it.

RosyB said...

I've always thought that voice was something that is naturally yours and isn't something that you can help. It's interesting reading Strictly sometimes and trying to guess who wrote each piece before you get to the bottom and see who it is. I always know Sam's pieces very quickly for example.

I'd say my comic writing has a very recognisable voice that I'm sure has the same feel and tone across the novel and my plays and sketches and shstories(not that I do many of those), but it is very different from my other writing like Vulpes or whatever, where I often enjoy being very serious and looking at very serious works, what's more. Which I find curious sometimes.

I think voice, for me, is probably tone, style and sentence construction and favourite words that crop up and an attitude/view of the world that pervades the writing. Even stuff like what sorts of thing are noticed - is it external, is it psychological, is it poetic and visual? I was reading something recently that was beautifully written but very external - to do with the looks of things and how they remind of other things. Lots of beautiful and striking images. Other books look at stuff just through the psychological lense of the character and not in terms of visual images....I'm waffling now but that's the kind of thing I'm thinking.

A quick and fun way to check if you have a voice is to ask yourself - could it be parodied? Or ask your writer friends. If it can - it might feel cruel and mortifying - but it shows you you have a voice and it also shows the bits that stick out that make that voice what it is!

Rebecca Connell said...

Very interesting comments, everyone (I've been away for the weekend, so just catching up!). I know exactly what you mean about worrying that all your books will turn out the same, Rosy. I have the same worry sometimes...

I also feel that the voice in my novels is very different from my other voice (i.e. the one I use in blog posts, on forums etc). I definitely have a "book voice"!