So, last time I talked about writing what you know. This is important because, if you write what you don’t know, it’s pretty obvious that you don’t know your stuff. However, writing what you know is only the first part of the equation. I live in Lynchburg, Va, so I’m very comfortable writing a story set in Lynchburg. However, if that story isn’t mine, if it isn’t a part of me, then its not going to be very good. Remember that writing fiction is very different from journalism, or writing a biography. When you are writing about real events then you are telling someone else’s story (not to deride these forms of writing, they are important and have their own difficulties to contend with). However, when you are writing fiction you are telling a story that comes from within yourself. You need to find your own voice.
By ‘voice’ I mean not only the words you use, but the way your write. Grammar and syntax are a part of ‘voice’, but they are not the entirety of it. Every author will evoke a certain feeling through their writing – some are whimsical, others sardonic; some are childish, other serious. Your voice can encompass and be affected by everything from the words you use, to the way you approach writing in general, to the reason you write in the first place. Someone who writes for fun is going to have a very different voice than someone who writes to bring across a specific message. Someone who disciplines him/herself to write a thousand words a day is going to have a different voice than someone who writes only when they feel like writing. Your voice is a part of who you are, and that is something that you need to find, and don’t want to lose.
Finding your voice is not easy to do, especially if you are a big reader (as most writers are). You have a hundred different voices floating around in your head, and when you see something you like it’s very easy to say “Ooh! I should do that!” This is a trap that you need to avoid. If what you are currently writing feels and sounds surprisingly like what you are currently reading, then you’re probably not writing with your own voice. You’re probably trying to write with someone else’s voice. This is a problem because that person’s voice is not your own, and you can’t successfully emulate it. When you try to write with someone else’s voice then what you write will usually feel like a copy…often a bad copy.
However, it is also important not to mistake similarities in style or subject for a copied voice. H.P. Lovecraft is an excellent example. Lovecraft’s writing spawned an entire sub-genre of horror fiction. His work was so good that other authors wanted to emulate aspects of his style, intent, and world. Some of these authors do very well* – they take Lovecraft’s world and ideas, but bring their own unique voice to the table. Others try to emulate Lovecraft’s voice, and sometimes they get close, but no-one can perfectly emulate the voice of another author. We’re all too different.
That being said, your voice is a part of who you are. The reason that it is easy to lose is that most of us don’t realize how much of ourselves goes into our writing. Last month I wrote a post about how much I am like my first novel. This is a revelation that we all need to have at some point. I have one friend, a man in his mid-thirties, who is very comfortable writing teenage girls. I can’t do that. Personally I am much more comfortable writing old men. This is an example of one difference in voice. Some questions to help you find your voice:
What do you want to write?
What are you comfortable writing?
What is easy for you to write?
What feels natural to you?
As you first start out you want to stick to writing things that fit easily in your voice. Things that flow naturally, that feel right, and that come out easily. As you mature as a writer you can begin to broaden this, learn to apply your voice to types of writing, characters, or situations that don’t feel all that natural. This is a necessary step in your growth as an author (otherwise you will just write the same novel over and over with different names). However, you have to find your voice before you can begin to grow it.
*Donald Tyson does an excellent job of fleshing out portions of Lovecraft’s world and works, and he is only one example.