By Travis Erwin
Defining voice is a bit like nailing Jell-O to the wall. The harder you try, the messier things get, but let’s pick up that hammer and give it a whack anyway.
Voice is a writing style. It is both a particular book's, and its author’s personality—right there on the page. In acting terms, think stage presence. Voice is not just about word choice, but also sentence and story structure. Voice can be everything. It can overcome a weak plot, unlikable characters, even shaky grammar and sloppy writing. Voice is the proverbial, “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it”.
And whatever it is, it grows in a bed of confidence so as writers we must learn to trust ourselves—and our voices.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. ~ Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs is not an author, but still, there are things to take from this quote. Confidence breeds boldness. Take a few chances. Not everything you write will resonate. But sometimes, just the act of writing and getting your work out there—whether it be in a critique group, a Facebook post, a tweet, or whatever—will give you the confidence to write something else. To take chances in your other writings.
Voice is one of the most fragile elements and sadly is often edited, or “critiqued out” in the many drafts it takes to create a finished piece. Stand true to the emotion and heart of your words. Say what you want to say and say it loudly. That is not to say we should bristle at any and all criticism, but just a declaration that we as writers, we must trust certain aspects of our style and recognize not everyone will approach craft and structure the same way.
The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. ~ Neil Gaiman
Marvel at and admire the writers you love, but don’t try to be them. Don’t strive to be the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. Be the very first you.
It’s all you got.
In life, finding a voice is speaking and living the truth. Each of you is an original. Each of you has a distinctive voice. When you find it, your story will be told. You will be heard ~ John Grisham
Ask yourself questions. Why am I writing this story? What drew me to it and its characters? Then think how you would tell the story orally. Would it be serious, funny, or a fast paced thriller? A writer’s voice is a tool used to make a reader feel emotion. It sets the tone, the tempo, and anchors the reader to the point of view. But it is an abstract art prone to subjectivity and translation.
The best writers have a feel for it. They recognize when they have found the voice that is not only natural for them, but for the story they want to tell. And the only way to do that is have confidence in your storytelling talents, in the story, and in the characters you are sharing.
There is no magic formula for finding or developing voice. There is no on or off switch for it. No Fairy Godmuse to wave a wand over your keyboard and bestow you with it. We as writers must work and hone our voices for there are no experts with can’t fail tricks.
And if somebody tells you there is—chances are they are full of something other than it.
Here is the opening excerpt from my memoir THE FEEDSTORE CHRONICLES. I think it highlights my voice well.
Most coming-of-age stories are fraught with symbolism, hidden metaphors, and a heaping mound of other literary devices.
Not this one. Not mine.
You see, I came of age while working at a dusty Texas feed store. A place where To Kill a Mockingbird involved a twelve-year-old and a BB gun. Of Mice and Men was a problem easily solved with rat poison. And David Copperfield was nothing more than a dude that made shit disappear.
In the spring of 1989, I was a rosy-cheeked boy of sixteen. Doyle Suggs was a twice-divorced, thirty-year-old high school dropout. On the surface Doyle and I had little in common, yet his involvement in my life changed me in drastic and dramatic ways.
Doyle ran a feed store in Amarillo, Texas. A joint called Pearls's feed and Seed. Working there provided me my first paying job, my first taste of how fun life could be, and ... my first brush with real danger.
Your turn! Either post a few lines that displays your voice in the comments, or a few lines of your favorite author's voice.
A native Texan, Travis lives in the Texas Panhandle with his wife and two boys. Despite the ever-present gale force winds, he can’t imagine living anyplace else. He is the author of a comedic coming-of-age memoir, THE FEEDSTORE CHRONICLES, and a Women's Fiction novel titled TWISTED ROADS. Travis pontificates about both writing and life on his long running blog ... Bacon, Beer, and Books. He can also be found on twitter @traviserwin
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