Ahhhhhh voice. It’s the ultimate writers luvvie word. It’s better than subtext, or conceit or transgressive, it’s a universal code for ‘I’m in the club’ a handshake of a word, three raps on the door and cross your eyes.. though not quite as much fun. It’s really surprising in fact I haven’t written about it before.
I have thought about it, a dozen times, put a pin on it and stuck it in the corner of my mind. I have read and argued countless times over it and notably, it’s more of a discussion, a near civilized attempt to define, with little to no disagreement on its status. As I said, luvvie word.
Voice – just in case you haven’t heard – is the Holy Grail.
The most common thing that will crop up, guaranteed really, is ‘there’s no one agreed upon definition’ or ‘no one can tell you exactly what it is’. A willow-the-wisp word? No, it’s simpler than that. Definitions are where writers like to out write one another. But sometimes the word itself is the closest we have to a working description. And once you have written enough and read enough, it’s good enough; our only worry then becomes do we have it?
It isn’t just the ability to make a noise on paper we seek, its the right kind of noise. And the most common argument – where the discussion nears the uncivilised – is whether teaching technique, the influence of critiques, editors and fellow writers, benefits or destroys our voice.
My take on voice is that it requires an adjective to begin to discuss it in any useful way. We too quickly assume others know we mean a standard literary voice, or a distinctive voice, or a voice suitable for a certain genre, chick lit being the one most easily defined by its chatty OH EM GEE! tone. And no, voice isn’t a tone, I’d agree, though like plot, story and structure, tone, style and voice will overlap so much it just gets painfully confusing if you are going to get hung up on the semantics.
Voice is always present, we hear what we read, in that same odd way we see what we write about. We couldn’t identify it in an audio-line up (or play up?) but we feel as though we could when we’re immersed in it. It’s that feeling you get when you open up a Terry Pratchett, of returning to an old friend and his tales.
I have never been a huge fan of short stories – I know. Irony Alert. We should get a big red button for that – and in part it does come down to voice or lack thereof, at least lack of distinction. One consideration that divides and helps explain the worry some have over the effect of teachers on our work, is whether voice is mostly something superficial that arises from the peculiar way we choose to express ourselves with the written word – quirks in syntax, elaborate metaphors a la Chandler or absurd over the top analogies a la Chuck Wendig (with fuck and monkeys guaranteed to make it in somehow), the run on sentences and soft rumbling onomatopoeia of Grassic Gibbon, as distinct as our own actual voices. Or whether these are simply the patterns of language common to the masses with too few variations to truly allow distinction without limiting yourself much like a cartoon, stuck in the same clothes, with the same lines, repeating the same few scenarios. There are many who believe that voice is really the emergence of the personality through the words. And it is through the way we explore our stories, the characters we bring to life that we reveal it. Can we recognise a King paragraph without the obvious clues of names, or is it embedded in his characters, the slow build, the dark tone that seeps through their thoughts, their actions, their interactions, the foreshadowing of regret and poor choices?
When considering short stories, they give us such a restrictive space to explore any individuality and often the voice, as dictated by stylistic choices, can seem samey, while the room to develop the personality of the author is never present. And it is a concern that critique sites can also give rise to. Most of our fellow writers won’t read our entire work, at best we might get a few chapters reviewed, often merely the one, with a heavy emphasis on keeping it short and sweet when you’re considering where to put your dividers. It’s very easy for voice to quickly become a miasmic drone. Concern over the repetitive nature of advice cited such as beware adverbs, try and stick to said as a tag, speaks directly to this.
The question really is what do the powers that be mean when they say voice? That’s the relevant part isn’t it and they say it a lot. It’s a luvvie word..
I’m looking for voice, a really great voice, like totally different and unique, is a sentence I have come to despair of a little. If you follow #mswl you’ll understand what I mean. And honestly I think they mean both definitions. To return to an analogy I have used before, a rock label isn’t going to sign Shirley Bassey unless she sounds like Nine Inch Nails. On the other hand they might sign Nine Inch Nails if they have a sampling of Shirley Bassey on their reworked version of Fuck me Like an Animal (you should read the lyrics, they’re poetic).
There are always going to be rules, boundaries that will guide those looking to market and make money, rather express their inner animal, and while you can push, can benefit greatly from pushing at those boundaries, there are limits. Reading and learning techniques, however you choose to do this, can only benefit. For me reading probably trumps the nitty-gritty feedback you might encounter in writer’s groups, but does include reading other aspiring writers works with an eye to critiquing. Most agents, editors and more importantly, readers aren’t looking for you to become the next David Foster Wallace. In fact they really don’t want DFW when they pick up the next Marion Keyes. Reading will teach you that in romance ‘oh my darling’ she gasped breathlessly is par for the course and that even, much as you wanna get all Elmore on that redundancy you kinda like the effect a wee bit more than.. ‘oh my darling, she said..
There will probably always be a debate about what it truly means when the gatekeepers ask for unique and whether they have in fact entirely managed to subvert the meaning, but if you like pushing those boundaries having that smoky rock voice and metal-scraping-on-concrete guitar riff will let you away with a lot more Bassey. Pairing the comfortably familiar with the superficial basics, gives you far more freedom to take readers where they really aren’t comfortable going in those spaces where we explore our real vision. I can’t speak to whether the opposite is true, if elaborate tricks of prose can disguise having nothing to say.. but if you want to find out, let me know.
My recent conversion to short stories has been unexpectedly illuminating when it comes to voice. In terms of a revealing who I am through my writing, certainly stylistically, I have tended to regard my blog as the best place to indulge. It’s one of the reasons I have maintained it – as I enjoy having a space where I can just express myself that freely. I can mix literary theory with bad jokes and Scottish-isms, make silly puns and wee rhymes and just have fun with words in any way I feel like while ranting about superhero mash-ups. There are no inhibitions that naturally arise when you write, as I do, in character.
Character voice is seen as distinct from writer voice and in the sense that a character is simply a derivative of you, your imaginings of a certain feeling, time, personality, I would disagree. Certainly in the deeper spaces we don’t ever leave ourselves behind. On the other hand, I do think that if we can get inside that character, truly have a distinct feel for them and let that guide our choices whether that’s the decisions they make or the way they use language to convey this, we can leave the more obvious shackles of writers’ voice behind.
I’m starting to question that. I’ve found in reading some absolutely amazing short stories that there is often far more space than I had previously considered to explore. It does often require a much closer attention to detail as both a reader and a writer. And there is also much sameness. Even in the 1% that get through. My writing has certain defined characteristics I find set it apart from most – happy endings are rare in sci-fi at the moment, an upbeat love story that ends in a handshake – and even finding myself willing to write in genres and on subjects I have previously avoided like James Patterson novels (sorry.. ) I still feel I can – or do – represent them in my own way. But perhaps only if they read with a careful eye. My voice, my character voice, feels oddly me. Not in the way my blog is – I still don’t rhyme in fiction..mostly – but I am using certain techniques over and over, certain tones seem to dominate, and I can discern something distinctly not distinct about them. Something is happening: am I emerging into my writer’s true self or am I reducing?
I’ve found as a reader I’m tending to the literary.. I know! where is that big red button, I think I might need to eat it.. The stories I admire have vague and not often hospitable worlds, in the sense I feel no need to dwell in them for the length of a novel, nor even return to them for a brief epilogue, the themes are always dark – loss, regret, guilt could probably sum up most – and the characters are defined by ambiguity, in their desires, their actions and most of all their feelings. What I admire most about them is their voice and given all of the above, which is not Disney, when I say voice I think I mean the technicalities of expression, the style, the tone, the words. There is a certain unifying factor even here, but I wonder if its in the skill of the hand at work. It’s a voice I could never emulate, perhaps my chirpy, fuck -this-for-a-game-of-scissors-paper-spock nature wouldn’t allow it, and perhaps that’s the truth of voice.