For most of us, it’s a condition easily treatable with a quick sip of honey and lemon or the kind offer of a Strepsil. Finding your voice sounds like some kind of pompous affliction writers complain about to somehow validate literary prowess.
While the whole issue of Voice sounds horribly pretentious, it actually comes down to entirely practical decisions made as you work on your novel. And it’s not a case of hypochondria. The symptoms are varied, but as common as catching a cold.
How you structure your novel will be influenced by your voice. How your protagonists sound will be created by your voice and translated by ear. Your approach to both determines how your story unfolds, and the ways in which readers navigate your plot.
I’ve always thought of books as many voices gathered around a dining table: some softly spoken, others prescriptive. Each warmly welcomed or slightly jarring to the ear. Ultimately, those different accents, interests and opinions contribute to a potentially fascinating and endless discussion.
The reason we pre-order that latest release or make it our mission to read through the trove of a new discovery is because that familiar voice of a favourite author becomes an old friend at the end of the line.
Reading their work, we glimpse a version of life from a unique perspective. A wicked one-liner whipped-up by Wilde. Stephen King drawing smiles on faces as waves of dread fill our veins. The gentle poignancy, soothing and unsettling, in the everyday observations of Anne Tyler. Bird’s eye views of Manhattan with McInerney.
But how many of us have ever heard ourselves before? So, when you find yourself silently conversing at a keyboard, all you can do is hope what you’re saying makes sense, let alone takes a reader along for the duration.
The idea of addressing a room, whether for a formal presentation or a lighthearted wedding speech, leaves most of us less than eager to take centre stage. It’s no wonder, working on a novel, writers can become self-conscious; leaving their word count decidedly under-the-weather.
In those early stages, propelled by a voracious idea, no matter how compelling, we can suddenly find ourselves…well, saddled with a psychological Shetland pony, sabotaging our imaginary worlds. In other words, growing a little hoarse. And that’s when it’s time to catch up with your characters.
My writing sews together like patchwork. Open any inconspicuous-looking cupboard or drawer at my place and you’ll unearth an avalanche of notebooks, printouts and articles. Initial sequences come to me. New ideas fascinate me. Characters introduce themselves. I overhear conversations and observe different settings. I see dead people. (Not really).
This is where I play journalist, with some scenes written many years before, suddenly finding their rightful place in my latest project. It’s my job to transcribe those ideas into some semblance of order. To translate what my characters are trying to tell me. All my voice does, is set the tone.
My literary laryngitis cleared up the moment I wrote comedy. I realised how much I enjoyed making people laugh. It was something I instinctively did. Satire was how I faced the day – my own sense of perspective fuelled by the wonderfully ludicrous ways of the world, and all of us in it. Humour was how I related to people. That was my voice.
So, I stopped thinking about writing and tenses, or worrying about how I sounded and, instead, told a story the way I’d tell it: in my own voice. And that’s not pretentious at all. It’s about being comfortable with your work. It’s about telling your story the way only you could tell it.
Finding your voice should be no more daunting than writing a letter to your reader. You might be tempted to waste time trying to emulate your idols, but the results will create nothing but karaoke. Your attempts to sound like JK Rowling, no matter how admirable the effort, will be as convincing to the reader as hearing Harry Potter read in a phony French accent. And not remotely as enjoyable. Even with you in that beret.
You’re the first reader of your book, but that doesn’t – and definitely shouldn’t – mean scrolling through your manuscript onscreen. Once you have something resembling a first draft, you’ll have already spent hours doing just that. What you need is to hear your voice aloud, and listen to your character’s dialogue.
I promise: every convoluted sentence or poorly chosen word will tie your tongue and infiltrate your eardrums. The secret to becoming a competent editor, virtually overnight, is to remember that if it doesn’t sound right, it isn’t good writing.
Now, let’s listen to what you’ve got to say. I’m all ears, because no one else tells that story, quite the way you tell it.