I wrote a column in my local newspaper about a former English teacher who passed away. The article generated emails from other former students with their own stories to share. But one reader, a woman in my graduating class (1969), wrote to tell me that she not only enjoyed the article, but liked my writing enough to buy my mystery novel, FOOLS RUSH IN.
Compliment accepted (as well as the check).
What this reader responded to is something all writers are told to strive for in their writing. Elusive, indefinable, yet oddly recognizable, the term for this is “Voice.”
Anyone can be taught grammar, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, all the building blocks needed to create a manuscript. What is harder to capture is the way a writer puts all of those elements together and produces prose as unique as a thumb print.
The best explanation I have heard of Voice comes from mystery writer Lawrence Block. He said Voice is like listening to two people tell the same joke. The punchline is the same, but the process of getting there, the style of the narrator, even the body language marks the difference between narrators. And, just for the record, I can't tell a joke to save my life. I get to the punchline and fall flat.
Think of an author you love to read. John Steinbeck, for example. Whether he's describing Dust Bowl migrants in “Grapes of Wrath,” or a sardine cannery in Monterey, I'm always aware of Steinbeck. He brings to life the Joads, Doc, and the madame of the Bear Flag bordello. Characters are formed with care and detail. We not only hear their voices but that of their creator.
If you took Steinbeck's name off the covers, would a reader still be able to recognize that the stories were penned by the same man? Probably. If Clive Cussler or Tom Clancy wrote “Cannery Row,” would the story have a different Voice? Oh, sure. There'd be a submarine on a covert mission or a sunken Spanish galleon that has to be lifted from the Pacific floor. The story would be full of action and bravado instead of contemplation. And the book would no doubt make the best seller list.
The Voice of a writer is an important part of the craft of writing. Some people are born with a gift, some acquire Voice. My father, a Southerner, had a rich way with words and inflection. He picked this up from listening to old men spin tales around a pot belly stove. I took what he gave me, genetically and verbally, added a college education and came up with my own style.
The process doesn't happen over night. Voice means knowing who you are, as a person and as a writer. Expression flavored with opinion. Hard work, trial and error. Self-discovery. A conviction of viewpoint and the fearlessness to go public.
If you've read this far, you've heard my Voice. I started with the aftermath of my previous column. The second paragraph is an incomplete sentence with a touch of humor. Move on to Serious. I tossed in a genre reference, followed by a literary icon. I had fun with the idea of literary art rewritten by two bestselling authors. I gave you a piece of my family history. Finally, I revealed the intent of this column, meant for aspiring writers. The message is this: Write brave. Learn well. Be patient. Pay attention. Have attitude. Listen to those around you and to your heart.
I wrote this column in two hours and 619 words. Each word was weighed and considered. This is my Voice.