How To Find Voice In Six Easy Steps
Literary voice is made up of lots of stuff—syntax, the kinds of characters we hang out with, the stories we choose to write, the plot, the themes, the overtones, the undertones, the aftertaste, the resonance. The sounds of the words and the sentence structure. Where you choose to begin. Gather it all up: collectively, they create the style of a work, its flavor, what the Oxford Dictionary defines as “the distinctive tone or style of a literary work or author.”
- Forget the rules. Don’t let those pesky grammar bugs bite you. Shoo all those pent-up third-grade Sister Carmelitas away.
- Create a character on the brink of … meeting a new love, the morning of 9/11, the evening of her death, whatever. Any character will do. Give her a shape, let her say her lines. Write in a journal, or on a scrap of paper, in the snow, on the computer, wherever. Whatever you do, don’t think. Just write. Move your fingers on the keyboard or let the ink flow from a pen. Don’t erase or scratch out. Remember, the mystery is not how a writer writes, but that a writer writes.
- Think like your character. Imagine what she eats for breakfast, how she fills her bowl with cereal. Does she lick her fingers, spill milk on the floor and step on it, use the hem of her skirt to wipe it up? Does the thought of someone distract her? Know the date she was born, how much she weighed at birth, where she was when the twin towers fell, the color of her hair and eyes, the shape of her favorite hat, the color of her eyes, where she goes to think or hide, the first time she held a book, met her lover, flunked a test. I could go on, but you’re bored already.
- Let her tell her story. Begin as you, maybe making a list of her characteristics. Eventually she’ll take over. Write in the first person or the third person but implicitly her, like throw in an adjective or adverb that she’d use. (What do the clever call it—indirect point of view??) Savor the irony, the path she needs to travel, her “a-ha moment.”
- Visit her every day for weeks, months, years. The mystery is not how a writer writes, but that a writer writes. Indulge your passion in small chunks, after you drive the kids to school, in between laundry loads.
- Create another character. Get to know him. Have your characters meet. Or not. I tell myself, if I’m a writer, my stories will take on flesh. Not because I’m talented, no, because talent has nothing to do with it. Sweat, perseverance, inclination, fate—that’s the stuff that makes us write.
Photo: Writing in Rome, gnuckx (Flickr), Creative Commons.