“The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It pays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you have never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off.”
For me, one of the joys of reading fiction is the variety of voice and style you come across. I just finished “Everything I Never Told You,” by Celeste Ng, about the death of a teenage girl and about a month ago, I read, “Mud Vein,” by Tarryn Fisher, about a woman held captive in a remote cabin. Each of these stories were beautifully written, absorbing page-turners, yet the style or “voice,” of their authors couldn’t have been more different.
Voice. So personal. So highly subjective. Writers struggle for years to find their “voice,” that unique combination of syntax, dialogue, character development—even punctuation—that is their own personal stamp, a warbling like no other. Elmore Leonard’s masterful dialogue, ee cummings’ lack of punctuation and capitalization, the silky elegance of Anita Shreve and the dark, prickly precision of Gillian Flynn are just a few examples of just how personal and singular a writer’s “voice” can be.
Finding and honing your writer’s voice is a long, arduous and ever-changing process. It can start with trying to emulate a writer whose stories you enjoy reading. It can evolve from a movie or TV show that knocks you so flat, you become determined to try to recapture the quick, breezy dialogue or long, poetic soliloquies.
I’ve found my own somewhat conversational, to-the-point writing style is the direct result of (“rebellion against” might be a better term) high school reading experiences. I struggled mightily to get through “The Old Man and The Sea.” It droned on and on and I can’t remember if he ever even caught that dang marlin (despite the bad taste the sea left in my mouth, I would like to read “The Sun Also Rises,” one of these days.). I had the same negative reaction to “Jane Eyre.” The simple act of walking into a room took pages and pages and by the end, I was ready to bury the whole book in the backyard (I had a much better experience with the “prequel,” Wide Sargasso Sea,” which tells the story of the madwoman in the attic before she got all tangled up with Rochester). I much preferred the loose style of “Catcher in the Rye,” or “The Bell Jar,” or the deceptively simple, “Ethan Frome.”
As a reader, I like to “get on with it,” as it were, and this is my inclination as a writer as well. Some readers (and writers) like a lot of flowery language and an excess of detail, while others prefer a shorter, punchier style (and some of us like a little bit of both). Charles Dickens’ may be one of Jackie Collins’ favorite authors, (no, really), but it doesn’t mean she wants her voice to sound anything like his. My No. 1 goal with all my books is to entertain with a (very) small side of provocative thought thrown in for good measure. I’ll leave the penning of the Great American Novel to someone else.
I have a family member taking their first foray into fiction writing and they mentioned wanting to emulate the style of two writers with a highly literary, highly poetic quality to their work. After reading a sample of their work, it was clear to me their style was a little more downtown than uptown. After probing them some more (and suggesting they read works by authors whose style was probably closer to their own), I asked why they chose two writers with a style so different from their own and their response was, “Well, I thought that’s how I was supposed to write.”
Can you imagine Madonna singing “Vision of Love” or Mimi belting out “Vogue?”
Part of “finding your voice,” is not only reading and writing A LOT, it’s learning the rules before you break them in the name of artistic expression. It’s observing the world around you and applying it to your writing accordingly. It’s tapping into your own individual experiences and truths and using it in your writing. It’s finding the best version of your own unique voice and honing it until it feels like YOU, not a cheap, grasping imitation of someone you THINK you’re supposed to sound like. The more you work at it, the more comfortable you become in your own voice and the more confidence you gain to be able to say, “no, thank you,” to the well-meaning, but often bad advice of others who may try to strip your writing of everything that makes it unique.
I went through this recently with a family friend who offered me a lot of unsolicited advice on a manuscript. If this person had their way, my story would have sounded like some Elizabethan wrote it instead of a Sloaneian (ha ha!). Kind of like Mariah Carey and Madonna trading set lists for the night. Honestly, can you imagine Madge belting out “Vision of Love,” or Mimi crooning, “Vogue?”
Like I said, voice.
For now, it’s time to go and do some work on my voice.