Recently, I was approached by a budding author who, after the usual polite introductory remarks, said, “Ms. Wrede, I’ve been wondering – how did you develop your voice?”
I muttered something relatively innocuous and vague, and stewed about it all the way home. Because while I’ve put a considerable amount of thought into the voices of my characters (especially when I’m writing first-person), I haven’t ever thought much about my voice.
So I did what I usually do when somebody comes up with a question like this: I did some googling. After an hour or so of browsing through articles full of solemn (and mostly contradictory) advice on the vast importance of voice, I did what I should have done in the first place. I pulled out my trusty Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, which defines “voice” as “a rather vague metaphorical term by which some critics refer to distinctive features of a written work in terms of spoken utterance…assessed in terms of tone, style, or personality.”
Which begs the question: if “writing voice” is simply a vague and convenient metaphor, why do so many people seem to think it’s vastly important?
Answer: I have no clue.
So I did some more thinking, and what I thought about was the foundation of the metaphor. That is, one’s actual spoken voice.
Most people I know don’t spend a lot – OK, any – time developing their speaking voice. They just talk. The voices they have are a combination of genetics and life experience, of the accents (regional, cultural, ethnic) they heard growing up and the ones they’re living with now. And all those voices change over time, depending on lots of things (not least of which is whether the person has a horrible cold or not).
Yet most of those spoken voices are easily recognizable. When I pick up the phone and hear “Hi!” or “Hello” or “Hey,” I know right away which friend or family member is on the other end of the call. None of them had to work at having a unique voice. It just happened.
The people who do work on their speaking voice tend to be either those who have some particular difficulty with speaking, like a speech impediment, or those who are doing something more advanced with their voices than most people need to – actors, singers, public speakers of all sorts. All of whom, I point out, already have a perfectly good voice for doing normal, everyday talking. They don’t need to start doing exercises to improve their speaking voices until they want to project to the back row of the theater, or play a character whose speech is different. They certainly don’t need to “find their voices.”
At this point, I went back through some of those articles on writing voice. About half of them offer specific advice on “developing your writing voice.” The top three items always seemed to boil down to 1. Read a lot, 2. Write a lot, and 3. Do/don’t imitate other writers (about half the advice-givers thought that imitating a bunch of different voices would help; the other half thought it would just muddy the waters). In other words, general stuff that most writers and would-be writers are going to be doing anyway, the same way most people talk and listen in the course of their normal lives.
The only real difference I can see is that there’s a large contingent of folks out there who are really worried about “developing their writing voice,” in a way that normal people do not worry about developing their speaking voices. Like the beginning writer who came up and asked the question that started me off on this post.
It therefore seems to me that the best thing for the majority of writers, especially beginners, to do is to stop worrying about voice unless a) they have some specific identifiable problem with their writing voice that, like a speech impediment, needs exercises in grammar or syntax or whatever to fix, or b) they are trying to do something with their writing voice that’s more advanced than most stories or most writers need. Pastiche and parody come to mind as a possible equivalent of actors pretending to be other people; there are almost certainly other things like that that I’m not thinking about.
Mostly, though, “authorial voice” is one of those things that may, just possibly, be useful for critics to talk about, but that (in my not so humble opinion) mostly just gets in the way if you worry about it while you’re writing.