Why? Editors and publishers are experts on what makes a story work, right? Wrong—at least regarding a subjective quality like ‘voice’. Most rejections are based on the editor’s preferences (and mood?) anyway, so turning a story down based on its lack of ‘voice’ was simply an evasive way of saying ‘we won’t publish this because we don’t like it’. Nothing but an opinion. There was nothing wrong with my friend’s authorial ‘voice’.
I keep mentioning ‘voice’ in quotes because it’s a vague term. Sure, there are plenty of how-to books and writing gurus who will tell you that voice is this little magical thing that all writers get once they’ve ‘learned’ their craft. That it’s vital, and without it their work will never sell. I’m not saying that ‘voice’ in fiction is irrelevant. Voice, style—whatever term is used to denote how an author presents their work—does indeed come with experience. It is a belletristic flavor created from word choices, point of view, what details are shown, which details are withheld, sensory descriptions, references to pop culture or obscure Baroque composers, a positive effulgence, a negative outlook—and many other things. So I’m not disputing its importance.
I’m saying that ‘voice’ isn’t something a writer should even focus on.
It comes naturally. ‘Voice’ is a subconscious ambiance draped over each sentence, each description, while the writer composes his or her work. It’s influenced by a writer’s passions or dislikes, their view on reality, favored colors, least favorite smells, their prejudices, even their own self-worth and confidence. It gestates within the writer’s psyche, and appears in prose not by design, but through expression. Therefore, ‘voice’ is an extension of an author’s personality. Humanity squeezed into words, phrases, and ultimately stories.
‘Voice’ cannot be taught, nor can it be cultivated. If you’re cultivating it, you’re most likely aping another writer’s style or a genre trope. Your work would be filled with stylistic clichés. Maybe even downright plagiarism, if you’re desperate enough. ‘Voice’ just happens.
Writers already have so much to agonize over. We all want to write great material. The hours spent revising manuscripts, crafting each sentence, cutting extraneous passages. We worry about rejections, our chances at a writing career, or maintaining that career. How many drafts has that novelette has been through, and hell, do I really have to revise it again? ‘Voice’ should not be added to this list of authorial anxieties. Whenever a literary demagogue spouts about the importance of ‘voice’, it only strengthens the assumption that ‘voice’ is a commodity that can be learned, honed, and sold in a convenient how-to volume on composition.
Don’t be fooled. Here’s how you attain your own, unique, authorial voice:
Just keep writing.
The more a writer, well, writes, the easier it is to transpose their ideas into words. Like anything else, the more you do it, the better you become. A writer’s personal idiosyncrasies have a stronger presence within each new story. The more often you confront that blank page, and leave it filled with paragraphs, the more confident you’ll become—at least subconsciously. With confidence comes familiarity, and then your ‘voice’ shows in everything you write. The gateway between your imagination and the empty page is wider, cleared of obstacles.
Can ‘voice’ change over time? Perhaps. Read Stephen King’s earlier work, then his latest, and you’ll spot differences—but there’s no mistaking that both came from the same mind. Some will disagree, but I’ll stick to my opinion.
In the end, there is no great ‘voice’. Oh, I have my favorites, but that doesn’t make them the best. Critics and fans may select their favorites and tout these as geniuses dwelling atop the pinnacle of literary expression, but again, that’s their opinion. I believe the strongest ‘voices’ connect with more readers, or perhaps even alienate them. Remember, it’s an extension of the author’s persona, and reader reaction doesn’t define whether it’s good or bad. Sales may define whether that particular ‘voice’ is successful, but as we all know, popularity rarely equates quality.
To close, I’ll say that ‘voice’ doesn’t always make or break a story. I’ll use H.P. Lovecraft as an example. Most critics, and many of his fans—including me—regard Lovecraft’s prose as meandering at best. Not all writers of his era wrote in that fashion, so his prose style cannot be completely ascribed as being a product of its time. It was his ‘voice’. Few like it, and fewer emulate it. But what Lovecraft had in spades was his ideas.
The sheer eeriness of his Mythos tales, the dark oceanic behemoths and blasphemous epochs they conjure in the reader’s mind—this is what Lovecraft is remembered for, and rightly so. In the decades since, other writers—many of them well-known, from Neil Gaiman to Elizabeth Bear—have written their own Mythos stories. Some are excellent pieces. One of my writer friends composes Mythos fiction, and he’s rather good at it. Most of these writers craft better prose than Lovecraft. They have more accessible ‘voices’, a more focused presentation. Yet they will never write better Mythos stories than Lovecraft himself.
Story is what always matters. Substance, not style. So stop worrying about your ‘voice’ and write the damn story, already. That’s my opinion. And like my own ‘voice’, it belongs to me, and no one else.