I’m still mining the book Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks for the good bits. He offers six core competencies of a great story. Today’s blog post is brought to you by core competency six: Voice. Every writer has a voice. But is it good enough to get you published? I don’t know. Let’s see what Brooks has to say about it.
Brooks says the number one problem with voice is overwriting: too many adjectives and adverbs, not enough power verbs, and simply tries too hard. Trying to sound eloquent with fat sentences full of beauty and eloquence that just don’t sound right. Trying to imitate your favorite author, but going too far. Brooks equates it to wearing a clown suit to the Oscars. He sums it up with this: “Less is more.”
Once you’ve learned to pare down the prose and say exactly what you want to say, you’re left with sentences that reveal you, the author. The way you string your words together, the similes and metaphors you choose, the attitude you convey, is all unique. That’s your voice. It’s what makes your writing sound like you and not some other writer. Even if you’ve unconsciously tried to imitate your favorite author, you will still read/sound like you.
Brooks goes on to say that voice is the least challenging of the six core competencies. Why? Because it will flow naturally from the author once ego, fear, and/or overzealousness get out of the way. The key there is natural. Once your writing sounds natural, not contrived, then you’ve found your voice. Side note from me (though I am NOT an expert at any of this), your natural voice can sound different from piece to piece. For example, my writing voice in my fantasy novels is very different from my voice in my mystery/thriller novels. I’m the same author, but changing genres and POV makes them sound very different. That’s not a bad thing–I’ve found my voice and I’m happy with it, and soon I will drag an agent and/or publisher to my way of thinking.
I’ve read lots of different books on developing voice, learning to edit and revise and polish, but here’s the advice I found the most helpful (and I’m terribly sorry, but I can’t remember who said it, so I can’t give them credit): Find an author whose writing style you admire, then study it. Not just read, but study. Look at how they handle dialogue. Study the beats they use between dialogue. Diagram how they intersperse scenery or monologue or backstory into the current action. You will learn a ton by doing that. Take a few minutes to copy one of their pages–just type it onto your computer and pay attention to every word choice. After you’ve finished, bring up your work-in-progress and try to implement some of the things you’ve learned. You’ll be surprised what you’ve picked up.
I’ve really gone off track, so let me get back to the book. Brooks offers this paradox: “It [voice] is at once the most likely of the elements that will bar you from the inner circle of the published, while being least among the criteria that allows you entry to it.” What he means is that agents and publishers know within one page if your writing is professional enough to be published. They’ll need a lot more than one page to see if you can create a great character, or pull off a great plot twist, or create a structurally sound story. But voice shows up immediately. “If it [the story] compels, if it flows or doesn’t overwhelm, it passes muster as acceptable. And that’s all that’s required of voice.”
“Writing voice must be… earned. Discovered. Grown into. It must evolve into a signature cadence and tonality, with colors and nuances that imbue it with subtle energy and a textured essence of depth and humanity. Effortlessly, Simply. Cleanly. Without the slightest hue of purple. It must become something that is completely and totally yours.“
You only get that by practicing. So close down your Internet connection or your RSS reader or whatever you’re reading this on, open your work-in-progress, and get to work.