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How to Add Voice to Your Writing in 5 Steps

voice Jan 06, 2019


'Your voice. Yes, find it. Don't ask me how. It's a discovery that's as mysterious as it sounds, but at some point you will suddenly realize that you are channelling an authentic part of you. And that's it. Magic.'

Kate Atkinson.

Step 1: Forget about it.

The default option for all writers is to disappear from your work entirely. 

'Invisibility is a superpower.' Banksy.

This is a good place to start. It’s the only place to start. If you start with what you think is a voice, you're bound to make the mistake of being 'quirky' along with 99% of writers. Just check those Twitter profiles. It's a mistake we can all make. We all want to be 'different'. But that 'quirky' voice may well be derivative (favourite book, last book you read) and if it’s a faker's voice, you will alienate half your readers (and half the agents.) You can't afford to do that.

So start by going for prose like a window pane, as George Orwell put it.

If you do not progress from step one, you’re better off than 99% of aspiring authors. Well done.

Step 2: Be tough on yourself about structure.

'No matter how good a phrase or a simile (the writer) may have if he puts it in where it is not absolutely necessary and irreplaceable he is spoiling his work for egotism. Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over. ‘ Hemingway.

You’ve probably seen this quote before. Rereading it, I noted the word ‘architecture’. This may surprise you but a rigid structure imposed upon your work as early as possible (even if it’s simply 3 scenes per chapter, 10 chapters, or better if it’s as tricky as poetry or as constrictive and quixotic as every paragraph starting with A, then B, then C)  is just the ticket to find your voice.

I don’t doubt you think Sally Rooney has a voice. She has structure first and foremost. Every chapter is structured to the same tight formula in 'Normal People'. 

Step 3: What’s on your mind all the time? Theme.

Don’t be shy. Orwell who touted 'prose like a window pane' had a bee in his bonnet about money. Keep Flying the Aspidistra - which I love - is an extended rumination and rancourous for the most part - on the evil necessity of money. I enjoy the boorish way he holds forth in the book. The fabulous bore rewrote one of the most famous passages of the Bible as a satire on our tragic way of life.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not money, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not money, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not money, it profiteth me nothing. Money suffereth long, and is kind; money envieth not; money vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. . . And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money.
I Corinthians xiii (adapted)

George Orwell.

He was right about money of course. It’s what buggers things up for most writers. Money and time. 

But the nature of your bugbear itself is of no matter.

The point is it’s dandy to have a rant so long as you are making a drama out of it and not being a pain in the arse and trying to educate and illuminate us non-fiction style.

If you’re writing fiction, as a base you've got to be flexible and see things from another point of view. Best to be a bit of a tart ideologically I think or at least admit YOU COULD BE WRONG. If you can do this, you can write fiction. 

By dramatising your hang-up, not only will you treat your malaise, and talk yourself out of it more than likely by grinning at the character who shares your obsession, you’ll entertain us. It’s fiction; it’s exaggerated, natch.

I often think about the exposition of character in novels versus real people in real life. At one extreme there's that Dickensian way of ramming eccentricities home (Orwell loved Dickens) via dogged fixations. I have wondered if one should not do this writing in the modern style? 

But it happens, due to the process of authorial selection in any case. You’re going to have a point of view (even if you’re stuck on step one above ) by the very selection of what you show us. So there may be a slight hammy quality to your characters. Try and temper it so the illusion isn’t spoilt for the reader. If your characters are turned a little grubbily, don't fret overly. It happens even in the more 'realistic' style writers we know and love. You see, real people are quite dull thanks to social conditioning. They don't’ speak their minds very often. Then when they do, they say the same thing over and over again, on all the social media channels. Fiction doesn’t need that.

Step 4: Characterise your flaw, you bore.

So go for it, give your worst qualities to your main character and make the carrier a mordant bore. Elinor Oliphant is a snob, and enjoyably so. ( Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.) Ove is a grudge-bearing misanthrope. (A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman). We like them.

So you need to think a little bit about what people who don’t like you would say about you. It’s an awful disappointment that we don’t get to hear it first hand more often. We can only guess.

So guess! Why don’t people like you? Got it? You’ve got your first big character in fiction.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us 
To see oursels as ithers see us! 
It wad frae mony a blunder free us, 
An' foolish notion: 
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us, 
An' ev'n devotion!

To A Louse (On Seeing One On A Lady's Bonnet, At Church.)
1786. Robert Burns.

We don’t see ourselves and we don’t know what our voice is until others tell us. This will happen after you’re published. Sigh. My writing has been described as darkly comedic and fearless and the opposite of chick-lit. Yet my training was reading Chekhov, Coetzee and Raymond Carver on loop - so go figure. They’re what I’d call lucid, clear, pure writers. Now, when I try to get a handle on my style, I think of it as a foul twinkling river. That’s to say running water spliced with sewage - merriment and dirty-reality - and somehow finally sad or tender-hearted.

How does knowing this help me? Well, it helps me forgive certain lines, it helps me approve others, and know that when push comes to shove, this is me. Not pretty, but pretty irrepressible and of course it’s just one corner of the universal. My corner.

Sure, I still aspire to the grand style, and I kick off my first draft with that aspiration and find my way back home to my hovel later on, after the first draft, not by giving in to what’s easy for me but by being hard on myself. My work needs multiple revisions and structure imposed at every level.

In the first draft I’m concerned with the major architecture of the story, but in the second draft, I’m looking at chapter structure. By imposing another layer of structure, I can make decisions about the material. I punish my material hard. What’s left is my voice. This seems to me to be a curious result, but there it is.

Step 5: Revise, revise, revise.

My voice is there in the first draft, but it’s a bit blowhard and showy as I try to pump air into the story. It’s embarrassing, actually. It gets pared back to its essence in revision. The corny high-jinks of the big top and all the fun of the fair - go. A better elegance emerges and somehow, perhaps counterintuitively for all this styling and re-styling, it’s more truly, more authentically my voice.

I don’t think you can find your voice without these layers of work. My son is a skateboarder. I asked him whether there was a style that was fashionable or considered proper. He said not at all. He said that all skateboarders have their own style. I asked him what his is. He said he didn’t know. He said he’d have to ask someone.

One day, and soon, when you are published as you surely will be after all the iterations of your manuscript prove the story and your prose, you will find out what your voice is. Just when you no longer need to know it. Well, I never did, you’ll say, fancy that. And then you’ll start writing your next story without considering the matter of voice at all.

A bonus step.

Try successive failures or suffering multiple losses.... You will locate your personal take on the universal when you’re no longer an agglomeration of tastes, preferences, opinion, fashions and predilections. When you’re out of hope. When you no longer know what you like - if anything at all. If you’re there, the five steps above should come very easily to you.

IMPORTANT: If you are feeling low do not write about your own circumstances as it will not work, sadly. Better still do not have a main character who is too close to you. We cover this amply in the course but if you have failed to complete a novel in the past the problem is usually that the main character is too close.

Happy writing.

And now for some GOOD NEWS:

If you're thinking about starting to write a novel... The UK book market saw a fourth consecutive year of growth. Statistics from UK book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan show that the print book market in the UK grew 2.1% in value in 2018. In total, 190.9m books were sold last year, for £1.63bn.


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