The recipe for a Writer’s Voice

I didn’t used to wonder about a “writer’s voice” because I thought I knew what it was. It was just tone, right?  Formal or silly, casual or crass.  That’s what set Clive Barker apart from Terry Pratchett. 

Then I got a little older, and knew I had been wrong.  A “writer’s voice” wasn’t just the tone.  It was the cadence, too.  So, all I had to do was sound just like Kate Elliott, and I’d write something really good.  I worked hard to emulate the greats.  Tried to balance on the backs of giants.  That’s the way to succeed, right?  Like a baby learning how to speak, we just … copy.

Then I got a little older, and knew I had been wrong again.  Le sigh.  An impressionist can do a perfect copy of someone’s voice, but they cannot do the one thing a writer needs most: make new material that still resonates.  I can write like Feist, but even a casual reader will hear the discordant notes I hit along the way.

So I finally had to admit that I had no clue what a “writer’s voice” really was.  What made one good, and another one not?

We constantly hear conflicting advice as we “learn how to be writers.”  Practice this.  Do that.  Write this much.  Write that often.  Find your voice.  Be yourself.

Well, myself sucks sometimes!  It isn’t always a wonderful day in my neighborhood.  Who wants to be around that kind of person? Or, in other words… if I don’t like me, why should anyone like what I have to say?

Whoa, right?  That escalated quickly.  But it’s true, isn’t it?  I can’t count how many times I’ve trashed a story because it didn’t sound “right”.  It wasn’t as eloquent as Hobb.  Not as funny as Pratchett, or as detailed as Feist.

Then I finally caught a glimpse of something that might actually be true.

You know who also sucked at being Robin Hobb?  Asimov.  Oh, he’s good.  He could paint a world, but weren’t the characters a bit thin next to the worldbuilding?  He’s no Hobb.  And Pratchett was way more funny.  Should I even sully Feist with this comparison?  Ugh, Asimov is such a loser, right?

Of course not.  Asimov is Asimov, and he’s the best one there is.  My childhood would have sucked if he had held up Foundation to Tom Sawyer and said “Oh, but I’m no Mark Twain!  Burn it all to ashes, then!”

I’ll never be Robin Hobb.  I haven’t lived her life.  All of the trials and wins and pain that created who she is and shaped her voice… that’s not something that I can inherit by simply fangirling.

But I’ve lived a life.  It hasn’t been very glamorous, but I’ve learned some crazy stuff and skipped other things that are probably pretty basic to everyone else. And I think that’s where my “writer’s voice” lives.  It’s the voice of someone who lived that life, and skipped those things, and still gets up every day to make something new happen.

It’s different than it was when I was a kid.  That psycho could write for days about nothing, and loved every minute of it.  She wasn’t trying to be anything but herself.

It’s a scary thought, isn’t it?  To put so much of who we are onto the page.  A rejection of my words will be a judgement against something very intimate to me.  Something core to who I am.  It’s going to hurt.

But what’s the alternative? I’m never going to be a passable Herbert or Nix, so I have to be a kickass me.

And maybe that’s the secret: a dash of bravado, a pinch of wtf, and a pound of crazy shoved headfirst into a shot glass.

That’s my voice.  What’s yours?

What do you think?