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Hi Story Nurse!
I’m hoping you can spend a bit of time talking about voice, and about how we control it. By voice, I don’t mean so much “which character is telling this story,” but more that intangible, know-it-when-you-read-it something-or-other that makes one person’s writing different from anyone else’s.
Here’s my problem/question. I have a pretty clear voice, by which I mean that stuff I write tends to sound like me. It’s not highly stylized; I write fairly straightforward commercial fiction. But there is a me-ness to it—the tone, the details that interest me, the jokes I make, and so on. If you read things I’ve written, even though the topics and time periods are different, it won’t be long before you’ll likely say “ohh yeah, that’s her, I can tell.”
So-o-o… great, right? That’s what we want. Except… not always? Because to be honest, I’m pretty sick of listening to myself.
Context might help—I wrote a novel that’s in the proverbial drawer, I wrote one that got published, and I am halfway through the next. So this current WIP is either my 2nd or 3rd, depending on how you count.
I’ve only published one book, so I have no real fear of my voice being particularly tedious to anyone else. (I mean, except for those who didn’t like it in the first place, but never mind them!) This is less about boring my future readers and more about how bored I am of myself!
I hope this might be a “good problem” in the sense that perhaps it means I’m growing as a writer. That I am aware of my crutches and am holding myself to a higher standard than before.
But the question is… what next? I’m finding that sometimes I dread even starting a new scene because I am already rolling my eyes at how “me” it’s going to be and ugh. Enough of her! At the same time, I write the way I write because that’s how I think. It’s not put on, in other words. I don’t want to fake a voice, that’s clearly going in the wrong direction.
Any thoughts or suggestions on this? How do we shake things up while still staying true to ourselves?
—I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. Pipe Down Mermaids!
Voice is a great topic, and a challenging one to tackle because it is so individualized. I’ve done a little bit of vocal training, and I’ve also done a lot of podcasting and used dictation software for writing, so I’m going to draw on those experiences with my literal, physical voice to discuss writing voice and what you can do to change things up a bit.
The first thing I learned from voice lessons is that our physical voices are often more flexible than we think. I knew I could push my range higher, with practice; I was surprised to learn that I could also push it lower. Acting, taking a public speaking course, and reading books to my toddler all taught me just how much I could influence my audience and add nuances of meaning by making small shifts in tone and rhythm.You seem to have this notion that your writing voice is fixed and set in stone and just the way it is, but that’s far from true. Your voice won’t lose its essential character, its you-ness, if you change it, so let go of any worries you might have about being fake or too much of an imitation of others. Voice is a skill to be developed, like any other writing skill. Give yourself permission to stretch it and challenge it and expand it and enhance it. Otherwise you’ll just be stuck in that frustrating rut.
Any singer will tell you that warm-ups and exercises are crucial. They extend your range and make it easier to sing safely, without straining or harming your vocal cords. Writers tend not to do writing exercises very much once they’ve reached a certain level of experience, but you can still get a lot out of them! Try voice exercises specifically: writing ten paragraphs in the styles of ten very different writers, or retyping a page from a book with a distinctive prose style so you can get a tactile sense of how the words fit together, or writing dialogue in the voices of distinctive characters (your own or someone else’s). This isn’t about fakery but about stretching your range and learning new techniques. Once you teach yourself to write like Jane Austen or Kurt Vonnegut, it’s up to you to decide how to incorporate what you’ve learned into your own voice and style when you’re writing original work.
Writing pastiche of other authors has taught me that every writer breaks the rules in their own way. For example, Austen writes hardly any stage directions at all; her scenes of conversation are almost script-like. Yet her work is often turned into films, a testament to how easy it is to visualize her characters. Trying to imitate her style taught me a tremendous amount about how to convey emotion and mannerism in dialogue. Permitting yourself to write pastiche of daring writers will also help you permit yourself to be more daring in your original work—a great way of getting out of that boredom rut.
You say that you write the way you think, but we all think differently under different circumstances. Would deadline pressure change your voice because you’re in a hurry? Would writing for a friend give your work a more intimate tone? What about writing an epistolary story in which you entirely inhabit your characters’ voices, or trying a new genre that has different stylistic conventions? As above, these can all be brief exercises, though you may find you really like that new genre and want to stick with it for a while.
Podcasting always reminds me how weird our voices sound when we play them back to ourselves. What seems obvious to you—or sounds weird to you—when you reread your work may not register at all with your readers. If you frequently reread your own work, especially while it’s in progress, try breaking that habit. Treat your drafts like a game of Exquisite Corpse and don’t let yourself look at anything but the last paragraph. Then pick up where you left off. Inconsistencies will develop, and that’s fine; they can be smoothed out in revisions, and may teach you a few things about your subconscious understanding of the story as opposed to what you consciously intended it to be. If you keep visualizing a character as anxious and fidgety even though he started out as bold and brash, maybe that’s a hint that he’s been hiding something from you. Following it could lead you to all sorts of exciting new subplots.
You can also have your computer read your work to you (most computers have this capability hidden in the accessibility settings) and see how different it sounds in someone else’s spoken voice. The elements that you constantly notice and feel bored by may recede into the background while other elements jump out and surprise you. I know many authors who use this for catching errors like missing words and frequently repeated phrases. They’ll skim over the absent “the” a dozen times while rereading, but when they hear “I took train” they notice it immediately.
I’ve found that my writing style when I dictate is very different from my writing style when I type. When I type, I go back and tweak word choice as I write. (I rewrote that sentence four times—and this sentence twice.) That’s not possible with dictation. I also speak with a lot of comma splices and run-on sentences and digressions. When I use a pen, the difference from typing is less obvious, but I find that I write shorter sentences with simpler words and tend to take a conversational tone, maybe because the last time I regularly wrote with a pen was when I was in elementary school and keeping a diary. This is another indication that “your voice” is not a fixed and singular thing. My dictation voice, my typing voice, and my pen voice are all authentic voices for me; they’re just different. Try shifting your sense of your voice by changing the tools you write with. You may be surprised by what’s consistently you and what’s not.
Finally, you may just need a little bit of a break from writing. Anything gets boring if you’re immersed in it all the time, and you may be feeling so much pressure that you forget how to be playful. Consider taking a week or two away from it, and see if you come back refreshed and ready to spend time in your own company again.
Your inclination to push yourself and try new things is great, and will keep your work vibrant. Keep shaking things up and remembering how to have fun! Rediscovering your joy in writing will make all the boredom disappear.