The Long Road to a Novel – Part 4 – The Elusive Voice

Voice Bird Singing

I’ve been posting recently about the journey to writing my first novel The Art Trip, from how I began to write, to how I gained in experience, then in confidence. Today I’m continuing with the next chapter in that story. I’ll be sharing how I came to find my voice as a writer. Yes, voice, that slightly slippery concept! How to define it, let alone find it?

It’s easy to imagine voice as something rather mystical, which might emerge at certain phases of the moon through swirling fog, or as the channeling of a spirit which must be served. When I was starting out as a writer, it seemed a little like that to me, anyway. I’d read articles and books about writing, and the idea of voice would be treated with great reverence, but it tended to drift by without ever really being pinned down. Either that, or there’d be strong statements about what it wasn’t, but not what it was. I’d read interviews with editors and literary agents, and voice would be the underlying answer to most questions. It was an answer not often expanded on, though. Writers who were picked from the slush pile and succeeded had voice, others usually didn’t. Enough said.

There’s a certain appeal in that notion of voice, certainly. It fits in with the idea of creative genius or innate talent, an accident of fortune. Like discovering magical powers or striking hidden gold, it’s exciting stuff. Heck, it even fits with the unicorn-fever that’s swept the globe in the last few years! Well, I enjoy a mystery as much as the next person, but I’m also a northerner with a dry sense of humour, someone who likes to get to the bottom of things, and a fairly plain speaker. I bought into that notion of voice for a while, but it did nothing to help me when I was starting out. So in writing this post, I’m not going to get all arty-farty about voice! Instead, I’m going to do my best to wrestle it down.

Why? Well, for any fellow writers or creators, whilst I can’t presume to share any authoritative advice, maybe there’ll be something in my experience that reassures or brings a fresh perspective. I know I’ve always enjoyed hearing from writers who are prepared to pull back the curtain on their own creative process and discoveries, and I’ve taken a lot of encouragement what they’ve shared. For myself, well, I suppose if you can find a voice you might also be able to lose it, even for a while, and in that case I might at some point need a trail of breadcrumbs to lead me back to mine!

So, where to start? If you’ve been following my posts so far, you’ll know that I’d already been writing for several years and produced two unpublished novels before I began work on The Art Trip. I worked on each of those first two novels with passion and dedication. I enjoyed creating them and learned a great deal about writing in the process. On completing and re-reading the first, though, I knew at once I could do much better. Fast-forward a couple of years, and having completed the second novel, I still had doubts.

Now doubts are natural and healthy, and I don’t suppose there’s a single writer out there, however celebrated or successful, who doesn’t feel that perhaps with another draft or a further edit they could still improve on even their best work. I recognize that. I don’t expect I’ll ever feel that my work is absolutely spot-on, but I’m not a perfectionist. I wasn’t torturing myself with some grand vision or nitpicking over tiny stylistic points. My doubts were simpler. Putting myself in the place of a reader, I just wasn’t sure I’d persevere with more than a couple of chapters. It didn’t quite flow as I’d hoped, and the underlying themes I’d wanted to explore weren’t shining through. Maybe the idea was too ambitious, maybe I wasn’t skilled enough to do justice to it. Either way, the novel wasn’t ready to share or publish. I didn’t know it then, of course, or use this term, but I hadn’t found my voice.

Looking back to that point, I think I had at least discovered something important about voice that I hadn’t understood from all the books, articles and interviews I’d read. I believe now that a crucial aspect of voice is the impression a writer’s work creates, and even simply the way it sounds, when it’s read aloud. When wrestling a thing as slippery as voice, it’s easy to get a bit too self-absorbed, wrapped up in the writer’s quest for it, but at the root of it all, why do we write stories? For the reader.

It may seem obvious from the word voice itself, but up to then it hadn’t been obvious to me. I hadn’t really thought about the way we read. Most of the time we don’t read aloud, but the act of reading silently isn’t exactly silent. For me at least, and I guess it’s the same for many, when I read, I almost hear the words in my head. There’s no sound, but the words on the page seem to be translated into words I hear, and that’s how I absorb them.

So for writing to flow well, for characters to engage me and for atmosphere to take hold, I find that writing has to sound good, and work well, when it’s read out loud. I’d been writing alone with only myself as audience for several years and the idea of reading my work out to myself just hadn’t occurred to me. Perhaps I thought it was another step towards losing my grip on reality! It’d be another few months before I realized that it was a really helpful thing to do, both during writing and editing. It’s something I do now religiously and I can’t recommend it enough!

The second lesson I was on my way to learning, and which I may as well cover next, is that voice is found through writing, and it’s something which can be developed. I don’t believe that a writer’s voice naturally spills out when they first set about writing a story, a poem or whatever, and I don’t believe that you need to have found your voice before you can write anything worthwhile. I set more store by those sayings about inspiration and perspiration than by ideas of unexpectedly striking gold. It might happen that way for some people, but I suspect that’s the exception.

Based on my own experience, voice is something you work towards as you go along, like other skills. The years I’d spent writing before I found my voice were years I needed to put in. I was improving, and with that, raising my expectations of what I could do. Without everything I learned during that time, I don’t know if I’d ever have arrived at the point where one day I could both produce and recognize writing I felt was both fresh and exciting for me, new in a good way. Maybe a highly developed sense of what’s average helps you to spot the good stuff when it finally comes along.

Those long years of writing towards my voice were important for another reason too. As much as I love to write, at times they were hard-going. Now and then I’d hit a patch of a few days or weeks when I’d get bogged down, discover a knot I couldn’t work out, and after battling on for a while, I’d give myself a break. For a change, and to reconnect with the fun of writing, I’d try something completely different from my novels; poetry, flash fiction, a short story competition. They all taught me something. Poetry helped me to think more about language, rhythm and imagery in my writing. Short stories demand tight plotting and characters who come to life as soon as they appear. Flash fiction with its mean little word counts is an excellent boot camp in editing. Above all, the willingness to experiment and be a bit playful with my writing was what I took away.

I kept on shaking things up and trying again, iterating my way towards my voice. I bet it’s been that way for a lot of other writers, and it maybe has been or will be that way for you too. It’s less glamorous as a way of learning than a sudden, dazzling revelation, but how often is life glamorous? When I think about how I’ve learned other skills; swimming, driving, cooking, whatever, it’s usually been this way, through trying then trying again. I don’t really see why finding your voice should be any different.

So, how did I finally get there? Well, one day an experiment came good. I recognized my voice through a character I created. He wasn’t part of my novels, in fact he was part of a warm-up exercise  morning before I started on the day’s real writing. I was just loosening up, having some fun and waking up my brain by scribbling something entirely unrelated for a few minutes. Now that could sound a bit like striking the hidden gold, I know, so I understand a little where those notions of voice come from. There was a degree of chance involved that it happened that day, but I can assure you there were absolutely no celestial choirs or bolts of lightning. In essence, I’d got quite a bit of writing experience under my belt, and just at that time I was doing some things which helped a lot.

In place of a holiday, I’d treated myself to a week-long creative writing course with the Arvon Foundation. It was a brilliant week in a remote cottage with a dozen or so other writers and the benefit of no internet or mobile signal. Now, I’m not saying that investing in a creative writing course is the way towards finding a voice. It won’t hurt, but it’s a luxury in both time and money (although some funded courses do exist!). Whilst the teaching and the company were great, what was most important about that week was more basic. It was the chance to write intensively for a period of time without daily life intruding too much, and simply having a change of scene.

Both of these things really created the right environment for me to experiment successfully. The spells of dedicated writing time freed me from any pressure to write something straight away that I could use in my novel, and allowed me to get more fully into my stride. Being somewhere other than home took me away from distractions, but also gave me perspective. It was somehow easier to bring my whole self to my writing when I was outside my usual surroundings.

I think taking a step away allows you to ease your way out of your habitual shape and expand a little. As much as you may love your home and regular life, there might be sides of yourself that don’t get the chance to come to the fore so often, and it might be expressing one of those sides that helps you find your voice. Or maybe by being somewhere else your unique passions and personality, your individuality, stand out more, whereas at home with those who know you best, you just feel, well, normal.  Getting away a bit helps you find and use your voice, I think. It doesn’t have to be a solid week on a writing course, it can be a an hour or two in a park, a coffee shop or the local library. It’s what I do when I need to kick-start my writing or find my groove again. Different is good, I find.

What was I writing when I stumbled upon my voice? Yes that’s right – nothing I thought would be important. I was sketching out a character who didn’t yet have a story. I don’t suppose it would need to have been that, maybe it could have been a location, a piece of action, some dialogue. Looking back, though. I think there were some helpful things about that character sketching process, so let me try to share those. I can attest to it being the way one writer found their voice, and perhaps they can apply in other scenarios too!

The character who came to me when I was scribbling that five minute warm-up piece was a man, older than me, with a completely different background, life and job from me. In case you read the The Art Trip, I don’t mind telling you he was Ken Smith-Wemyss, a rather dog-eared but inspiring art teacher who became my male lead character. Although I like Ken a lot, we don’t share much in common and I don’t agree with everything he does. He doesn’t represent me so how did I find my voice through him?

Well, it was to do with how I was able to see and describe him, the original little details I could capture. In fact, he sprang from details. My warm-up began with an object, an expensive classic wristwatch, rather battered. I asked myself how did it get that way? Who owned and wore it? How did they get it and why don’t they look after it? Ken came to life, with a backstory, a job, values, beliefs and a personality. It wasn’t difficult because he seemed so vivid to me, and in turn, I was able to find vivid ways to describe him. I could see his jaded exterior, but also his more genuine side, and I warmed to him. The words I chose reflected that. He made me smile, so what I wrote was warm and funny.

Now, when you write a novel, you have to live with your characters for an awfully long time, and let’s remember the reader again too; they’re also going to live with your characters for a good while. So in the search for voice, it’s got to be a good idea look out for those characters who really grab you and engage you, then follow them! If you don’t find your voice through a character, maybe it’ll be a place that captivates you, or a pivotal event. It might not matter what it is, but I think it probably needs to be something you can get really close to and inhabit, imagine your way into the minute details of. Hitting on the the right subject, a subject you really respond to, helps you to express yourself in the truest way. 

That brings me to another important thing I learned about voice – being open to what yours could be. My voice wasn’t, and isn’t, at all what I’d expected it’d be. My subject and my genre isn’t either. Up until that point, I’d never considered writing romantic comedy or anything that might be funny. I wouldn’t have thought that was me at all. Everything I’d written before that had been, well, serious, an attempt at literary fiction, if I had to define it. I was trying to write stories that would move readers, more than amuse them. Why? I’m not exactly sure. I do like a heavy or sad story (as well as a funny one) so it could have been that. I think intensity of emotion was something I wanted to create through my writing, and I was pursuing heavier, thought-provoking stories because they stayed with me as a reader. It was perhaps easier to forget the joy and laughter I’d gained from countless other books. Also, frankly, my life was a bit less cheerful back then!

When I reflect, it ought to have been more obvious. When I’m talking with people I know, I’m rarely serious. I like to make people laugh. I don’t know why I thought my writing should be different. Probably I thought it should carry more weight than my conversation, but it turned out I was wrong. Whilst even now, I don’t write the way I speak, and I don’t think voice is really that, there’s more of a connection than I first realized. The dry sense of humour, the close observations and details I find fun in, they’re common to both my writing and a chat with me. So in a search for voice, why not experiment, and why not try being more conversational? Your voice may shine through.

My voice was a surprise to me, then, but I tried it on and it felt right. I’d invested a lot in my first two novels, but from then on I was more than willing to change direction, and with it genres. I went from an aspiring author of literary fiction to an author of romantic comedies. It didn’t take much thinking about. More than wanting to write a particular thing, I wanted to write whatever I was best at, to create work I thought would be enjoyed by readers. I wasn’t the kind of writer I thought I’d be, but I didn’t care, I was so excited about being a better one. My new voice convinced me it was the right thing to do.

Wait, but how was I sure? How exactly did it feel to have found my voice? Well, it was something I felt for myself rather than anything anyone told me. The short piece I wrote about Ken that morning pleased me. It seemed to flow when I read it back. It sounded good to me. I thought, in places, I’d been quite original. I’d tried some slightly adventurous sentences and unexpected words, and they seemed to work. It made me smile and I had a hunch it’d make other people smile too. There was a kind of freedom to the writing that seemed to reflect how easily I’d been able to get it down on paper. I wanted to carry it on and I had all kinds of ideas as to how I could. In a nutshell, I was more excited about that scrappy little passage than anything I’d written before. My excitement just told that this was what I had to do more of, this was the path for me.

As it happens, at the end of that week on the writing course, I had the chance to read something aloud to my fellow writers, and I chose that unexpected snippet. Ironically, I had a cold, a sore throat and very little actual voice at the time, but I saved what I had for the reading. I wasn’t hesitant to share my work, I had a little more confidence in it. When the time came, I croaked through my scrappy page of scrawl, and people smiled as I’d hoped, even laughed, and in the places I thought they would. It was a nice confirmation of what I’d felt myself. The important thing, though, was what my own mind and ears and guts had told me. Even if that reading hadn’t gone so well, I’m convinced I would have followed the same course and gone on to write The Art Trip. I’d already decided I would. I believed in my voice, and because of that, I believed in myself so much more.

So that’s my journey to finding my voice and a few thoughts about what helped me along the way. But after all that, what exactly do I think voice is? For me, it’s personality on paper. It’s about both the things you want say and the way you say them. Everyone has a personality, so everyone has a voice. It’s not a lottery. Having the voice isn’t hard but getting it out onto paper can be. Expressing yourself in life isn’t always easy. For whatever reason, we’re not always able to be our whole selves or our true selves. All the time, there are things we think and don’t say. Writing is a chance to get that stuff out. Write to start with, just write and see what comes out. Keep writing. Allow yourself a little time out of your usual routine and surroundings, experiment, have fun and see what happens. One day, if you persevere, you may really surprise yourself by writing something far better than what you’ve written before. I reckon that’ll be your voice, and whilst writing still won’t be easy, writing in your voice is the way it’ll feel easiest. You’ll be thrilled, but do you know who’ll be even more thrilled? Your readers.

The Art Trip

If you’ve enjoyed my writing and would like to take a look at The Art Trip, that’d be lovely! If you’re into art, Italy, romance or comedy it might be up your street. You can read the first chapters for free on Amazon, and it’s available to buy as a paperback, ebook and in Kindle Unlimited. I hope you enjoy it and I’d love to hear your feedback!

Lisa Graham The Art Trip St Peter's Cupola

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