Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Author Voice--Shannon Style

Okay, ever since I talked about Finding Your Character's Voice in last week's Shannon Style post, I've been trying to figure out how to talk about the vague, indescribable concept of Author Voice, and how I found mine.  And I'm still not sure I've really figured out how to properly cover the topic, but I'm going to give it a try. (heh--not exactly a ringing endorsement for this post, but go with me here) :)

So, first of all, what is author voice, and how is it different from character voice?

Basically it's your style of writing--the way you put words on the page and the way you tell the story that is uniquely yours. It's something that will cross over from project to project, regardless of whether you're using the same characters or writing in the same genre or POV.

Some projects will showcase it more than others, but it still has to be there to some degree. And if you've ever read a draft that fell a little flat, I guarantee you it's because that writer hasn't quite figured out how to inject their voice into the story. For me it's the single most defining element of "good writing," and is the reason writers are able to become career authors. If they have a good "voice" their readers will keep coming back for more, no matter what the story.

Which is hard, because voice isn't something anyone can teach you. It has to come from you. You can learn all the tools of writing: plot fundamentals and grammatical rules, and whatnot. But in the end, the way you use and consciously break those is your voice, and no one can tell you what your voice is. You have to find it on your own.

Think of it like learning to draw. You can study rules of proportion and learn how to play with line and shading and color. But the way you choose to use those tools when you draw is uniquely your style. Van Gogh didn't draw the same way Picasso did. And no one should put words on paper quite the same way you do.

It took me five or six drafts of my current MS to find my voice, and each of the many revisions I've done after that has refined that voice. And I can tell that my voice will continue to evolve with every word I write. Which really is the plain and simple secret with voice. You have to write.

There's no shortcut. No exercise you can do to quickly and easily find your voice. No questionnaire that will lead you straight to it. They say every writer has to purge a million bad words to get to any halfway decent ones, and that is mostly because it will probably take you at least that many to find your voice.

That being said, I do think it *helps* to study voice in other books. I can't say this enough: writers need to be readers. Pay attention to the different "voices" authors use when you read. Which ones are you drawn to? Which ones remind you a little of the way you write? Then analyze them, break them down to figure out what gives them their particular voice. Understanding how they do what they do can help you find your own voice.

Really, it comes down to your own personal taste and preferences. Going back to the art analogy, my style of drawing is very precise, very dramatic, and extremely detailed. Why? Because that's what I personally find appealing to look at. I'm not about loose, rough, free lines and muted colors. I like, clean, sharp lines, dark blacks, extreme whites, and lots of meticulous detail. Does that make me right and other artists who do the opposite wrong? Of course not. But it's my taste, and that's what I strive for when I sit down to draw.

When it comes to writing, I have my own tastes and preferences as well. Personally I love the rhythm of words. So I love to break up sentences into fragments--or to connect sentences with em dashes. I love shorter paragraphs. Single sentence paragraphs. I like to avoid dialogue tags whenever possible, because they feel like they interrupt the flow of a conversation. And I like to give the scenes plenty of emotional "beats." I'm also a HUGE fan of humor--I'm pretty much incapable of taking a scene 100% seriously--and I'm not a fan of heavy description so I tend to break it up and scatter it around.

I'm sure there's more to it than that, but those are--to me--the most defining elements of my "voice." I never consciously sat down and said: I'm going to write with fragmented sentences and use a lot of humor and write around dialogue tags. It's just the method I fell into as I wrote and rewrote and rewrote again and again.

And you'll find yours the more you write, write, write.

It also helps to do what I just did in this post. Find the right words to describe and define your voice. The more you analyze your writing and think about your style, the more you'll figure out what you do and don't do when you're writing. Take a few minutes and try to come up with 2 or 3 sentences that describe the essence of your voice. Then reread a couple of your chapters and see if you're really doing what you think you're doing. Can really show you where you need to polish.

I have heard of a couple of other exercises to help you find your voice, but I've never done them so I have no idea if they really help. One is to write in present tense for a while, because apparently it's easier to be "voicey." I've also heard it can help to rewrite the same chapter in an opposite POV (switching from 1st to 3rd or vice versa) and comparing what stylistic elements stay the same in each version. You are welcome to try them--and if you do let me know if they work.

But personally I don't think you can short-cut your way around this. Sure, some people just have a natural gift for having a very strong voice, and have it in even their earliest MS's. (It's hard not to hate those people...) The rest of us have to write and write and revise and rewrite and repeat with project after project until we finally figure it out. But it's worth the effort. Nothing makes your book stand out more than a spot-on voice. Push yourself and don't give up until you find it.

What about you guys--any tips for finding your author voice? And how would you define your own "voice?"