A Definition of Voice (Wrenched from My Guts and Served on a Platter For You) – Day 538

Why is it that we writers are always looking for absolutes? In the presence of a Published Author, we want – nay, demand – answers to questions like:

“How many hours do you write a day?”

“What kind of word processor (or typewriter or pen or quill) do you use to write?”

“What is the best appetizer to serve at my book signing?”

…and so on. The irony is, we English majors took English in the first place mostly because there aren’t any absolutes like there are in that pesky Math or purposely vexing Chemistry. Don’t know the answer? Make it up. Make it up well enough, you get an ‘A’.

So it is with a full appreciation of this irony that I’ve tried to come up with an absolute definition of voice.

It is not an easy thing to do – in fact, it is very much like trying to define theme. It’s a worthwhile exercise though because I think the better you can define a concept in writing, the better you can use it to your advantage.

So here goes:

Voice or “writing style” helps set the mood of a story, provides clues to the reader about how to digest the story, and perhaps most importantly is a key mechanism in helping suspend disbelief.

I stress this last point on purpose, because I’ve been thinking about it of late. Take for example the writing of Hunter S. Thompson. You read something like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and you can (almost) believe it actually happened because his gonzo voice is so out there that anything seems possible. If it was written in the style of Laura Ingalls Wilder on the other hand, the story would be totally unbelievable (and, I suspect, totally unreadable – after all, the good doctor just barely pulls it off himself…)

Most importantly, the voice has to be strong. The reader has to know that you as a writer are in control, and can trust you are leading them down the right garden path. Note: that doesn’t mean the narrator has to be in control – he/she can be a sloppy mess. But the reader has to know that no matter how screwed up the characters (including the narrator) are, the writer will ensure that by the end of the book that the story makes sense and the journey will have been worthwhile.

(Now that I think of it, perhaps that’s why Fear and Loathing works. Although the Thompson character is certainly random in the story, as the writer of the story he is in full control of how the story unfolds. We trust he’ll get us there – and he does.)

Voice is playing a key role in my own story, and honestly, it’s the thing that’s causing me most trouble right now. Perhaps for my first novel, I shouldn’t have taken on the now-apparent gargantuan task of creating a whole new writing style for myself… I’m slipping back and forth between my “real” voice and the effected one. That might ultimately work actually once it’s all done, but I’m still striving to get that twisted voice I have in my head and put it down on paper. Hence this definition, and hence this post.

What do you think? Is voice the most important aspect of writing? Is there something about voice I’m missing? Or is this just a ridiculous exercise to start with? Drop me a line, write us all a comment.

[Editor’s Note]

Incidentally and coincidentally, I finally got a chance to watch The Rum Diary the night before last (or more accurately, early, early yesterday morning – best time to watch it…) If you’ve seen it, you know that it’s about finding voice too, to a certain extent. Quite apropos to this post, especially considering it is essentially about Hunter S. Thompson’s early days.

At one point, Johnny Depp says, while looking over the Caribbean.

“I’ve dragged a typewriter around with me for 10 years and have written nothing… I have no voice. I don’t know how to write like me.”

What I thought was interesting though is that he doesn’t necessarily find his voice through writing, but through finding himself. He taps into a passion, a focused energy, his “imitable rage”.

I don’t quite agree with the approach. I think the only way to find your voice is by writing, writing, writing… but this is a movie we’re talking about after all. In any case, there is something romantic about the notion of searching out your voice in your heart instead of your head and fingers. It’s something I think I can work on.

Off to feel around for my novel’s own voice…

~Graham

Writing Totals

Abysmal, of late. Have been pecking at it here and there, but the usual Work, Life, Dry Well (literal, not figurative), blah, blah, blah, getting in the way. Did find that I’ve made a mistake in my hourly accounting, and have completed many more than I first thought. Still not where I’d like them to be.

Whoever said writing a novel was easy was wrong.

Hours to Date: 193

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