Finding Your Voice

Quite a while ago in a previous post I mentioned finding your voice and said it was a topic I would come back to. It’s a difficult thing to talk about, and I’m not in any position to offer advice on the subject, so I’m just going to put down some of my thoughts in a vaguely ordered fashion. I guess another reason it’s taken me so long is that I’m still not sure if I’ve found my own voice yet. I can point at certain characteristics common to my work, but beyond that it’s a hard thing to judge from here, so someone else might be better at it once they’ve read some of my work. Or I will look back in a few years and it will be a lot easier.

Another reason I’ve hesitated is that I think for most people the process of finding their voice isn’t something that happens overnight. Some young writers might get it right first time and have a clear picture of themselves, and therefore can write with a clear and precise perspective. Perhaps they just matured faster than others, but I think that’s rare and not everyone is like that. We all have to do a lot of growing up first. I believe the majority of people still have a lot of growing up to do even in their 20s, so it takes time to settle, to know yourself, to know who you are and therefore find your true voice. There are always exceptions to the rule, but I think maturity definitely plays a part.

Growing up, and to this day, I admire many writers, and for a time I aped their style in an attempt to find my own. There are a number of issues that are very important to me that might not be top 10 concerns for other people, and so I wrote stories with quite unsubtle references as I wanted to see these topics explored and discussed. I wrote TV scripts for some of my favourite shows that had open door policies, and once I’d got out of the habit of putting a brand new character I’d created front and centre ahead of the main cast, I tried to learn how to copy the house style and rhythm. I received some positive feedback and kept writing and trying new things, new mediums and new genres. This helped expand my horizons, find out what I liked and didn’t, and therefore what I wanted to do with my writing and what I wanted to avoid.

I’m not sure I believe the rule about writing X million words before you become good at it, whatever that means, but I definitely think it is a long process. Whether that is years gestating somewhere in the back of your head, constantly writing and rewriting before you finally sit down, or years at the keyboard constantly writing and inching forward towards something better and sharper. I think it’s different for everyone. I believe Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy was his first major piece of fiction, but he’s spoken several times about thinking about the story for many years. About what he wanted to do with the series, what he wanted to avoid and what tropes he wanted to twist. Whereas contrast that with Patrick Rothfuss, who spent 13 years or so writing The Name of the Wind and the Kingkiller books. The amount of time they actually spent working on it, be it in their heads or on the page, could be about the same.

Another way to look at it is from writing about other people, their styles and characteristics. I’ll stick to fantasy authors and comic book writers as they’re two areas I know fairly well. Joe Abercrombie is known for writing characters that are fairly grey and you’d never mix up one of his novels with one by Ursula Le Guin. In the comics world, Jonathan Hickman is known for writing comics that are all pieces of a much larger puzzle, or are layers of an onion. He recently did a long run on Fantastic Four, which lasted a few years, and it was one big story, with lots of other stories wrapped inside. Brian Bendis is known for his realistic dialogue, and for reinventing old characters and franchises, and making them cool, interesting and relevant to the audience of today. Ed Brubaker has written a lot of espionage and crime comics, so he is very good at stories that constantly surprise the reader. When I pick up a comic by each of these writers I know a little of what to expect, but even if were given one of their comics with a blank cover, I could work out who had written it. The same goes for fantasy authors. There are similarities, different stripes within the same sub-genres (particularly with fantasy), but each writer has unique qualities.

If you were to create a word cloud about yourself and then zoom out, and zoom out again, what words would stick out the most? What do you spend time talking about? What is important to you? What are the themes you want to explore? Even more simply, as the theme may not come out until later, what type of story do you want to write? Writing stories about important issues can work, but whether it’s coming from an environmental, religious, ethical or moral standpoint, I think you need to be careful and not come across as preachy and holier than thou.

The other piece of advice people often trot out is ‘write what you know’. That works, but only up to a point. I predominantly write fantasy, so there are lots of sharp and pointy weapons. I’ve done my homework but even so, I’ve never been in a real battle surrounded by hundreds of others and I never will be. Creativity and passion has to come into it, because if you’re not interested in writing about it, why would anyone else be interested in reading about it? Writing is hard, and it can be difficult, but when you are in the moment, when you are in the groove and the words are flowing, it’s a remarkable feeling and there is nothing like it and at those moments it’s very enjoyable. At other times it can be a massive ball-ache and a slog, but hey, no job on this planet is fun 365 days a year. Not even being a chocolate taster and this is coming from someone with a massive sweet tooth!

So, I’ve no idea if any of that makes any kind of sense, but as I said it’s not an easy thing to write about which is kind of why I’ve avoided it for so long.