A sample from the essay, ‘Voice’ (TLC PRESS) by Ashley Stokes
Voice in fiction sings a strange song. It makes no sound but inside the mind of the reader each line, each paragraph and page reverberates with its rhythms and beat. What are we talking about when we discuss a story’s voice, a writer’s voice? We can hear it if it’s there, if the story has been strongly and effectively vocalised, but we can struggle to define how it works. What is this thing? How do they do it? How does it work upon us? A story can be cunningly paced and plotted, yet fall flat on the page if the voice isn’t there. Problems of voice can also cause knock-on problems with plot, character, dialogue, narrative viewpoint.
Maybe we can see voice as a collusion of things, then, a variety of techniques and elements that a writer needs to control in even something as complex as a tightly framed and simple novel. That something is wrong with a novel often points to there being something wrong with the voice.
We can see voice as a kind of benchmark, the quality our work needs to have, whatever its intention, whatever its genre. Finding a voice is the overwhelming issue all writers face, whether they are just starting out or are an old hand embarking on a new project. For Al Alvarez, ‘Voice is a problem that never lets you go.’For Josip Novakovich, it’s about finding your ‘writer’s vigour.’ The writer should have a voice. The story also needs a voice. These voices overlap but are not necessarily the same thing.
Don’t fret unduly if your writing doesn’t find its voice straightaway. You may have to put it through its paces, stay with it a while before you find the voice or the voice finds you. As with everything with writing, drafting is the key, and drafting is merely another way of saying: stick with it.
If we can say anything definite at all about voice it is that it’s central to the success of a piece of writing. Previously unheard-of writers with a first book out are often described as ‘an exciting new voice’. Voice here implies a signature quality, something that belongs to the writer alone. This quality depends on how whatever is written is written. Thus, Susan Sontag is able to describe the prose of the Swiss short story writer Robert Walser as ‘A Paul Klee in prose – as delicate, as sly, as haunted’, and Michel Houllebecq describe the voice of HP Lovecraft as a ‘massive attack’ on the reader. Walser and Lovecraft were very different writers, but their writing came from some place within them that no else could go. A quality existed there that couldn’t be bottled or imitated.
On the other hand, by voice we can mean vision: what is shown of life and living. What and who are described and accounted for? What that is new and of the now is experienced? News of what unusual types of people in what new settings or situations are brought from the frontier?
The first stage, then, to finding your voice is to write in your own organic, natural style, not that of other writers you admire. It is very common in creative writing workshops for students to be told somewhere along to line to write how you speak, or ‘you should describe that on the page just like you just described it in class’.
Influences are instructive but they are a bank of cloud that needs to be broken through before we can discover the bright, blue yonder of distinct personal vision. You may find that you go through several phases of imitating writers you love before you settle into your own groove. This is a common experience even with writers we now consider to have strong and well-established voices. For example, Stephen King, when discussing his early forays in writing fiction, says,‘When I read Ray Bradbury as a kid, I wrote like Ray Bradbury—everything green and wondrous and seen through a lens smeared with the grease of nostalgia. When I read James M. Cain, everything I wrote came out clipped and stripped and hard-boiled. When I read Lovecraft, my prose became luxurious and Byzantine. I wrote stories in my teenage years where all these styles merged, creating a kind of hilarious stew.’
Even Stephen King went through this process, had a little voyage of discovery before he found out that he was Stephen King. You will too (though you probably won’t find out that you’re Stephen King). The overbearing nature of influence may also account for why it’s often the third attempted novel in which the writer finds their stride, their unique way of saying and narrating, their voice.
All stories – structurally, formally – juggle many similar, even interchangeable elements. Types of plots that use certain types of characters and settings fall into genres, for example, big genres like SF or scandi-noir, or smaller genres like trans coming-of-age. It’s voice, though, that makes stories unique, and by voice here we mean prose that has a personality mainlined directly from you, from that singular place in you that no one else can visit. Your voice is your experience of the world on the page. Don’t be scared to lace your language with a lot of yourself, your feelings and emotions, loves and hates, slants, slang, standpoints, dreams, desires, wishes and wants. Your attitude, yourself, will be apparent in your syntax, grammar, vocabulary, phrasing and whether you tend to max out on your language or strip it back to the bare and most suggestive of minimums. If this is absent, the story can become a plodding procedure or vacant void.
Al Alvarez (2005), The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, p9
Josip Novakovich (1995), Fiction Writer’s Workshop, Story Press, p201
Susan Sontag (1982), Walser’s Voicein The Walk, Robert Walser, Serpent’s Tail, 2013, pvii
Michel Houllebecq (1991), HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, Gollancz, 2008
Stephen King (2000), On Writing, New English Library