The writing process, like most artistic mediums, is part conceptual and part cathartic. But it’s also largely technical, and writers spend a lot of time talking about outlines, first, second, and third drafts, editing, character development, solid plots, complicated villains, and flawed heroes. But those aren’t writing skills. Those are storytelling skills. And this is a problem.
Now I know we need drafts, complex characters, and a good plot. But having those things does not make someone a good writer. I guess it’s sort of like saying, you need brushes, a canvas, and beautiful paints, but having those things won’t make you a great artist.
I have a theory I’d like to explore. And that is that a truly great writer is a result of an awesome voice. Our voice is the style, tenor, and soul of our prose, and establishing it and refining it early gives our work identity. On the very first page, before we introduce our characters, our world, our villain, and our plot, we introduce ourselves. And that makes or breaks our books.
I’ve done a bit of research into this idea (cleverly disguised as recreational reading). Here’s a good example: the first couple paragraphs from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by the wonderful Douglas Adams:
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.”
Boom. Amazing. No hint of a plot. No glimmer of the characters. Nothing new, no revolutionary concepts we haven’t heard before. But we’re already tickled, entertained, and in love with this author, because he has so eloquently introduced himself to us with his fantastic voice.
His voice is witty, and, I find, purposefully dry, so that when his sentences turn long it feels like ramblings. It’s almost the opposite of poetic: very real, and very easy to read. Its straightforward, unadulterated, and wholly unwhimsical style makes for great sardonic and parodic narrative on “normal” things, like the view of the relationship between money and happiness.
Here’s another good one. These are the opening lines of the second book of the (one and only, the awesome, my favorite:) Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy, by my favorite author, Patricia McKillip:
“In spring, three things came invariably to the house of the King of An: the year’s first shipment of Herun wine, the lords of the Three Portions for the spring council, and an argument.
The spring of the year following the strange disappearance of the Prince of Hed, who had, with the High One’s harpist, vanished like a mist in Isig Pass, the great house with its seven gates and seven white towers seemed to be cracking like a seed pod out of a long, bitter winter of silence and grief. The season dusted the air with green, set patterns of light like inlay on the cold stone floors, and roused restlessness like sap in the deep heart of An, until Raederle of An, standing in Cyone’s garden, which no one had entered for the six months since her death, felt that even the dead of An, their bones plaited with grass roots, must be drumming their fingers in the graves.”
Ok, to be fair, she does introduce her characters here, and she did so even more in the introduction to the first book in the trilogy, which is why I chose to quote from the second book, but it’s still fabulous and I’m going to analyze her voice at you anyway.
Hers is the exact opposite of Adams’. It’s poetic, whimsical, magical, and full of fantasy and wonder. Her prose is almost dizzying. It’s beautiful. She could write three paragraphs describing the dimples on a golf ball and still have my rapt attention. “Roused restlessness like sap”? What does that even mean?! Hers is the sort of voice that must be savored. If you try to rush through her work, she’ll punish you by making sure you don’t understand any of it. And I think it’s fantastic.
Another great is, of course, Tolkien. Is it his detailed maps, the elvish runes in the appendix, or the wide array of characters that gives his world depth? Is it the plot, the villains? I argue, No. It’s his voice. He breathes life into his world by the way he writes, not because of his plot points or his villains, but because when you read his voice you believe it’s real.
And would Middle-Earth be as enchanting if it was written in Douglas Adams voice? I wager it wouldn’t, even though his voice is also great, because our voice must suite our genre and world we’ve built and they just wouldn’t mesh. (I actually read a science fiction book by McKillip, who is definitely a fantasy author, and got the distinct impression it was just a fantasy novel stuck in space, screaming to be plopped down in a nice forest somewhere.)
So perhaps I’ve made my point, maybe I haven’t. But we all know that what distinguishes our storytelling from that of a screenwriter or a musician is the use of the written word, so it’s important to develop not just our storytelling skills, but also our writing skills (note the distinction there). So how do we make our own voice?
Write a sentence. Read it. Read it again. How does it sound? How does it make you feel? Is it beautiful? Does it suite your world, your story, your personality? Read works by your favorite authors. How does your voice compare? It couldn’t and shouldn’t be the same as theirs; it must be yours, so it must be unique!
Here’s an exercise: pick an object sitting on your table and write a description of it in 300 words, in your voice. Make it beautiful. Make that description sing. I don’t care if the object is a dry, cracked pen that needs an ink refill and has lint all stuck on the front of it, make those 300 words sound fantastic and showcase your voice to the world!
I’d love to read your attempts. 🙂