by Toni McGee Causey
It’s very late as I write this. I’m sitting in the gorgeous hotel suite in Scottsdale, AZ, as the Desert Rose Conference winds down to an end. It’s been a very full couple of days, and I’m utterly worn out. Rejuvenated about writing, but worn out.
I taught two sessions here today; one was on sex scenes (when to use them, why, how, what the point should be, pacing, tension, subtext, conflict, etc.), and another on voice (how to define it, how to recognize what is authentically your voice, and how to hone it).
It will probably not surprise anyone that the first class was far far easier to teach. Teaching voice is a little like dancing in a minefield.
I purposefully did not set out to teach someone a “voice” — I don’t think that can be taught because I can’t impose that from the outside. It is something one can learn about oneself. Some people say that “either a person has a “voice” or they don’t,” but I would disagree. I certainly hadn’t figured out my voice prior to my Bobbie Faye series. I could show you the two projects I’d written just prior to Bobbie Faye and you could pick up the hints of what would become my voice, but it was inconsistent, at best, and nonexistent most of the time. I was constantly writing, searching, trying to figure out what this voice thing was all about, and how the hell did I get one of those?
While I don’t think voice itself can be taught–I can’t take another person and prescribe for them a set of steps for them to take and voila, a unique voice will emerge on the other end of that process–I do think that we can define what voice is, and find ways to hone it. (After all, this is what we all do–we all work on honing our own voice.)
But first, what it is not: it is not tone, nor cadence, nor syntax. It is not vocabulary, nor style, nor level of complexity of sentence structure. It is not the choice of POV character or characters, nor which type of POV to use (first, second, third, third intimate, omnipotent). It is not the setting of the world, the socioeconomic background of the writer or the subject matter.
It is, in a way, all of those things. Voice is every choice that a writer makes–what matters to them. How they want to approach the story. Where they will start. Who it will be about, and then all of the other things above.
Voice is the authority of the author. Confidence in their choices of how to tell the story. Infusing that story with their own unique personality, their own perspective on the world, the themes or issues that they care about, and communicating a goal specific to themselves.
I couldn’t have had a unique voice if I was busy emulating others, or trying to write to a trend, or trying to stay within rigid guidelines, or trying to meet all of the necessary ingredients of a genre’s checklist. Emulation and prescription are the antithesis of “voice” — where “voice” is the unique view of the world.
No two people are going to tell the same story, even if they were given identical story prompts, and that’s because they’re writing from different experiences, and with different goals. Thematically, each person will focus on something relevant to their worldview, because different issues resonate with them. Each story produced is going to have its own voice. (Some will be boring voices, because the writer wouldn’t take a risk on exposing themselves to the reader, making themselves vulnerable by chancing risky story-telling methods. They don’t want to show something that they are worried might reflect badly on them, so they hobble their voice, vanilla it up so it won’t be judged, and only accomplish the very judgment they were hoping to avoid.)
Voice is going with your gut instincts that this is how your story should unfold, and believing in your authority to tell the story. (That’s not to say there isn’t trial and error in that process–but ultimately, when it’s done, you have to go with your gut’s final choices.)
It’s the courage to be authentically you and to reach into your own experiences to write the characters authentically, even if you, the writer, haven’t lived their life.
Once you believe in your own authority to tell the story, all of the other choices simply become tools to help create the story: tone, cadence, mood, language, theme, POV, style, etc.
We moved on from there to some exercises that I think might help the attendees to look at what they’re doing and help them hone what they think their voice is, and to get rid of what they think isn’t working for them. From the response, I think it might have actually been a successful class (which is always the hope and the fear), and I loved the moment where we ran over time and no one moved, they were so busy scribbling and asking questions and I wished we had another hour. This really should have been a two hour workshop.
Maybe next year. (grin)
Thanks to many of my fellow ‘Ratis who sent their books, signed, as giveaways. Man, I wish y’all could have seen their faces light up when they received them.
I’ll be on a flight home–long flight and layover. I’ll try to check in, but meanwhile, I’d love examples from you of writers who you feel have a unique voice. Any genre.