When I began my writing career, I devoured the novels of authors I admired and read creative writing self-help books cover to cover. I wrote plot outlines on huge sheets of brown paper and stuck them on my wall; I played around with character sketches until I had what I thought was an interesting cast. But one area of my writing development had me stumped. I had no voice. My words were flat, pedestrian; there was nothing in my work that jumped off the page and sizzled in the air. I wanted the magic the writers I admired had in abundance. When I read what I had written, I sounded like a terrible parody of a writer. Where was my voice?
I went down many a dark alley in my writing looking for it. In the end it came from writing about something very personal, something only I could write about. I chose a subject filled with pain and grief, which tore at my guts as I wrote it. And there it was, like a whale coming up for air. The words jumped off the page.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines voice as ‘the distinctive tone or style of a literary work or author.’ That’s certainly a good starting point, but it seems rather nebulous. Often, voice comes from originality and having the courage to express it, from being less tentative and timid and more confident and forthright. When I read academic writing that lacks a voice I immediately look for the location of the writer’s ideas. Are they at the end of a long train of dutiful acknowledgements of more established ideas? Does the writer position front and centre what is unique about their perspective, for example — at the beginning of paragraphs, sections or chapters? If not, the writer hasn’t yet found their voice.
This is unsurprising. Students tend to describe themselves as researchers, not writers. But to thrive in their careers, especially if they stay in academia, they will benefit from developing a distinctive and compelling voice – something I stressed when co-facilitating a thesis-writing immersive course for postgraduate students at Teesside University earlier this year.
As I sit down to plan my third novel I’m already thinking not just about the characters’ voices and what problems I might set for them, but also how I can feed my own voice. I’m reminding myself about what allows my voice to infuse my writing: dialogue, nature, process, sexuality — and courage.