Saturday, August 2, 2014
A writer's unique voice
by Bruce DeSilva
Every writer speaks to you in a voice. When you read, you hear the writer talking to you. You may think you're reading with your eyes, but in a sense, you read with your ears. The writer's voice has everything to do with whether you enjoy the story, stick with it to the end, or ever want to read something else by that writer.
A few years ago, I asked Robert B. Parker, one of the most successful crime novelists of all time, why his books were so popular. He said, 'for the same reason people like certain songs. They love the way the language sounds.'
A lot of writers, even professionals, have trouble with voice, however. Why? We are bombarded with bad examples. We read a lot of poorly written stuff every day, and that can make us think that's the way writing is supposed to be.
We sometimes misunderstand our audience. No matter how many thousands of readers you may have, you must always speak to them one at a time. Never write as though you are speaking to a crowd. Reading, after all, is a solitary act.
The voices of the best writers are unique. You should be able to identify a passage written by Elmore Leonard or Laura Lippman, even if the name of the author is concealed.
How can you find your unique voice as a writer? For some of you, it's just a matter of sounding like yourself in print. You already have a voice. You just need to use it.
For others, finding your voice requires experimentation. It may sound counterintuitive, but I suggest that you begin by imitating writers you admire.
When I was starting out, I went through my Hemingway period. And my Raymond Chandler period. And my Hunter Thompson period.
Through this experimentation I was learning craft--the techniques these writers used to fashion their sentences and paragraphs. As my technical abilities grew, my own voice was able to emerge.
You've probably heard that you should write like you speak. Don't. Very few of us speak well enough to do that. Writing should feel like a good conversation but there are differences between written and spoken language. The most important ones are feedback.
If I say something to you, your reaction tells me whether I'm boring you or if you don't understand. In written language, I don't get that kind of feedback. so I have to provide it myself by reading my work out loud. Anything that doesn't sound good isn't good. No exceptions.
A journalist for over 40 years, Edgar winning author Bruce DeSilva retired to write crime novels. He also served as a writing coach for the Associated Press and was responsible for training the wire service reporters and editors worldwide. The multi-award-winning writer also directed the elite AP department devoted to investigative reporting and other special projects.
You can read his interview in the book, The Mystery Writers, now in print, ebook and audiobook editions.