What is an author’s voice?* I think a lot of people see voice as synonymous with style, and I can understand why. Many authors one might point to as having a strong voice are also strong stylists. But I’m not a big fan of authors who are stylists, in large part because their manner of writing tends to overshadow whatever story they’re telling. That’s a generalization to be sure, but it’s founded on my belief that nouns and verbs matter more than adjectives and adverbs, that less is usually more, that all (or almost all) darlings should be killed, and that unless the author’s presence is critical to the story the author ought to get out of the way. But that’s just me.
Coming at the question from a direction both more illuminating and a great deal less cranky, think for a moment about any writer you love, and ask yourself what it is that is irreducibly distinct about the way that writer writes. What is it that makes Dickens different from Tolstoy or Jackie Collins, as well as readily identifiable in his own right? Whatever that is — however you might describe it with examples or rules — that’s what I think of as voice.
I don’t think any author’s voice is so distinct that it can be identified in every word or turn of phrase. When Tom Clancy or William Faulkner or Flannery O’Conner has a character say, “Hello!”, I don’t think you can conclude a whole lot about the author’s voice from that one-word sentence. Pull back far enough, however — taking into account the surrounding sentences and paragraphs, as well as the narrative context — and at some point you’ll be able to distinguish between the three authors. And I think that’s probably the most important point thing I can say about the subject of voice: it’s more easily identified by considering the whole of an author’s work rather than looking for specific markers.
One thing I can say with absolute certainty is that I myself do not think about my own voice at all, ever. To do so would be quantum authorship, in which identification of my voice would necessarily change it. I write the way I write, and I encourage other authors to adopt this same hands-off attitude. As far as I’m concerned, nothing good can come of attempts to manage your own authorial voice.
Which is why I’m now quite consternated by the fix I’m in.
On my professional blog, Ditchwalk.com, and on this site, I write in a voice very much like the real-life me. It’s not a completely accurate depiction — I don’t swear on either site, for instance — but it’s pretty close. The advantage of writing in my natural non-fiction voice is that I don’t have to think about things like cadence or word choice; I just let it rip, then go back and try to find all the typos.
In some ways writing NeilRorke.com, my character blog, isn’t a great deal different from writing other kinds of fiction. When it comes to voice, however, a character blog may be a different beast. Or at least a different beast if the author is also blogging as themselves at the same time.
Writing a blog from the point of view of a character who has a blog has forced me to confront a question that I didn’t have to deal with before, and that’s how to write in Neil’s authorial voice. Granted, I could ignore the issue, and I suspect most authors would be wise to do so. But because I write on Ditchwalk (and here) in parallel with Neil’s site, I’m suddenly conscious of the fact that I don’t want Neil to seem like me. I know anyone who reads my sites will know who the author is, but I very much don’t want someone to read a post by Neil and see it as written by me. Why? Because that would mean the fourth wall had been breached. (I’m obviously taking the same risk with my running commentary on this site, but I don’t see any way around that. Until the internet becomes a more mature storytelling medium there’s a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.)
Like most storytellers, my fiction writing has primarily involved dedicated creative bursts rather than open-ended commitments like blogging. And I think in most cases a dedicated approach is best: all works benefit from focus and concentration. Part of my concern about Neil’s voice is that I don’t have a lot of experience with the kind of authorial task switching that’s necessary with fiction blogging, and I worry that that may be a persistent problem for me.
On the other hand, Neil as a character does have a particular voice in my mind, and while I’m still learning about it I do have an editorial sense of whether I’m in the groove or not. My hope is that like anything else I’ll get better over time. (I’m already better at taking a moment to recognize the difference between the two sites, their voices, etc. I can imagine a time when the switch will be almost automatic.)
* I don’t know when it started, but there seems to be a cottage industry these days in castigating writers for not knowing the difference between active voice and passive voice. Worse, the politically-correct party line insists that active voice is best and good and godly, while passive voice is a crime against humanity, only made infinitely worse because you’re too stupid and lazy (note the cultural implications of that word) to know the difference. Like many such efforts to demonstrate knowledge by embarrassing others, the ongoing impetus behind this crusade seems to come from academia. And like many such efforts it’s so completely peripheral to the point of most writing as to be defined as pettiness (if not bullying) in all but the most egregious cases. Having dealt with this kind of authoritarian condescending before in the case of theme, I can only say, with the greatest of emphasis, that an author’s voice as defined in this post has little or nothing to do with such atomic critical analysis and advice — which is in itself often wrong. Speaking writer-to-writer, I don’t care if you use the active, passive, or funereal voice. Get on with it, put your blood in what you say, and make me care.
— Mark Barrett
Brent Robison says
Interesting challenge you’ve created for yourself. Perhaps I oversimplify, but I believe Neil Rorke’s blog can be treated as if it is a novel or a short story, and that his character voice should be distinct. It is a separate thing from Mark Barrett’s authorial voice. But I confess that as I read Neil, I keep forgetting that I’m not reading Mark. I’d like Neil to be absolutely recognizable.
Personally, I don’t agree with the hands-off advice about crafting a voice. Or maybe my approach IS hands-off but I express it differently. I say this: craft a narrative voice for each project, according to that project’s needs, and craft it with much care and thought. But do it by “hiring” a persona that is not “yourself” to narrate the story, 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person notwithstanding. You’ve done that with Neil. The craft comes in through analysis and implementation of the characteristics and stance or agenda of that persona: angry, distant, funny, compassionate, flowery, punchy, etc (but more developed). Embody that persona and let ‘er rip. The focus is still on craft and technique, not on the personal emotional agendas of me, the author. What happens next is the magic: my truth, and therefore my authorial “voice,” comes in through the back door (hands-off?) and is more pure than conscious manipulation will allow.
Not sure I’ve said what I mean, but I do believe you’re on the right track if you investigate this issue very thoroughly.
Mark Barrett says
“I’d like Neil to be absolutely recognizable.”
I agree, and clearly I’m not there. I can imagine a lot of things that I could do craft-wise to make him more distinct, but I’m looking for something more organic. (Which is not to say that it will happen. I may just be doing it wrong.)
Still, Neil is contemporary, and exists in the same moment I exist in, and I want that to be the case. If I try to hard to make him ‘distinct’ I may also dislocate him from that space and time, and I don’t want to do that. So I keep feeling my way forward…
I agree with your approach to voice. I think the concern I have is that voice is talked about a lot (like point of view, or plotting), so young/new writers think it’s something they should control directly. I think that’s a mistake, and leads to posing.