Many years ago, I was recruited to work in second grade Sunday School. I had little experience with children, but I was “volunteered” anyway. One morning, the little darlings were a wee bit rowdy. I watched in awe as my friend Donna calmed their restlessness with one word. Just one! “Enough.” My entire paragraph of words had failed to make a dint in their noise. How did she do it? With just one word?
A few months after my daughter was born, my first child, I discovered Donna’s secret. The Mommy Voice. It just sorta sprung up from my gut and poured from my mouth and I realized I had it—the tone that meant, “I’m an adult person with authority. You’d better listen to me you little urchin!” In time it became apparent my child responded to my Mommy voice quicker than other children, yet sometimes I could fake the little buggers out and corral them with my surrogate Mommy tone. Occasionally, there was the wily child that realized I wasn’t really their Mommy and she/he could ignore me at will.
Voice is important. It sets the tone, gives the speech, written or verbal, the feel of authority. Lends credibility to the communication. Expresses just a little more to the recipient than the message. That’s why, as a writer, it’s wise to develop a distinctive voice. The one your readers will respond to the minute they recognize it.
Voice is a difficult thing to define. When I first read this term, I was clueless. “What the heck are all the experts(?) talking about?” How do you relate something generally considered audible in a visual format? It ain’t easy folks. After years of writing, I believe I’ve finally developed a tone and style of writing that is distinctively mine. Considering all the words in the English language and all the possible combinations that could possibly form sentences, it’s how I combine those words and phrases and how I arrange them into paragraphs and chapters and stories that makes my writing unique to any other writer’s efforts. It’s my unique syntax.
When I read some of my earlier writing, I cringe. If I managed any kind of style or tone at all, I was usually copying my current favorite writer. Yikes! I don’t want to be someone else. I want to be me! Most of the time, my paragraphs were just collections of sentences strung together with very little… Argh, how do I define this? The syntax was just…bland, boring, uninteresting. I would have put my book down and forgot about it!
Okay, I’ll give you an example, just because I want to! The same paragraph, before and after. (Consider this a free snippet of my current WIP!)
BEFORE (please forget this as soon as you read it! pretty, please!): Cole looked around them. “Oh, it was just the attic door.” It was already hot in the attic, despite the mild outdoor temperatures; so they had left the door open. He went over to the door to reopen it. He grasped the knob, but the door wouldn’t open. He pulled harder, struggling with the door for another minute or two. “It’s stuck,” he said, trying to control the panic in his voice.
ANOTHER ATTTEMPT (one of many!): Cole looked around, searching for the source. “Oh, it was just the door.” Despite the mild outdoor temperatures, it was already hot in the attic, so they had left the door open. Cole grasped the doorknob, but the door refused to budge. “It’s stuck.” He pulled harder, struggling for a minute or two. “I can’t believe this.”
AFTER (hopefully the final draft): A loud bang startled Cole. He tossed the drop cloth he was holding onto the floor and turned around, searching for the source of the disturbance. Despite the mild outdoor temperature, it was already hot, so he had left the door open. How had it slammed shut? He eased his way through the stuffy, overcrowded attic, avoiding packing crates and heavy antiques, portraits of dead ancestors and large brass spittoons. When he grasped the doorknob, it refused to budge. “It’s stuck.” He pulled harder and then thumped the door in frustration.
See…ahem, read…the progression? I hope so. What makes the last version clearly my own? I don’t know. Ask writers to create something from the same prompt and you’ll get as many versions as you do writers. No one else would write this scene exactly as I did. I can’t tell you what distinguishes the last effort as uniquely mine. But it is. I’d know it anywhere.
So here’s the big question that mystifies beginning writers… How do I develop my voice so it’s mine alone? Simple answer? (Don’t you hate simple answers!) Just keep writing. Scribble something as often and as long as you can. Every day. You may not like what you write some days, but at least you’re moving toward your goal. The more you write (and the more you have the privilege of excellent reviewers/editors critiquing your work), the sooner your own distinctive style will emerge.
And finally one more piece of advice. (And an anecdote…)
Right before I met the man that would one day be my husband, I was crushing bad on a very handsome man. To my surprise, this hunk of handsomeness asked me out. I bet you can guess the next line. No, he never asked me out again. It took all the courage I could manage to hint I wanted another date. As men will do, he went around the world six times to tell me he just wasn’t interested, and he had the audacity to give me some advice on how to make my personality more pleasing! “Just be yourself.” Humph. I thought I was. And he was a jerk. But that’s beside the point. He was right. In all you do, just be yourself. Let your unique personality glow through your writing and your voice will one day spring from your gut and pour from your mouth…uh, fingers…just like my Mommy voice did so many, many years ago.