Finding Your Voice

I recently wrote a piece about the on-going debate regarding whether or not ‘creative writing’ can be taught, being inspired by Cheryl Whittaker’s interview with my old friend Ashley Stokes. As this is a major part of my professional life, I was, of course, arguing that it could, while suggesting that the gainsayers tend to confuse the art with the craft. I concluded that while it is true that you cannot teach a student writer imagination and personal style, you can help them to enhance these qualities within themselves through study and practice, and to thus find their own unique writer’s voice. Cheryl has invited me to expand on this point, and to offer a few suggestions to Mashers on how you might seek out and find this voice.

My approach – and this goes for developmental editing, teaching, and my own fiction – is that creative writing, although it can be art, is essentially a craft that it can be learned and improved by study and practice, just like any other skill. It’s imperative to start at this point, because confidence is a factor. It’s easy to talk yourself out of even trying to write because of the common belief that writing has something to do with ‘natural talent’ and/or irregular visitations from some sort of muse. If we were talking about learning something more practical, however, say driving, then this sort of barrier would never occur to you.

If you love to read and aspire to write, it’s also very easy to compare your own work with that of your literary heroes and despair. But what you see on the page has never sprung, fully formed, from the mind of the novelist; it is rather the result of multiple redrafts and meticulous revision. (Hemingway, for example, re-wrote the end of A Farewell to Arms 39 times before he was satisfied.) Similarly, everyone has their own voice, as unique as a fingerprint, and every bit as valid as everyone else’s. Think, in the first instance, in terms of telling stories, rather than literary style. You might also note that the bestseller lists are not populated by literary stylists either.

To find your own voice, it’s vital to study others. This means reading widely, closely and critically. You need to understand the tools of the trade and their application, and if you’re aware of these then you’ll start to consciously notice what works, what doesn’t, and why. I’m talking here of the basic components of narrative: premise, story, plot (the arrangement of the story), dramatic pacing, setting, character, and dialogue. Any half-decent creative writing guide should help you find a way in, and a bit of homework will allow you to sidestep the common errors that literary agents and commissioning editors see every day. Having read dozens of these things, my professional opinion is that you ignore the ‘academic’ approaches (they over-complicate), and have a look at Stephen King’s On Writing and How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark.

And just as a writer reads, a writer writes. You more you write the more confident and fluent you will become, and from this an identifiable style will emerge. It’s a bit like learning a language, so you probably already know more than you think you do, while it’s equally OK and natural to make mistakes. I can’t overstress the importance of a strict writing routine. If there is a secret to creative writing then this is it. All novels, whether great, good, or garden variety but popular, were created in exactly the same way: word by word, sentence by sentence, scene by scene, and chapter by chapter. If you write something new every day, even if it’s only a couple of hundred words for a start, then your novel will grow, as will your narrative voice. Be strict with yourself, create the space in your life, turn off the phone, set realistic targets, raise the bar if you can (500 words a day should be achievable), and don’t stop, whether the going is hard or easy. William Faulkner once said, ‘I only write when I am inspired,’ adding that: ‘Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.’

And this mustn’t be a chore. If it is then chances are you’re wasting your time. You’ve got to want this, and you’ve got to enjoy the creative experience, even when it’s driving you crazy. On that note, forget about agents, publishers, fame and fortune, as well. Just write for the pleasure of the revelation of your words on the page. Worry about all that other stuff later.

Start writing sooner than you think you should, too. Stephen King talks about creating ‘situations’ rather than ‘plots’ and then seeing how they play out, noting that characters and settings will necessarily be quite featureless in the first draft. This is a good trick, and the more you write the more you’ll be able to enter the world of your text like a lucid dreamer, observing and influencing events as they unfold. You can have a plan but also be a bit free-form at the same time – a little like life, really.

Keep slogging away at that first draft, however imperfect you think it is, until it’s done and then you’re laughing. You will find your true voice in the editing. As the editor Mary Hill put it so well, ‘There is no such thing as good writing, but only good re-writing.’ This should be fun, but the process is no less important or involved than the original composition. To be an effective editor, you have to keep in touch with your enthusiastic inner writing self while also acting as your own secretary and critic, organising and evaluating all that raw wordage, eliminating cliché, repetition and passivity, adding depth, and cutting anything that isn’t the story. It’s rather like polishing a rough diamond, and when you hold it up to the light I promise you’ll be amazed at what you see.

This post originally appeared on Mash Stories

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