It Won’t Happen Overnight – Musings on Voice

 

Who could forget that immortal shampoo commercial featuring New Zealand’s own Rachel Hunter? Well, certainly not me! And what do people remember? The VOICE!

I have to thank wonderful Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical author Amy Andrews for the title of this article. We were talking about voice and she started quoting the infamous ad. Bingo, I thought! What a great title.

Everybody talks about a writer’s “voice”. Yet what is it? I’d like to say I can’t define it but I know it when I see it. But that’s going to make this a terrifically short column so I’ll have to do better than that.

To me, voice is what makes you the writer you are, which comes down essentially to the person you are. It’s as much a part of you as whether you have a big nose or blue eyes. It expresses how you see the world, how you feel, what you find funny, what you find sad, what you’ve experienced in your life, what you’ve imagined, what words are part of your individual way of speaking or writing. You name it, that’s part of voice.

So if it’s so innate, why does it take so much hard work and time before a writer’s voice emerges in its full glory?

Ah, one of the major mysteries that one!

I made a huge saga of the fact that when I sold in 2006, I’d been writing for 27 years. People calculate their pre-published time in different ways. Sometimes it’s from when they started writing romance seriously for publication. Sometimes it really is from when they started writing. I started writing, well, when I learnt to write! So I calculated my pre-published years from the completion of my first book when I was 17. And yes, sadly, that IS how old I am, if you do the additions!

But one of the things that got contest judges and agents and editors and since then, thank goodness, readers, excited about Claiming the Courtesan was that I have a very strong voice. Apparently. So I’ve been told. By people who I wasn’t buying drinks for at the time.

Don’t ask me what that voice is! I suspect it’s to do with the way I use vocabulary – never be afraid of a big word, I say. That’s why God invented dictionaries! Perhaps a rather skewed sense of humour. Definitely characters who have kinks and detours and black marks in their souls û I like people who are complex and who don’t give away everything about themselves on a cursory meeting. A strong sense of the historical period because that’s something I respond to myself in a book.

And do you know what? If I asked someone who enjoyed Claiming the Courtesan what they found individual about it, they’d give me a completely different answer!

Another mystery of voice. Hardly any writer I know can pinpoint what it is about their writing that makes a reader respond. And maybe that’s a good thing. If voice is so innate, analysing too much can destroy the unselfconscious magic of it all. It’s a bit like dissecting a butterfly to see how it works. You might know more at the end, but you sure don’t have a butterfly any more!

My theory about voice is that we’ve all got one but it’s buried deep underground in a long dark coal mine and you only find it by digging and digging and carting out the dross and digging some more. And there will be cave ins. And sometimes your miners get trapped and you need to save them. And sometimes those miners are just stuck there forever. And sometimes your lamp goes out. Or the canary dies because there’s no oxygen. And it’s sweaty and dirty and there’s no other way to get the coal out. An open-cut mine doesn’t work for this particular seam. Only going right down into the dark and hewing away at the rock wall like a demon will winkle out that mineral wealth that powers your industrial revolution. Hmm, have I ‘mined’ that metaphor enough, do you think?

What I’m trying to say is only by writing lots and lots for a long, long time do you find out what your voice is. There will be inklings of voice in everything you do. And of course, every rule has exceptions. Some people emerge with their voice intact from the first. I think they’d be as rare as pink elephants, though! For most of us, there’s no substitute for bum in seat, hands on keyboard or curled around pen, brow furrowed as we battle our story and our characters and our doubts and our lives outside writing. Hard work and persistence are the only quick fixes and neither are that quick! You need to work out how to say what you want to say and only practice and perseverance will give you that ability.

Everyone starts writing by imitation. That’s how everybody learns most things. I started writing as a kid because I loved Enid Blyton and I wanted to be her (well, my limited understanding of what being her involved, basically having kids like me stay up all night to finish my stories!). So all my early opuses were pseudo Enid Blyton. Then I became a huge Victoria Holt fan so most of my early teenage efforts were gothics. Which hasn’t changed in many ways. Then I discovered sexy American historicals like Kathleen Woodiwiss and Laurie McBain. My first finished manuscript was KW in the Hundred Years War. Pretty drack but a landmark nonetheless. Finishing that first book is a major milestone in any writer’s life and I admire anyone who gets to that point. Most people will never do that so remember to stop and give yourself a pat on the back, even if the manuscript ends up as lining for the budgie cage.

I think you’re getting the idea. Imitation was the sincerest form of flattery for writers I liked. More than that, through all these efforts and the ones that followed (I won’t bore you with the complete list of influences!), gradually, uncertainly, erratically, the voice that would become Anna Campbell’s was emerging. And I gravitated towards authors who had that affinity with me and who could show me how to do what I needed to. There was always an appreciation for drama (perhaps even melodrama!). There were always characters with complex inner lives. And slowly and hesitantly I was learning the skills that would help Anna Campbell’s voice shine as something individual and not just a pale imitation of greats like Woodiwiss or Kinsale or Chase.

So to finish on another quote, “You are the voice!” Keep digging at that coal face and you will find the mother lode! Good luck with your pick and shovel! And don’t forget to have a good, long, hot shower when you come up from the pit!

 

This article first appeared in HeartsTalk, the newsletter of Romance Writers of Australia, in January 2008.