Monday 27 May 2013

Finding Your Voice - Writing fiction

‘An ability with words is nice, but it's not a voice.’ 
Meg Rosoff (2011)

Back in early December I posted on ‘Writing and the Lost Art of Patience’: the need to pause between finishing one project and taking the time to discover the next one. At the end of November, I had begun working on a new fiction novel – a Young Adult fantasy. I knew this would be quite different to my first two novels, The Glimpse Duet, written in the third person with one main point of view and several alternating points of view. Not only was I entering the domain of fantasy rather than dystopia, I was also writing in first person for the first time, and felt quite conscious of the impact this could have on the voice and style of the work. 

About a hundred and twenty pages into this first draft I had an epiphany about some of the attitudes and feel of my main character and I started from scratch again with a strong sense of ‘capturing’ a unique and specific ‘voice’, which wove like a thread into the atmosphere of the work and story world. I began redrafting, with the uplifting sense that I was making a personal breakthrough. But by around the hundred and twenty page mark, I began floundering. Again! My level of interest dropped off, the shiny feel of something new and special had slipped away and I was in throws of doubt with a lurking sense that something was wrong with my story.

Around this time, I attended a SCBWI writer’s conference. During workshops on pitching, I found myself struggling to write a dazzling pitch for my YA fantasy. Or more honestly, anything remotely good at all. Summing it up in a line or a paragraph seemed almost impossible. To work within the frame of what we were being asked to do, I began altering the basic story structure to come up with a simpler concept, resulting in another light-bulb moment. Followed by panic. 

I’d been grappling with aspects of my fantasy story that weren’t working but I was also reluctant to let go of all my previous hard work. Inspired (and scared) I allowed myself one week to start over and pursue the new idea. I wrote furiously to get as much down as I could, desperate to see if it could really stand up to the long haul, or if it would frazzle and splutter out like previous efforts. Now, less than two months later, I’m sitting with an 80,000 word draft and I’m almost finished. After months of writing and throwing away hundreds of pages, I have a first draft! (*throws confetti*) And I’ve never written so fast in my life. 

But what does this have to do with voice?

In Meg Rosoff's article for the Guardian, (follow the link to read it), she states,

Your 'voice' lies somewhere between your conscious and subconscious mind. Finding that place is a challenging exercise in self-confrontation.

Over the years, as I’ve written and thrown away hundred of thousands of words, I’ve often wondered about the way so many authors advocate scribbling down a first draft as fast as possible, with little prior plotting. It’s an approach that, from experience, I know can run you hard and fast into walls. But I also think it’s a powerful way of reaching that strange and wonderful place where the story seems to flow out of nowhere, where the writer hovers between thinking and feeling, the rational and emotional, the conscious and subconscious. There’s nothing more magical than running after a story, trying to keep up with it, rather than pulling it along behind you. Writing like this gives your characters the freedom to take you to unexpected places, to tell the story their way, to tap into something that isn’t logical but lies beyond analytical or rational thinking.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I don’t believe voice is something you can ‘learn’ like plotting or syntax. It’s something you find through the journey of writing to discover the story only you can tell in the way that only you can tell it. It’s a culmination of how your characters live through and learn from their experiences, how they perceive the world, how they act and react, how they think and speak, and how your own sensibilities and deepest experiences ripple beneath the pages to create themes and subtext that sometimes as the author, you’re not even fully conscious you’re doing.

In life, finding a voice is speaking and living the truth. Each of you is an original. Each of you has a distinctive voice. When you find it, your story will be told. You will be heard ~ John Grisham
So if you're looking for your voice as a writer, my advice is to take risks, write what excites you, what sets your pulse racing, what scares or obsesses you, what you’re grappling with or haunted by. Write and write and write, and somewhere along the line, you won’t have to find your voice, your voice will find you. 

Photos from the March 2013 SCBWI Paris conference


  1. It sounds like you should aim to enjoy writing and that, if things are going well, the words should be flowing. If the words aren't flowing, stand back and make sure you are on the right track? Makes sense to me.

  2. Great to see you here, Amanda! Thanks for commenting. Yes, enjoying what you're writing definitely helps. Though I think sometimes you have to go through the sludge to get to a place where you're enjoyment lasts a whole novel!