Finding Your Unique Authorial Voice
What do you sound like?
I don’t mean the sound of your singing voice (though I bet it’s excellent in the shower). I mean your voice as a writer. What does that sound like?
Finding this voice might sound challenging, but it isn’t necessarily. I don’t mean to sound like a Disney movie, but the truth is, you probably already have that voice inside of you. It’s just a matter of finding it. (Cue “When You Wish Upon a Star.”).
That’s what we’re going to do now. Here are five ways to discover your unique authorial voice.
Write… a Lot
Obvious but true. Finding your voice is a process that takes time, patience, and dedication. Therefore, you’re not going to find it after a few hours of writing. Or even months. Try years.
Sure, this might sound daunting. Truth be told, sometimes it’s going to feel daunting. But the fact is, if you care enough about writing to read an article like this, you’ve already got the drive and dedication to make it happen. I recommend choosing a daily word count goal and committing to it.
In his outstanding nonfiction masterwork On Writing, Stephen King recommends 2,000 words per day. One of my favorite fantasy authors, Joe Abercrombie, aims for 1,500 every day. Contemporary fantasy author Holly Black goes for 1,000 each day. And author John Grisham began his writing career at 500 a day. Whatever your number, I say pick one and aim for it.
The point of the word count goal is not to brag to your friends (though if you’re partial to bragging, that is a hidden benefit). It’s more to force yourself to get the practice you need. The more you write, the more your individual voice reveals itself.
Also, Read a Lot
This might sound counterintuitive, but I think reading the work of authors with strong voices will help establish your own. That’s because most writers find their unique voice by combining those of their biggest influences.
I think of this point in terms of food, because the kitchen is a great place to combine ingredients. Also, I’m hungry. Think of yourself like a chef. If you’re preparing any sort of meal, it can only be done by combining different ingredients into a single dish. You could go off a recipe, sure. But the dish only takes on a unique taste when you combine the elements in your own unique way.
Treat your writing the same way. Take elements of other works and incorporate them into your own. For example, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a monumentally popular series, in no small part due to the unique voice Martin infuses into each character. If you read closely, you’ll notice that almost every character is in love with someone, yet can’t be with them for some reason or another. Jon Snow loves Ygritte, yet (spoiler) Ygritte dies in the third book. Daenerys Targaryen loves the sellsword Daario Naharis, yet can’t be with him because she’s a queen and he’s a sellsword. And Cersei Lannister loves Jaime Lannister, yet they can’t be together because they’re sister and brother. Yeah, gross, but still.
My point is, A Song of Ice and Fire is epic fantasy, yet the series incorporates strong elements of classic romance narratives. This is a key part of Martin’s authorial voice, and one of the main factors that sets him apart from other writers. He picked this up by reading widely. We should do the same.
An additional thought here: If you’re a beginning writer, it’s totally okay to emulate your favorite writers’ styles. Pretty much everyone does this, and for good reason. It’s a trail along the path to your own voice. Just make sure to step off the path at some point. And the more you read, the more trails you’ll find. Hope you brought your walkin’ boots.
Draw on Personal Experience
You’re the only one who’s experienced your own life. So if you can take elements of that and put it into your writing, you’re left with a unique perspective that no one else could possibly have.
Take the aforementioned John Grisham, for instance. A lawyer by trade, he decided to try writing a novel a few words at a time. But he didn’t write a teen drama or a fantasy epic. Instead, he used his own unique perspective as a lawyer to fuel his work. This decision gave life to an almost entirely new genre: the legal thriller.
That said, our internal critics might make this step more difficult than it needs to be. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve definitely wondered if anyone would care about my personal experience to begin with. You might’ve felt the same.
Trust me, people care. Readers can feel a writer’s connection to their work. What matters is taking that personal thread and finding what makes it universal. Doing so goes a long way toward establishing your unique voice as an author.
Push the Boundaries
A writer doesn’t find their voice by doing only what’s been done before. Therefore, don’t be afraid to try something totally strange.
Kelly Link, for instance, is one of my favorite authors. She writes pretty much only short fiction, and you know you’re reading a Kelly Link story when you pick it up. They tend to be non-linear, challenging, and richly detailed, like artistic puzzles. Furthermore, Link’s works often use atypical narrative decisions, such as the present tense or stories structured by headings. Her works are unlike anyone else’s.
You can tell that Link didn’t come upon her authorial voice by playing it safe. She tries things few other writers do (and she seems to have a lot of fun while doing it). Therefore, you shouldn’t be afraid to do the same. If you’ve got an impulse to try something you’ve never seen before, take the chance and do it. You never know what you might come up with.
Let Your Intuition Guide You
This is the best tip I can leave for anyone reading this article. Trust yourself. If you like the voice of your writing, keep going in that direction. And if you feel you’re working on a piece that doesn’t sound like you, make the necessary changes until it does.
One of my favorite exercises is imagining how I might rewrite books I’m reading. This is not to say that I think I’m smarter than other authors. Rather, I think it’s useful to always remember how your voice differs from that of other writers. Consider how you might take the same events and write them in your own voice. Or imagine how you might resolve that conflict in a different manner. If you find yourself disagreeing with other authors often, that’s a good sign. It means you’ve got a unique voice, and you’re going to stick to it.
To recap, finding your unique voice as an author takes practice. One must write and read a lot. One must also draw on personal experience and push the boundaries of the norm. And one must never, ever ignore their personal intuition.
Try these tips in your writing. See where they take you.
About the Author: Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living in upstate New York with his wife and their two cats. He loves the present tense and multiple POV characters. When he grows up, he wants to be a professional Magic: The Gathering player. For more of his work, visit www.kyleamassa.com.