Ten Steps to Finding Your Writing Voice

Your job as a writer is much more than just selling your books, believe it or not. Your job — if you want to make a living at this, anyway — is to sell yourself.

You are selling your unique perspective on life, your unique collection of beliefs, fears, hopes and dreams, your memories of childhood tribulation and triumphs and adult achievements and failures . . . your universe.

Anybody can sit down and write a story or a book — that is simply a matter of applying butt to chair and typing out three or four or ten pages a day until the thing is done. But not every book is salable, not every salable book will find an audience, and not every book that finds an audience will be able to bring the readers back for more of what the writer is selling.

Your goal is to achieve all three of those milestones:

  1. To sell your work;
  2. To reach first-time readers with it;
  3. To win these first-time readers over as repeat readers of your work.

You do that by offering them something they can’t get anywhere else — and the only thing in the universe that readers cannot get anywhere but from you is . . . you.

Which means you have to put yourself on your page. This is what is known in the writing business as developing your voice. Voice isn’t merely style. Style would be easy by comparison. Style is watching your use of adjectives and doing a few flashy things with alliteration. Style without voice is hollow. Voice is style, plus theme, plus personal observations, plus passion, plus belief, plus desire. Voice is bleeding onto the page, and it can be a powerful, frightening, naked experience.

But your voice is your future in writing. And here is how you develop it.

1. Read everything.

You cannot be a successful writer if you don’t read. That isn’t opinion; that’s fact. All writers read, and all good writers read a lot. Read fiction, read nonfiction, read in the genre you love, read outside of it. Read WAY outside of it. You cannot be a snob — don’t write off any genre or type of book as being without redeeming qualities or lessons to teach you. The more you read, the more you will acquire a visceral instinct about what works for you, and an equally compelling instinct for what doesn’t. You’ll discover how stories are put together, get a feel for how good novels are paced and plotted and how bad ones fall apart, and you’ll start developing a hunger to write specific stories, because you’ll come across areas of fiction where nobody is writing the kind of books you want to read.

Reading is magic. It’s your bread and butter. Don’t neglect it.

2. Write everything.

Try your hand at non-fiction. Write romantic scenes. Put together a western character and run him through a fight scenario. Try fantasy, try SF, try romance, try mainstream. Write a sonnet, and some haiku, and a few limericks. Remember the first rule of writing:

Nothing you write is wasted.

Whether you use what you’ve produced or not, you will have learned from the experience . . . and you can never know too much. You might think you have the entire future of your writing planned out until you try your hand at something offbeat and discover that you can make that surprising subject sing. You might produce your first salable work completely outside of your previous area of specialization. (I wrote a few smartass SF sonnets as an exercise when I was first getting started, just to take a break from the hard SF that kept getting rejected — and out of the five I wrote in one day, I sold two. My first paid sales ever.)

3. Copy the best.

Do short exercises where you sit down and not only copy the style of your favorite writers, but also some of their themes and passions. Get as much into their heads as you can.

AND A LOUD ASIDE HERE: Do NOT copy their characters, their worlds, or their stories. Don’t plagiarize, don’t fanfic.

Your objective in finding your own voice is to loosen up your writing muscles by writing your OWN work in someone else’s voice, simply to shut up your inner critic.

When I was just getting started, I tried to write short stories and essays in Mark Twain’s voice, but on subjects current at the time. I wrote sonnets that were deliberate takes on Shakespeare, but also on current subjects. “To An Android Lover” and “Ruminations on Impermanence in a Technophilic World,” two of my attempts, sold, demonstrating that these exercises can be profitable as well as fun.

They also let you get a feel for writing in a voice that you don’t have to be responsible for — if you’re writing as “Mark Twain,” (or whoever your choice of writer will be) you’ll be a lot less critical of yourself, and you’ll free yourself up to experiment with content and structure in ways that you might resist when you’re writing as yourself. After all, you have nothing to lose. If the stuff flops, it wasn’t really you.

4. Play games.

Make endless lists — one-word lists of the things that excite you, the things that scare you, the things that you dream and fantasize about and hope for, the things you dread and fight to avoid. It is absolutely essential that these words have some special meaning to you — don’t just go through a dictionary and pick them out randomly, or you’ll find yourself staring at a blank page more often than not when trying to play the games that follow. Great topics for lists are:

  1. Childhood memories.
  2. Dreams and nightmares.
  3. Ten gifts I’d give myself with magic.
  4. If I could spend a million dollars, I’d buy…
  5. What I want most in the world.
  6. What I’d do anything to avoid.
  7. Things that are creepy.
  8. Things that are sexy.
  9. Best foods.
  10. Best times.

You can come up with endless other topics for lists, too. Use these lists as triggers for writing games like the following:

  • “Three Words”
    Randomly choose one item from each of three lists. Use these words to create a title — you’ll get something weird like “Lake Bones Ice Cream,” or “Naked Broken-Glass Monkeys.” Without allowing yourself to think about these words or censor what you’re putting on the page, just start writing, letting the words conjure images and stories for you. Write for ten minutes without allowing yourself to stop or correct anything.

  • “Chasing Your Tail”
    Start with a random word on one of your lists. Write for two or three minutes on that word, not allowing yourself to stop writing, to back up, or to correct. Immediately choose by random means a second word from any one of your lists. Start writing again, connecting this word to what you were writing about before. Write for two or three minutes; then pick another word which you connect to the subject you’ve been writing about with the first two. Run with this pattern of choosing and following for as long as you wish, or can.

  • “Theme”
    Randomly choose only one word, and write for ten minutes on just that word, exploring everything about it that matters to you, why the subject is compelling to you, what memories it stirs in you, what hopes or fears it shakes loose in you, places, sounds, scents and tastes that appear as you’re writing. Don’t censor, don’t stop writing for any reason, don’t correct.

Again, you can come up with endless variations on these games that you can play by yourself or with other writers in writers’ groups. The idea is to dig beneath your surface and start freeing up things that you have kept hidden even from yourself.

5. Challenge your preconceptions.

You don’t know everything about yourself. You only think you do. The more you trust yourself to write without correction, the more you’ll discover that you’re a lot deeper and more interesting and more complex than you imagined.

But you’ll find out a lot about yourself by pushing some of your own buttons, too, and I recommend that from time to time you do. If you’re a staunch Republican, write an essay from inside the head of a liberal Democrat who is in favor of the thing you most despise, whether it is entitlement spending or gun control or free abortions on demand. If you’re strongly science-oriented, write from inside the head of a modern mystic who makes a living as a professional psychic, and who strongly and passionately believes in his or her work. If you’re strongly religiously oriented, write from inside the head of a person who loathes all religion, and has good reason for doing so.

Your job in this exercise is to become, although only temporarily, the thing that most frightens, angers, or bewilders you. To do it right, you have to allow your enemy to convince you of his rightness — you cannot allow yourself to convince him. For example, the strongly Christian writer cannot have the character he is writing experience a conversion to Christianity or see the error of his ways — he must, instead, have the agnostic prove to himself that he is right in his choice to be agnostic.

I’ll tell you right now that this is some of the toughest writing that you’ll ever do. Don’t try it when you’re tired or cranky or when you have a headache — you’ll probably get one from this particular exercise even if you felt great beforehand. But do take the leap and do this. It is the absolute best way (if you play fairly) that I’ve ever found to start developing characters that aren’t either transparent versions of yourself or pathetically weak straw men that you can triumph over as villains.

6. Dare to be dreadful.

When you’re finding your voice, you’re going to be doing a lot of experimenting. Some of what you write, frankly, is going to be lousy. Some of it will shock you with how good you really are. But the only way you’ll get any of the good stuff is if you allow yourself to put whatever comes into your head down on the page without demanding salable prose of yourself.

This isn’t the time to be shooting for commercial viability. When your internal editor switches on, hit him over the head with a frying pan, preferably a cast iron one.

7. Write from passion.

If you don’t care about the things you’re writing about, you will never discover your true voice. Your voice does not exist when you’re trying to write a book in a genre you hate because you think it will be an easy way to make a quick buck. Your voice does not exist in the thin and cheap places of your heart or the shallow end of your soul. Voice lives in the deep waters and the dark places of your soul, and it will only venture out when you make sure you’ve given it space to move and room to breathe.

8. Take risks.

Choose to write about themes that your internal editor insists are too dangerous, too controversial, too embarrassing to be put on the paper. Imagine that your mom (or your other toughest critic) is looking over your shoulder with a raised eyebrow and a prudish expression on her face. Now shock her.

9. Remember that complacency is your worst enemy.

If you’re comfortable, if you’re rolling along without having to really think, if you haven’t had to challenge yourself, if you know that everyone is going to approve of what you’ve done — you’re wasting your time. Writing done from a position of comfort will never say anything worthwhile.

10. Remember that fear is your best friend.

If your heart is beating fast and your palms are sweating and your mouth is dry, you’re writing from the part of yourself that has something to say that will be worth hearing. Persevere. I’ve never written anything that I’ve really loved that didn’t have me, during many portions of the manuscript, on the edge of my seat from nerves, certain that I couldn’t carry off what I was trying to do, certain that if I did I would so embarrass myself that I’d never be able to show my face in public again — and I kept writing anyway.

At the heart of everything that you’ve ever read that moved you, touched you, changed your life, there was a writer’s fear. And a writer’s determination to say what he had to say in spite of that fear.

So be afraid. Be very afraid. And then thank your fear for telling you that what you’re doing, you’re doing right.

Voice is born from a lot of words and a lot of work — but not just any words or any work will do. You have to bleed a little. You have to shiver a little. You have to love a lot — love your writing, love your failures, love your courage in going on in spite of them, love every small triumph that points toward eventual success. You already have a voice. It’s beautiful, it’s unique, it’s the voice of a best-seller. Your job is to lead it from the darkest of the dark places and the deepest of the deep waters into the light of day.

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