What is your author voice? How do you develop it and bring it to the fore?
It’s a tricky question and one many authors struggle with. I myself struggle to reconcile what I know to be good writing practice with injecting distinction and personality into my writing.
I went to a fantastic seminar at the Hay Festival earlier this year, which really helped me explore the notion. The crux of the seminar, hosted by the BBC Writer’s Room, was “first, know yourself, then, put yourself in the writing”. Easier said than done, granted, but it’s a starting point. The goal is to achieve “specific” and “distinctive” writing, and avoid “bland”. Bland is bad.
What I’ve been trying to do to meet this challenge is go with my gut instinct a little more. Rather than strictly following the “rules”, I’m trying to go with what I feel works best, especially where I can pinpoint why I feel that way.
I felt like I was making progress on the concept of author voice vs technique, but recently I had a little setback.
I submitted a short story for a collaborative anthology and got some edits back to consider. Now, really, I ought to be happy with the fact there were only a few small edits per page. I know this. I should be ecstatic. Some of the edits were genuine mistakes and I was happy to accept these, but the rest, well. It almost felt like they targeted everything I’d purposely done to make the piece more interesting and more distinctly me. Here’s some examples:
- There were a number of adjectives deleted as superfluous. I tend to use them sparingly anyway, so where I have used an adjective it’s because I wanted to enforce a point, make something stand out.
- There was one particular place where I’d used “then” at the beginning of a paragraph, on purpose, to give a stronger sense of a break from what came before it. I could have gone for “But, then,” but I thought “then” was enough. What I didn’t want, as the editor has suggested, was to continue the action without that pause to actively draw attention to the difference between the before and after, and the fact that the after has alleviated the before.
- What probably disappointed me most was the re-wording of a couple of past continuous sentences to past perfect. If I’ve used past continuous it’s because I want to convey a sense of continuous action or movement! The two tenses are different and one is not inherently better than the other.
When I first started out, these types of things could be found all over my early, amateurish work, and I learned to look out for them. In fact, I became quite hung up on them. I would strip out any adverbs that crept in, stick to past perfect unless I absolutely couldn’t see a way around using another tense and I would search my work for “was”, “then”, “just” and a bunch of other “banned” words. Passive voice? Nope, not allowed.
At first it was a great way to improve my writing, but after a while it started to turn my writing into something I didn’t recognise as mine. Obviously I understand the need not to flood my writing with such things, but everything was coming out the same and I didn’t know how to inject that sense of character or author voice into it. If we all rigidly stuck to the same rules all writing would be the same.
Which is where the advice from the seminar and my own realisations come in; I needed to relax and go with the flow. This piece was one of the first where I’d put that philosophy into practice. So, having the things I would previously have hunted out myself, but actively chose to keep in, picked up on by someone else undermined my confidence a little. Perhaps I was going at this the wrong way?
Thankfully, at the same time as wrong footing me the feedback gave me the opportunity to analyse the examples. No writer can ask for anything more than the chance to think things through from a fresh angle and learn from every setback. I took the story away and went through each and every edit in detail and found a way to improve the problem sentence or paragraph. I can honestly say the result was a better piece of writing.