Constance Hale, author of Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose calls voice “the je ne sais quoi in all strong writing.” Other writers and critics refer to voice as the music behind the prose, the unique way a writer expresses herself–a fingerprint of language. Voice can be imitated but not duplicated; its rythymn and tone are unique to each writer.
Voice is often confused with style. But style is concrete–the way we structure our sentences, our word choice and use of metaphor, whether we tend to write formally or informally, etc.
I think voice is something deeper and ultimately unnameable because it orginates underneath language and only takes shape through language.
The writer’s task is to write from this original source, particularly when first drafting a story. In revision, we must continue to listen for the original voice and build on it. The result is an authenticity of language that the reader immediately feels and wants more of.
On a more superficial (but equally essential) level, voice is shaped by the writer’s background, cultural heritage, and personal experience.
Voice changes with point of view. A cat sees the world differently than his master, a sister views the house she grew up in differently than her brother.
The writer’s experience of a landscape also shapes voice. My first novel is set in the Salinas Valley where I grew up. Sheila’s story couldn’t have taken place anywhere else. The Valley is in my bones, my very being.
Finding Your Writers Voice by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall stresses finding one’s “raw” voice, and then refining it through craft (revision). What enables us to tap into this raw voice, “the writer’s most powerful tool?”
Writing about childhood–simple memories such as climbing the tree in your front yard or a meal your mother prepared–can unearth an interior language that existed before our egos had fully formed. Before we learned that writing required us to be someone other than who we are.
I’ll be teaching a two-hour class on Voice tomorrow night at Book Passage in Corte Madera. It’s the first in my Fiction Toolbox series, which will also include an evening each on character, plot and setting. Get dates and other details here.