Your Authentic Voice
One of the things I used to strain about a lot was “authentic voice.”
No, I’m not talking about the mentally challenged idea you can only write the cultural background you come from, which is akin to the idea you can only wear Halloween costumes that match your external appearance. (I have a guest post about this on my blog today.) Why mentally challenged? Because it’s a confusion of genes and culture. Sure, they can be and often are coincidental due to the fact most countries in the world are tribal. But anyone who has immigrated and acculturated, and well… practically anyone in America, should be aware that just because they’re often covalent it doesn’t mean they’re the same. The idea they’re the same is actually incredibly racist and fuel for eugenics. So I’m not at home to that particular form of mentally challenged confusion. Fortunately by the time I found it in SF/F (with editors assuring me that I could only write “authentic” stories set in Portugal, a country where I only lived as a kid and pre-married young adult, which has changed wildly in the then 20 now 34 years I’ve been away, and where, btw, my upbringing was never typical, to the point of getting culture shock when staying overnight at friends’ houses) I was multi-published and could only snort derisively.)
What I’m talking about, which some of my mentors obsessed about was the idea that there is a voice that’s uniquely you and that when you find it, your work becomes markedly better.
Before we embark on this, let me say that, yes, voice is important. And that when you’re faking a voice that you can’t write convincingly, it can destroy the readers’ pleasure in the story. Partly because it keeps popping you out.
I experienced this very intensely this week while reading — and partly while listening to — Pride and Prejudice Variations. Look, they’re basically Pride and Prejudice fanfic. It’s now all for sale on Amazon.
It’s technically impossible for me to not read or listen to stories while doing physical work. It’s an addiction. Don’t mock me. But when I’m strained and busy to my last nerve, I listen to and read low-level no-intellectual-demands stuff. P & P fanfic is kind of the lowest of that (It’s been a month of construction work. I’m exhausted. Yes, very little remains except for stuff that can be done two weekends a month, which counts as a hobby. Hopefully done this week with the rest) It’s emotionally undemanding, because we KNOW they’ll end up together. It’s intellectually undemanding because it’s variations on a theme. I don’t mind the occasional anachronism, because I view it as fanfic. So…
So what kicks me out is that the authors are straining to write at a more formal level than most of them probably ever heard, let alone spoke or read. Which means we end up with things like abdicate for abandon. Or audio books that seem to think English upper class accents are music-hall Irish-servant-girl accents. Never mind. Then there’s the people who never even waved at England across the straight and who try to write historical servant dialect and make them sound like Jar Jar Binks.
These are examples of voices (either on paper or in speech) that can mar a story.
And it’s not limited to fanfic. It’s more subtle in original fiction, but you know exactly what I mean if I tell you to think of times you were reading a book and kept picturing the character as another sex, or race, of even time of origin. How many regency romances have heroines that sound like valley girls, for instance?
I refer to this as “watching the costume play.” If my mind keeps defaulting to kids in front of painted scenery, the voice is wrong.
The worst one, though, was the book that is supposedly in the voice of a tall straight male, and I kept seeing him either as a small girl, or a small, very gay male. I went back when I gave up and studied all the instances where the author had given that impression. Apparently this author is incapable of understanding that tall, strong men don’t “rush into the arms” of their lovers for protection, don’t mince around corners for fear of what’s on the other side, etc. etc. etc. She was clearly in her own body, and incapable of projecting someone else.
So, there is such a thing as an authentic voice. BUT is it YOUR authentic voice?
… I don’t think I have one. I mean, I know there are word choices and paragraphing choices that are unique to me, and some linguistically gifted people are really good at catching me everywhere.
BUT my voice seems to change according to character and genre. I’ll confess the hard part of any book or series is to get in the character’s voice. and when I return to a series after a long hiatus, I often have to listen to my own audio books, before I can write in that voice again. Since I have Shakespeare (the last two books. It was supposed to be a 5 book series, and I’d like to close it off, as it were) on the slate for next year, we’ll see how far my ability to do that goes. I put it down 15 years and 35 books ago.)
There absolutely is an “authentic” voice for genre and book. And you can feel when you’re in the groove, because at least for me, I stop thinking about word or phrasing choice or even what kind of reaction the character would have, and just “flow” in the character’s head.
But is there an authentic voice for ME? I don’t think so.
I think if you’re doing it right, particularly first person (which is my preferred writing mode) you just become the character.
Maybe it’s the same as method and character actors. Maybe some people become the characters, and some people stay outside them narrating them. And maybe the process differs depending on what kind of writer/actor you are. Art (to the extent writing is art) is very personal, and a thing that comes from your whole being AS YOU ARE, not as you try to be.
So, take it with a grain of salt. Stop looking for your authentic voice like it’s some kind of holy grail.
Instead, try to get in the voice for the character and book.
If you’re like me, listening to books you like in the genre you’re going to write will help you slide in.
Also, try not to write in a vocabulary you’re not familiar or comfortable with. Honestly, a regency written in more pedestrian English, but without a bunch of false-friends is better than one where I’m stopping every five minutes and going “it’s renege, not retrieve on a promise! Dear Lord, buy a dictionary!” Trying to sound “old timey” and “classy” always ends in tears. (Also for the love of heaven if writing in the regency do buy What Jane Austen Ate And Charles Dickens Knew, or “daily life in” for as many historical periods as you can or… well, get a clue. In the regency they did NOT write on parchment. Paper has been common and relatively affordable since Elizabethan times at least. Geeesh.)
But most of all? David Weber once said, in a panel, that confidence in your voice covers a multitude of sins. He’s right. Readers sense how confident the narrator is. A confident narrator can sell shoes to snakes, or swamp water to Florida.
If you’re sure you know the way, the reader will follow you anywhere and not notice even glaring plot issues till he/she closes the book. Or all the books in the series.
So, take a deep breath, square your shoulders and be confident.
Authorial confidence is what you need, not the mystical holy grail of authenticity.