Each writer has her or his own distinct “voice.” Some writers spend decades looking for their unique voices, and others find theirs with the very first story they write. Voice and style are related but different.
Voice is what a reader hears inside his or her head when reading words. Storytelling is an art that existed long before the written word, and the best storytellers have a natural rhythm that mesmerizes listeners with alliteration, repetition, rhyme, parallel structures, and patterns of pacing that enchant and entrance.
Too many writers are unaware of how the human mind processes language. Various structures in the brain—some in the left hemisphere and some in the right—work together to make sense out of symbols. Symbols include, besides alpha-numeric digital representations, sounds, gestures, signs, maps, smells, tastes, and physical feelings. It is the mind that gives meaning to each symbol based on prior associations dredged out of memory. The map is not the territory but merely a representation of the territory.
During conversations with fellow writers at the 2015 Nebula Award Banquet in Chicago, I identified successful new writers by which symbols had salience for them and the way they accessed information. Some writers were very verbal and had a fluidity of language based primarily on auditory processing of sensory input. Those people were able to instantly duplicate and respond to what they heard as they heard it. Sounds themselves had salience. Those writers are akin to the musician who plays mostly by ear, translating auditory input into kinesthetic output without the additional steps auditory-digital types like me require to process input and output.
One of those writers admitted to having difficulty reading stories published in books and sf magazines. It wasn’t until he listened to books on tape or CD—auditory files—that he found his own voice for his writing. He “hears” stories inside his head. Then he translates those stories into symbols that comprise the written word based on the spoken word. Once he discovered where his voice came from, he has become a prolific author.
I work differently. I “see” stories, then translate them into words that describe my visions. First I see the scenes. Then I see the written symbols that best represent that scene. I see each letter, each punctuation mark, each space at the beginning of a new paragraph, the way words and white space look laid-out on a page, the way each page contributes to the story as a whole.
I write at the keyboard where my fingers automatically translate the symbols in my head into kinesthetic actions that produce the symbols that appear on the screen or piece of paper. I cannot listen to music while writing. Background music interferes with the words in my head. Other writers find that listening to music while writing is a big help. Different strokes for different folks.
If you are primarily auditory like Stephen King, Kevin J. Anderson, and the guy I met at the nebulas, you might find writing easier if you dictate and capture the words into a digital recorder or into a program like Nuance’s Dragon Naturally Speaking. Dragon for Windows or Macs will type your spoken words for you with up to 95% accuracy. There is a slight learning curve, but it will increase the output of an auditory person exponentially.
If you are primarily kinesthetic, you might prefer to write with a pen on paper before revising your works on a keyboard or sending your notebooks to a typist. The feel of the paper itself, the touch of the pen to paper, produces words from your subconscious faster and better than any other process. Kinesthetic writers also love to pound out words on manual typewriters. They write with a flourish that adds to their style. James Patterson is a kinesthetic writer.
If you’re more like me, however, you separate the process into a series of “drafts.” The first draft is primarily visual, and you describe what you see. The second draft includes imagined sounds, tastes, feelings, smells. During the third draft I read all the words aloud to hear how the words sound and to feel how they roll off my tongue. I add punctuation marks to match my pauses, inflections, intonations. I tend to cut unnecessary flourishes out of my stories unless they add momentum to the plot or help describe a specific character.
If a story is to work, it must engage all of the reader’s senses. Some readers are primarily auditory, some are visual, some are kinesthetic, some olfactory, and some gustatory. The majority of people in this world are auditory. They respond best to dialogue, to alliteration, to phrasing. Kinesthetic people respond best to action and they translate words on paper into muscle movements. If you want to appeal to every reader, you need to reach each of them in their own personal comfort zones.
I can listen to music all day and appreciate the rhythms but not duplicate the sounds “as is” on a musical instrument. I can, however, imagine the notes appearing individually on a musical score, write those notes down, arrange counterpoint and harmony, and play the music on nearly any instrument by following the sheet music. After translating the visual score into kinesthetic fingerings or vocalizations, I can practice until I get the rhythm right. I then artificially add feeling to change tone and timbre and provide warmth to the composition. The end result might be the same, but it takes an auditory-digital a much longer time to get there than an auditory-kinesthetic. I don’t do well at impromptu jam-sessions. I don’t hear or feel the music. I see the music.
It took me fifty years to find my voice. I went about it the long and hard way. Instead of listening to other voices, I saw written words on paper. I only imagined what those words sounded like. It wasn’t until I read my written words aloud at conventions that I decided to include the spoken word as an important part of my writing process.
Some people tell me they find it difficult to imagine. They feel, they do, they hear, they speak. They don’t see images. They’re not lying. They can’t easily visualize. The way to reach such people is to touch them, to speak to them, to mimic them and then lead them to accept new experiences via their primary senses. It’s easy once you have established rapport. Let them hear and feel what you want them to see. Images will eventually appear in their mind’s eye. It just takes some people longer than others to see what you want them to see.
Auditory digitals, like me, often get hung up on description. We tend to write long narratives that include copious details better left to dialogue. We tend to view scenes from multiple viewpoints rather than a personal POV. We tend to lecture and to provide too much information, much more than any one character (or any one reader) is capable of handling. Therefore, we need to be ruthless in our editing. We need to butcher our little darlings. We need to cut out all the fat but leave enough meat on the bone to be both nourishing and palatable.
To find your own voice, determine how you primarily access information and process sensual input. Listen to your voice, see your voice, feel your voice, taste your voice, smell your voice. Temper your voice with style. Style is deliberate manipulation of words to invoke more than one sense by using alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhythm, rhyme, metaphor, simile, and all those other verbal skills you possess but don’t normally use. Begin in your own comfort zone and venture outside it. Write until all your fingers are sore, you’re vividly hallucinating, and the voice inside your head is telling you what to do next. Then stop just long enough to smell the roses and to taste success before you pick up the pen to write again.
Tell your stories in your own way with your own voice. Just remember that not everyone will be able to see or hear your words the same way you do.