My wife and I are addicted to “The Voice.” I’ve been a Blake Shelton fan forever, and I love the blind audition portion of the show, when the judges have to make their initial decisions based on a singer’s voice, not their look, age or size. As an old fay guy, I find this appealing. Of course, every subsequent round they watch the performance so things like appearance and stage presence do count, but they count in real life, too. Every once in a while, along will come a performer that just has “it.” You know what I’m talking about, they’re going to be a star. “It” is almost indefinable, but it’s that little spark, that something that separates that singer from the herd. Maybe they look different but have the chops to back it up. Maybe they’re just so damn charming onstage and off that you can’t help but adore them (Jake Worthington leaps to mind). I can’t always put my finger on it, but every once in a while a talent will come across that makes you say “that person is going to make it.”
The same thing happens in writing. At Concarolinas a couple of weeks ago (obligatory blurb about how awesome it was to see everyone) I sat in on a panel about what editors are tired of seeing. It was Ed Schubert, Emily Lavin Leverett (my co-editor on the Big Bad series) and me. After the perennial gripes about submission guidelines and don’t kill puppies, I finally said the thing I’ve been saying on panels for a little while now. It’s not what people want to hear, but it’s the truth. I thought it was important enough for the panel, and I think it’s important enough to say again here, and I’ll probably say it at some point next month at ConGregate.
It’s all about voice. I’ll be honest with you, you can send me a story on the back of a cocktail napkin that’s a thousand words too long and about cliched characters that I’m tired of reading about and can usually tell their stories with my eyes closed, and if your voice is amazing, I’ll publish it. You can rewrite your laundry list in narrative fiction form, and if you have an amazing voice, it will sell. The biggest thing I see missing from manuscripts I look over for friends and critique groups is voice – there’s just no “there” there.
When explaining voice to my wife the other day, I said that voice is the dialogue that tells me Joss Whedon wrote this movie even if I didn’t know it already. Voice is what tells me that’s Carls Santana playing guitar behind Michelle Branch’s vocals. Voice is what takes a piece and makes it stand out in the middle of a crowd of beige wearing pink polka dots and dance the friggin’ macarena.
It’s all about voice. If you think your stuff sounds like somebody else, then it does. So go find your own voice. If you think your work feels lifeless and flat, then it probably does. So go find your voice. If you keep getting notes about “punch up this part here,” then your voice is weak. Perfect it.
Stephen King says you have to write a million shitty words to get to the good ones. Malcolm Gladwell (who if you haven’t read every book the man has ever written then you are almost hopelessly behind the cultural decision-makers of our time) says it takes ten thousand hours of practice to get good at something. It takes years to find your voice. Years of writing. Not taking classes, not thinking about writing, not editing, not revising, but writing. You need to spend years vomiting all over the internet or the page or the bathroom walls or whatever, but you need to find your voice. Or voices, because Jim Butcher proved to me that a writer can have more than one.
So go find your voice. I found mine by blogging for years before I ever tried fiction. I just puked it up onto the interwebs and threw it out there for the world to see. Your mileage may vary as far as that goes. But you must find and cultivate your voice, and then you must trumpet it from the mountaintops. Otherwise you’re just going to get lost in the crowd.
Here are some folks I love right now for their narrative voice, none of whom are here on this site regularly (not that the MW regulars don’t have great voice, but I expect you to be familiar with their work and this is intended to broaden your horizons a little).
S. H. Roddey
This isn’t intended as an exhaustive list, this is just some folks who I find to have voice for days. Wendig, in particular, is chock-full of voice. His style and voice aren’t for everyone, but that’s the best thing – a polarizing voice is by its nature unique, and that’s always better than a homogenized, edited bloodless novel with all the voice, and life, taken out of it.
So go read something, and before you send out the next thing – look at it for voice. Does it stand out from the crowd? If not, keep writing. You’ll get there.