Don’t worry about finding your voice (?)

Interesting post over at Jane Friedman’s blog: Find Your Topic, Not Your Voice

In setting out to become a writer, you must strive, above all, to discover your unique voice. At least, that’s become the conventional wisdom, taught in MFA programs as well as in more casual settings, from writers group meetings at Starbucks to free classes taught in the stuffy backroom of your local library. Yet there is so much wrong with this advice that, if you spend even one full minute giving it serious thought, your eyes will roll heaven-ward all on their own like Where even to begin?

…All over the world, people’s drawers bulge with unpublishable novels, essays collections and memoirs in which there’s plenty of voice, yet no story, no real through-line, no sense of one’s audience beyond the assumption that they’re there. …

… Most readers don’t give a crap about fancy prose—it’s far from their foremost concern. … So, topic over voice, friend! Content > tone! Subject ahead of approach!

Besides, when you get your topic right, all your obsessive weirdness comes to the fore, starting to work for you for once. You enter flow, and suddenly, the awful pain of writing drops away. You fly, weightless, freed for a GD moment from the grind, and the prose pours out of you, your voice just showing up on the page like some welcome, expected guest, or like a free dessert. It’s freaking magic. Or at least worth trying, anyway.

Okay, this was an intriguing post, but I believe I disagree with it. Or I disagree with most of it. You may want to click through and read the whole thing and see what you think. I was sort of on board until this author started to equate “voice” with “fancy prose.” Or, no, really, I think I was sort of okay with this argument except that the emphasis on topic implies that research on a topic should come first, and then the author of this post — let me see, her name is Catherine Baab-Muguira — anyway, she says that explicitly.

  1. Pick a topic that fascinates you, or learn about a topic until it fascinates you.
  2. Lead with research. Google your subject to see what’s out there. Begin to gain a sense of whether an audience already exists.
  3. Bring that topic to the world.

That’s what she says! I think that sounds like a peculiar way to write a novel, though a fine way to write about the evolutionary history of canids or whatever. But in the latter case, you should be aiming for a PhD and then a tenure track position and a career in the field. As a general rule, people don’t just research a topic like that and then sit down a write a book about it. A blog, maybe. There was a guy in the UK somewhere writing great posts about parakeet color genetics a long time ago. I’ve lost that url and don’t remember his name, but those were fantastic posts. I don’t see that site turning up immediately via google, unfortunately.

Anyway, my point is, starting with research first and then writing a novel sounds like a great way to fall down the research rabbit hole and never get to the novel. Maybe Baab-Muguira doesn’t write fiction? Or maybe she writes historicals or something very research-heavy?


I don’t completely disagree with the idea of backing off from this emphasis on voice.

When I say that, I’m thinking of “voice” as “writing style plus consistent themes,” which may not be what everyone considers to be “voice.” An author’s style is so likely to change considerably from one book to another that there’s no way to just go voice=style, though you do see that definition. I think “style plus consistent themes” is closer.

So, then, I think it’s worth considering whether anybody, or at least whether many people, can or will develop a unique writing style by thinking about voice and poking at voice and wondering “Is this my voice?” I would say, forget about your voice and just write the story. You’ll write it the best way you can, and that will necessarily include writing in your own voice, and there you go. Your style may change and develop and you may shift toward or away from certain themes as you continue to write novels, but regardless, you’ll still be writing in your very own voice because that’s the only way you can write. You don’t have to worry about that at all.

The above may not apply if you’ve got the amazing talent to fall into someone else’s voice and write books in their style with, perhaps, their characters, as withthe best Star Trek novels. I can’t do that at all, so I tend to forget that might be possible and then I remember and go, right, yeah, some writers may actually be able to do that. In that case, I guess I’d say, you should still forget about developing your unique voice and concentrate on developing your unique characters and setting and plot. Go right ahead and write in a style and with themes similar to someone else. That’s fine. You may shift, probably will shift, toward a different style and different themes as you go along and that’s fine too.

Regardless, I would hardly suggest starting with a topic. What does that even mean? Does that mean you decide you want to write about alcoholism, so you decide to write a novel set during Prohibition, and then you come up with a plot about making moonshine, and then characters, and then you write the story? That seems so utterly backward!

I’d suggest starting with characters and a scene. Because of course I would. That’s how I start. But that means I think that’s a fine way of starting a novel, a way that can work.

The real advice for real people would probably be more like this: start wherever works for you and write the novel in whatever way works for you. Put a lot of words in a row and get the story written. If you want to write fiction, definitely don’t focus so much on research that you don’t get around to writing the novel. Get that sucker written and then write three more books and by that time, I bet you will have developed a voice that is uniquely yours.

Or at least you’ll have learned not to worry as much about it.

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2 thoughts on “Don’t worry about finding your voice (?)”

  1. I poked at that article when The Passive Guy found it a while ago. the article’s author’s debut book comes out soon and is self-help, not a novel. Which explains a few things about the focus of the article.

    But if rephrased as find a story you want to tell, it works. If you are the sort of writer who gets story ideas, then characters to tell it.
    OTOH, I recall a book from ..quite a few years ago.. All the Fishes Come Home to Roost by Rachel Manija Brown, wherein she remarked somewhere that she couldn’t write it till she found the voice for it. It’s autobiography about growing up in India with hippie parents in an ashram. Objectively, it seems to have been pretty miserable. The voice as I remember it is engaging and somewhat humorous. Thinking back on it now: rather like war stories, people who’ve been through awful things can find humor in amazing situations.

  2. It sounds like she’s talking about non-fiction rather than a novel. Even then, I’m not sure I agree. Peter Matthiessen and Douglas Adams both wrote non fiction works on endangered species, but no one would confuse their voices.

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