At the start of this series, I stated that my most meaningful lesson had nothing to do with writing, and everything to do with music. What happened is that I developed and used a metaphor to judge the strength of my VOICE. I’m going to put that word in all caps because VOICE has to be one of the biggest aspects of writing that everybody talks about and nobody explains. I, at least, have never understood it. I’m sure my metaphor won’t always work, but I’ll give myself credit for getting a better handle on the concept.
VOICE is that magical quality that every editor is looking for, the attribute that transforms ordinary prose into passages that glow, a way of expressing ideas that strongly resonate with readers, putting words together to make a story vibrate with intensity, the ability to make words flex with power and intent and focus and resolve and …. well, whatever it is, those who have a strong writing VOICE have an advantage over someone with a weak writing VOICE.
VOICE is what you’re supposed to discover at MFA (Master of Fine Arts) schools, or writing workshops, or what experienced writers teach to less experienced writers, or maybe what comes to a writer after wandering forty days in the wilderness; I don’t know. When publishers find a remarkable new writer, they invariably talk about the strength of the person’s VOICE.
We’ve all heard VOICE, whether we know it or not. A sentence will make a beautiful, though brief, melody: it flows, it sings, it has rhythm; it pleases our ears. We remember it. A series of paragraphs will carry an idea with harmony and consistency so that it expresses exactly how we feel. A writer’s casual observation seems perfect; it makes us wish we had said that.
VOICE can be found in “high brow” writing just as it can in more colloquial and informal. It’s how the words are put together, not the price tag of the words themselves. Even Jeff Foxworthy has VOICE.
Reading the excerpts on my wall, over and over, I began to “hear” the words and phrases. An underlying rhythm – a heartbeat – made its way through the printed letters. There was lift, flow, a dynamic quality that made the words and sentences ride on a pattern of beats and physical ticks of my tongue. Some sentences I could almost sing. Read Lincoln’s Gettysburg’s Address and see if you don’t hear drums in the background.
There’s a story of Zubin Mehta, the famous Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, riding a bus one day. A lady sitting next to him asked his line of work and he replied that he was a musician. She asked him what instrument he played. He thought for a moment, then replied “I play the orchestra.”
His response is the basis for my metaphor of VOICE.
A writer uses their keyboard as a baton and language as the orchestra, and how they put words together reveals their VOICE. It isn’t the words themselves, or paragraphs, or scenes, or transitions – it’s all of those. Those aspects are just the selection of instruments filling the chairs in front of the writer, and HOW the writer makes those instruments perform, individually and collectively, HOW the overall ensemble is used to produce music, HOW the melody comes and goes, HOW counterpoint melody is used to contrast to others, HOW the volume varies, the instruments are played in isolation or joined together, the music ebbs and flows, and HOW that music is different from when a different writer “plays” the orchestra, is the writer’s unique VOICE.
When writers read their poems or short stories or novels, their voices should take on the added dimension of music in the background. The story, the pace, the scenes, the actions, the drama, the conflict, the points with strong emphasis versus weak, all should be contributing to the wholeness of the performance. A novel should be as captivating to a reader as a symphony is to an audience. Maybe this is why books on tape are so popular.
Is it talent? Is it craft? Is it deliberate or is it unavoidable? Does it matter if it’s fiction or nonfiction? I don’t know. I hear it in Blood and Thunder, the biography of Kit Carson by Hampton Sides, as much as I hear it in The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe. Read the opening paragraphs of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote; they describe a little town in Kansas, and yet are nearly spellbinding.
Do writers have only a single voice? Remember that the author of IT is the same guy who wrote The Shawshank Redemption. You could give Stephen King the New York Philharmonic, or you could give him a hundred banjos and three opera singers, or you could give him a washtub, two fiddles and a table of cowbells, and he would eke out the nuances of every player to create a complete performance of whatever level of music the instruments were capable of. He knows how to use VOICE.
I’ve made the statement that writing is a craft. I believe it and it gives me hope for the future. But I think VOICE for most of us is an art and it comes from within a writer, perhaps more from his ears than his heart; it may be resonance, not performance. I believe that it is developed and revealed rather than learned, and it takes a lot of writing to find it. That’s why it’s unique to a particular writer. I also suspect that it involves as much an understanding of who you are, as it does what words you choose.
Seeing my words and ideas being refined under the experienced hand of an editor, while slaving over a long, intensive novel for months, I began to hear melodies behind my words. My words fit together better, producing something akin to music – varying rhythm, pitch, pace, emphasis, connectivity, flow, and power. Not always, but I was making progress. The palette of words, sentence structures, and paragraph design from which I could choose became bigger.
After my year of learning, I rewrote my Mogi Franklin mystery stories and they improved in ways I hadn’t seen before, proving that as I was learning what I could do, I was learning to listen to the result.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.