Those of the writing breed who have ever dared the Path of the Query have seen that every publisher worth their salt — and even those not worth any — wants what they usually call a unique voice. Now, the dominant school of thought these days teaches us that each and every one of us is born unique and this is probably true in some ways. In others, however, we need to work to develop that uniqueness and this is especially true when it comes to the author’s voice.
I keep being amazed by people who aspire to be bestselling authors but cannot be bothered to read, not just in their genre but anything. I’ll be blunt: you can’t find your voice, you can’t build it, without first hearing the voices of many other people.
It’s а bit like the impossibility to explain right without comparing it to left. You need a reference point. In writing, the reference point is hundreds of other voices. You don’t have to like them all, of course, all you need is to hear them, even if the moment you hear them you want to shut them up, which, luckily for us, you can do simply by throwing the book at the wall.
I know this because I’ve done it with one particularly horrible book with a claim for bright originality and a strong voice. For some reason, “strong voice” in that case meant a lot of profanities and rubbing the reader’s nose into some of the many vile things humans are capable of doing to other humans.
I’ve closed at least a dozen books after the first few pages over the years, with the rate accelerating over time. When I was young, I couldn’t know what was good and what was bad, what deserved a chance even if it started a bit boring and what didn’t. I learned the difference by reading, by developing my taste as a reader and, in the meantime, somehow developing my own voice as a writer.
I wouldn’t claim it’s a particularly strong or a particularly original voice but it’s mine and this is what matters to me. I have never dreamed of being the next Whoever I Love and Admire but that’s probably just a fluke rather than the result of any conscious effort in that direction. I know I wanted to be the next Gerald Durrell when I was 10, but I meant the zoology part, not the writing part even though I tried to imitate the style of his Corfu trilogy in my first writing attempts.
That’s how we start, if we are to believe Stephen King, and I have no reason to disbelieve him on matters related to writing. We start as imitators. What’s important is that we don’t stop there. And the way to not stop there is to read, read, and read, outside your genre, outside your comfort zone, outside your taste if only to throw the book at the wall because it is insufferable.
The next step is writing, obviously. Everyone’s first works, except perhaps those rare geniuses that are born once every, what, third generation, are not particularly good works. As every other skill, in writing, too, practice makes perfect. I dared reading some of my first attempts at fiction recently and to say that I wasn’t impressed is to say nothing. Some of these attempts were pitiful, others were hilarious but they were all bad writing, at least compared to what I do now.
I’m not talking about going from crap to brilliant literary fiction. I’m talking about grasp of language, meaning the proper use of the tools language gives us to express thoughts and emotions, and describe situations. It’s basically impossible not to develop such a grasp if you keep writing for any length of time. Just like it’s impossible not to learn to ride a bicycle if you keep trying long enough.
If you think about it, it’s really not that hard, especially compared to other forms of art. I know there are brilliant self-taught artists but these are as rare as the literary geniuses. To become an artist, you do need a more or less formal education. Same for music — you need to at least be able to read notation. But to become a writer you just need to read and write, something we all learn one way or another early in life. And then you need to find and grow your voice until it becomes unique.
It’s really not that hard. It just takes time and effort, and tears of despair, and cramps of self-doubt, and the constant nagging feeling you will never ever amount to anything as a writer. Nothing to it.