Finding Your Writing Voice

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I’ve always been secretly embarrassed by what I write, but not in the way that most genre authors are.

I never had a high school English teacher or undergrad professor dress me down for writing fantasy instead of literary fiction. I’ve never left a critique at my grad school feeling like I was metaphorically bleeding. And yet, I sometimes feel that the themes and characters I tend to fixate on are unworthy.

As writers, we are quick to point out that we are not our stories. How else could we take criticism and improve our craft without weeping over every cut scene and character we have to kill for the sake of the plot? And while that generally is true, it is equally true that our stories do tend to reflect some corner of our internal landscape. It stings when someone attacks their cores.

My embarrassment was heightened by an experience that made me feel that someone had taken my very best things and dismantled them in the vein of Sid from Toy Story in order to fit their vision. It left me questioning the value of the story I’d originally wanted to tell with that set of characters, as the message I received was that I could write reasonably well–but I couldn’t write that story. That story had no value. Wendy Darling always goes with Peter Pan, not Captain Hook, silly girl.

So, I twisted it to make other people happy. Then I stopped telling it altogether.

When I first began at Stonecoast, my work was very different than it is now. Some of it from a place of truth (albeit a dark place), but I was often writing the books I felt other people would want to read. Marketable books, books that were about the Right Things instead of the things I valued or that stirred something in me. Why? Because I was afraid that the stories I really wanted to tell would be received with the same derisive air they had been before and/or that someone else I admired would tell me: “You can’t write that. That’s stupid. No one is ever going to like it.”

Then, on a whim, I turned in a fairy tale to my first Stonecoast mentor. I was probably blushing when I hit send; the story felt childish and too earnest. But I did it anyway–and my mentor loved it. She said that I had finally found what Marian Rosarum sounded like, not what Marian Rosarum was trying to sound like.

I considered this. I ended up watching Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of Whisper of the Heart (a film I think all writers can relate to) during the semester break and I realized, looking at the heroine’s journey to find her own voice, that my mentor was right. I stopped thinking so much about writing and just wrote from the heart. The end result of that course was my thesis, a story I’m very proud of.

Here are a few suggestions for finding your own voice.

Look at the books that mean the most to you and think about why. Is it the characters? The style? The world building? What is it about these stories that resonates with you so much?

Go back and read your early writing. Yes, even the Mary Sue magical girl epic you wrote in the 6th grade. I’m not suggesting that you try to salvage these works–most of them, frankly, won’t be salvageable. But you may discover an emotional truth to them, a point of origin for the themes and characters you find yourself returning to as an adult, and that can be greatly inspiring.

“These rambling tales were of course not very good, but they possessed a certain sparse magic that I often still marvel at,” says Sarah Taylor Gibson. “I think that we as authors are always trying to re-capture that old magic, whether we know it or not.” I happen to agree. It would be safe to say that my thesis would not exist if it hadn’t been for a novella I churned out when I was twelve.

Ask yourself what your obsessions are and run with them. Are you into fly fishing? Ancient Greek philosophy? Environmentalism? The First World War? You can build a story around anything, so long as you can generate the same passion in the reader that you feel about a subject.

Acknowledge that your writing might sound a little (or a lot) like the work of the authors you admire most in the beginning. That’s okay! When you discover your own voice, you’ll find that you no longer want or need to imitate another writer’s.

If someone tells you that your story is wrong, they are probably not the best critique partner for you. A story cannot be wrong. Your characters might be coming off as a little flat, your plot could be a hot mess, or you could be using problematic stereotypes you’ll need to reconsider. But if you genuinely want to tell a particular story, don’t let someone else dissuade you from doing it. Surround yourself with people who want to help you put the world inside your head onto paper in the best way possible.

What happened to the story I dropped all those years ago?

A month ago, I took a deep breath, and I picked it up again. I handled it delicately at first; I felt like I was holding a porcelain doll and one false move could reduce it to splinters once again. I’m still shy about approaching it, but I’m working on regaining my confidence.

I have 20k thus far. Let’s see where it goes, shall we?

 

Guest post contributed by Marian Rosarum. Marian is a fairy tale author and poet. She is currently working towards her MFA at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Popular Fiction Program. Check our her blog for more of her articles.

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35 thoughts on “Finding Your Writing Voice”

  1. I did as you suggested and fished out my short stories of some thirty years ago. Re-reading them, I can see my ‘voice’ at that time, struggling to define itself. Thank you so much for the tip, it was a very helpful, and nostalgic, exercise. I’m reblogging to pass it on.

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  2. Sometimes the only way to find your voice is to stop thinking about your voice. And definitely focusing on the things that obsess us as writers, the themes we keep returning to, are a great way to do that. Thanks for the great post!

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  3. I’m an urban fantasy writer and I’ve found myself explaining in an embarrassed voice to guys asking to read something of mine that I write “girly” stuff. I think it’s because I assume they won’t like it so I try to preempt it by “warning” them it’s girly.

    It’s written by a girl, from girls’ POVs, has romance, broken hearts and kicking ass. Of course it’s girly… and yet, I still find myself warning them. Once I realized that, I resolved to not “warn” anyone that I write girly fantasy and just let them read it and see what they think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it is sensible to explain that you produce fantasy fiction in case the potential reader hates that genre, but never be embarrassed (easier said than done, admittedly, it’s an emotional reaction) and definitely don’t say that it’s ‘girly stuff’: that description comes across in a deprecatory way (I have 2 teenage daughters + various friends who would smack me if I used it) and also assumes that guys don’t have the emotional capacity to handle the content (although some probably don’t). Anyway, it’s good that you can now let your work speak for itself 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Really great of you to open up like this. I think we can all relate to this. There’s always this fear. You’re definitely not alone!

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  5. It’s like the people who put on a fake personality at a party or something. It’s not real, it’s not genuine. And you don’t want to be around people like that.

    Thanks for a great reminder that we need to find our own voice. We have to put our perspective and our beliefs into what we’re doing. It can be scary putting our voice out there. But truth and transparency are necessary components to making a good story great!

    And I’m glad you stopped apologising for your work, Amie! 🙂

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  6. So inspiring and heartfelt! I think we all can relate to the fear. I know I sure can. Matter of fact my WIP is based on a question that’s haunted me for years, and I’m so afraid I’ll do the story an injustice. The other part of me is very excited to finally be writing it. I’m halfway done and loving it. Hopefully others will too. Only time will tell. Great post about voice. Thank you for sharing.

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  7. As i read this article I feel empowered. I did this from the beginning and have never looked back. And when I submitted a short story for critique and was told my writing of it was “beautiful,” I was sure I was, and am, on the right track. Great advice for anyone.

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  8. I felt as though you had slipped into my skin, head, and read over my shoulder! It is so helpful to hear others go through this and come out shining. Thank you for sharing.

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  9. I encourage you to write it the way you want it. Go with your heart. You’ll be proud of it when you do. And maybe Wendy should have picked Hook; she’d probably be happier.

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  10. I’ve been struggling with finding my own voice a lot lately. I put down the novel that I had about 75% finished the first draft for and haven’t picked it up in a couple of months. Everything was going smoothly and then I overlooked it. I made the mistake of having close friends read the draft and their ideas overpowered what I had wanted and I lost the determination to finish it. It will be finished, just not yet. But I think voice is incredibly hard to find sometimes. I’ve noticed lately when I write from the truth that it is the best work I produce. That maybe I’m more set for memoirs than actual fiction at least for now.

    I think as writers too, we get an idea that we want to work with, we want to make it happen that we focus too heavily on forcing it, then trying to follow the heart of writing and what is for us in that moment.

    Great post! Definitely inspiring and I’m about to watch that movie tonight!

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  11. Yes! I love this post, thank you for it. It has been something I’ve struggled with for a long while, and (I think) I am now on the right path to finding my own voice, if a bit slowly. It is difficult to learn to write for yourself, and not worry about what other people may think about your writing.

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  12. Reblogged this on The Writer's Hub and commented:
    I love this post – it’s something I’ve struggled with a lot over the years, and I like to think I am on the right path now. But it is always great to find awesome encouragement out there such as this.

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