As a reader, you can tell when a voice feels real and authentic or not. You can tell from page one whether or not you’re going to connect with the main character — even if the character is unlikeable, or unreliable. You can connect with them because it feels like they’re talking to you, that you’re in the story with them, that you’ve been pulled out of wherever you are and into the world the author has created. Even in memoir.
Perfecting voice is hard. As a writer, I can admit that. It’s easy for me to write personal essays and blog posts in my own voice but when I sit down and work on long-form prose, everything falls apart. I immediately put up walls in an attempt to separate myself from my character. I worry that my reader will think that this main character is me and that these are my thoughts, feelings, and experiences. I try and imitate writers I admire who, on the surface, feel like they write with distance. It’s not until I walk away from a project for awhile and come back to it (with a playlist specific to that book or character) that I can get into character. I have to ‘method’ write. I have to look at different situations through my character’s eyes and even experience the world — my world — through them.
For me, the best way I learned about voice was reading memoir. A memoir lives or dies based on the voice of the author. Many know I’m a fan of Marya Hornbacher, who wrote Madness and Wasted. I keep going back to those books not just because I find her stories comforting in an admittedly messed up way, but because I’ve learned so much about voice from her stories. When I read them, I’m sitting across from her.
As an editor, voice is one of the more difficult things to make suggestions about. At this point in my career, I can feel when an author is trying too hard or feel the distance in the formality of their prose. I can tell when it’s them speaking and not their character. But I can’t make the changes for the author. They have to take the advice I give them and wade into their story. They have to find the voice for themselves.
So how do we find our voice? Or how do we fix it?
Your voice will come from embracing you. It’ll come from embracing your writing style and the characters you’ve created. Starting from diction — your vocabulary, the way you write — you need to embrace who you are, not who you want to be. You’re not J.K. Rowling or Cormac McCarthy, so don’t try to be.
We put so much stock in “being the next” instead of trying to forge our own paths. This ultimately holds us back as writers. So just be you. Let your characters speak. Listen to their voice instead of trying to mold it to fit someone else’s. And have a real understanding of who you target demographic is. If your character is six, sixteen, or fifty-six they should sound like that because your target demographic is going to be looking to connect with characters who sound like them.
Relax. Do your research. Read in your genre. And be you. That’s how you start finding your voice.