I first started writing, I read a lot of Charles L. Grant, Stephen
King, Joe R. Lansdale, Peter Straub, and Robert McCammon. I thought I
wanted to be a horror writer. I had a file full of ideas about
vampires, werewolves, haunted houses, malformed creatures created by a
combination of man’s vanity and recombinant DNA, zombies, ghouls, and a
smattering of ghosts for good measure. Armed with those ideas and the
Berlin Philharmonic playing Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite:
Infernal Dance in the background, I was off and running.
Consequently, my first attempts
at writing fiction sounded a lot like cheap Charles L. Grant, Stephen
King, Joe R. Lansdale, Peter Straub, and Robert McCammon knock-offs.
The writing wasn’t necessarily bad (okay, my first three novels stunk
like dead fish), but it also wasn’t me. Imitation may be the sincerest
form of flattery, but it doesn’t help much when you’re trying to blaze
your own trail.
While I was being rejected,
editors wrote short notes on the rejection letters. They said, “I
really like the description, but…” or “You are a really strong
storyteller, but…” and the ever popular, “I really like this story,
So what’s a fellow to do?
I kept writing. I kept producing
fiction that sounded like someone else. In the meantime I started
attending various writers conferences and joined a writers group. The
conferences exposed me to professional writers who were willing to
share their knowledge with those who were just starting out, and the
writers group required all members to regularly bring something they
were working on for the rest of the group to evaluate. That’s when I
learned the secret.
What’s the Secret,
The two-part secret I learned is
basic, but it gets straight to the heart of finding your own
First thing I learned
what writer’s voice means.
It is the way the words move and flow. It is the way the composite
parts of our writing fit together as a whole. It is the thing that
makes each person’s writing unique. Often you can identify a writer’s
work by the way the words sound, their cadence, even the way they look
on the page. Its style plus a hard-to-define “something else” that sets
them apart. Something you develop without being aware you are doing it.
For example, read passages from your favorite authors. Notice what
makes each one different from the next—the thing that lets you know it
is a particular author’s work. That’s their voice. The passage may not
state it is a work of Dean Koontz or Rene Gutteridge, but you know it’s
How do you “get” a writing
voice? First, don’t try to write like someone else.
Don’t try to be who you’re not. Like an old storyteller said at a
festival years ago, “If you is de tadpole, don’t try to be de bullfrog.
Your time will come.” Write with honesty, and your voice will develop
on its own.
write the way you talk. Listen to the little voice in your head, the
one that’s talking while you write. The one that really talks while you
take dictation. Don’t be concerned about writing as “art.” Be more
concerned about writing as story. John Berendt, the author of Midnight
in the Garden of Good and Evil, said, “Think of writing, even
the most serious writing, as a medium of entertainment. I mean
entertainment in the broadest sense: engaging the reader’s mind and
keeping the reader interested. What good is a piece of writing, however
brilliant, if nobody reads it all the way through? Always ask yourself,
‘Are they still paying attention?’”
The second part of the secret is
this: You have to practice. You know, the same way
you get to
Carnegie Hall. Find the feelings of the words.
Words evoke responses, feelings, and emotions. Some words are powerful
(thunder, commanding, explode, terror, grandeur). Some words are
sigh, velvet, sunset). Some words invite
feelings of joy (puppy, celebrate, happiness, smile, cotton candy). The
way we select the words we write is directly related to the way we want
the readers to feel as they read the words. And that only comes with
the process of getting hundreds of thousands of words under your belt.
Also, language has certain
rhythms. The words either lie flat on the page, or, with the proper
amount of attention, they take on a life of their own. For example:
“There seemed to be nothing to
see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a
road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing
but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries
are made” (My Antonia by Willa Cather).
“An empty house is like a stray
dog or a body from which life has departed” (The Way of all
Flesh by Samuel Butler).
“Miss Morstan seized my wrist,
and we all stood with thumping hearts, straining our ears. From the
great black house there sounded through the silent night the saddest
and most pitiful of sounds—the shrill, broken whimpering of a
frightened woman” (The Sign of the Four by Sir
Arthur Conan Doyle).
“And though home is a name, a
word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit
answered to, in strongest conjuration” (Martin Chuzzlewit
by Charles Dickens).
Practice a Lot!
Phrases like those don’t just
roll off a writer’s fingertips . . . not at first. It takes time and
seasoning. It takes thousands and thousands of words crafted on a
regular basis. It takes being willing to write flat prose and rework it
into something special.
That being said, let’s get
started. One of the best ways to develop your voice is to write. So
here is your assignment. Type the following sentences: Fingers of
moonlight brushed the roof of the cabin at the edge of the pine barren.
Inside, Karen Foster had the inexplicable feeling that she was not
Now, using that as your first
sentence, write the first two pages of a horror story, a love story, a
comedy, a travel article, and/or a thriller.
Till next month, let’s keep
those keys clicking.