When you hear a familiar voice on the phone you know who it is before they’ve said anything significant. You recognize their voice.
When you read the opening words of a book, before anything happens, before it’s even clear what genre it is, you’re hearing the author’s voice.
Think of Dr. Seuss. Raymond Chandler. James Joyce. Those are extreme examples, but it’s impossible to deny their distinctive voices.
Consider Dan Brown, Maeve Binchy, Isaac Asimov, and J. R. R. Tolkien. Again, if you read their stuff, you could probably pick out a sample of their writing just because of how it sounds.
Voice is best when it comes naturally.
Most writers ruin their voice by failing that simple test: naturalness.
Don’t Break Your Voice
The one thing that breaks a book for me, taking me out of the story and into editor mode, is overwriting.
It’s the most common beginner mistake, because plain and simple writing looks so plain and simple.
It’s a pizza problem. An ice cream problem.
Most folks put too much on their pizza. For my money, though all pizza is wonderful, the pinnacle is plain cheese. Perfect crust, a good bite to the sauce, and cheese, melty and hot. If only I could still eat cheese.
After the pizza, you can certainly eat rocky road, spumoni, even a flavor called Kitchen Sink.
If you want to experience ice cream as the divine, find the highest quality vanilla you can get.
Pure. Clean. Simple. Luxurious in the extreme. (Again, that allergy to dairy proteins is supremely unfair.)
Simple does not mean boring. Plain does not mean adding more makes it better.
Go read the first paragraph of Manhattan Nocturne by Colin Harrison. (Use the “look inside” feature and scroll to the page that begins “I sell mayhem, scandal, murder, and doom” and you’re there.)
In that long paragraph there are 4 adjectives. Two pairs. Otherwise, simple, plain. A child could understand most of the words, and none of us will need a dictionary or thesaurus to sort out what he’s talking about.
Yet it has the evocative power, the blunt force, of directness, simplicity.
Can You Do This?
Your voice is most recognizable to friends and family when you’re speaking naturally.
If you’re doing impressions, especially if you do them badly, it’s harder.
If you’re auditioning for a play, performing a role, your voice is obscured. Even moreso if, as before, you’re not good at it.
Nobody is going to read your book because the words are beautiful. Nobody even reads poetry because the words are beautiful.
We read because we want a feeling, not a thought. Complex overstuffed sentences won’t make it past your readers’ heads to touch their hearts.
Which touches you more, the carefully contrived speech of a trained lawyer, or the plain and simple expressions of a child?
So tell me: why wouldn’t you write just like that?