There was a bit of a conversation going on yesterday over at Serendipity about finding your voice as a writer. It is something with which many writers are preoccupied and with reason. Your voice is your signature. The tone, the flow, even the choice or repetition of words will, if you are lucky, make your work appeal to a reader.
For a writer, the best thing in the world is to know you have been read and that what you have written has been enjoyed or has struck a chord with a reader. Most of the time, we just don’t know… a book goes out into the world and we hear very little unless we are fortunate enough to get a review. Sales don’t matter in that respect… they only show that a book has been bought…you still don’t know whether they were even read. The odd review or a comment always feel like a gift. And sometimes, they make you glow.
When someone mentioned that his Mum likes my work, it felt as good as winning a major literary prize. I have also been paid what must be one of the ultimate compliments as a writer… I have been quoted. Am I bragging? Not exactly… though the memory always makes me glow and I struggle to find words to express the odd mix of pride, gratitude and honour such moments make you feel. You never know, when you put pen to paper, how your words will fare out there in the world or whether they will reach the readers… perhaps that one particular and unknown reader… for whom they were written. So moments like these are priceless.
Confidence is the hardest thing to find when you first begin to write and most of us face the internal questions and doubts. There are so very many excellent books out there already… as well as so many books, blogs, seminars and courses available on the process of writing, concerning every possible aspect from grammar to style that it can be hard to know where, or even if, you should start. Advice comes from widely different and respected sources, from the people who themselves are writers, from academia and even those dictatorial style guides that rule the publishing world. Many of them, however, contain conflicting advice and the novice writer can be torn between polarised opinions of what should be the ‘right’ way to write.
Writing styles change as quickly as any other fashion. What was acceptable in a Victorian parlour might be deemed unacceptably wordy or ponderous today. There are some basic rules that must be learned and obeyed, of course, in order to make anything readable and there are logical reasons behind them that simply have to do with the way that words can flow. Having said that, were we all to adhere to a single accepted format, the literary world would be a very boring place. A writer’s style is, and must be, as individual as a voice.
I was a reader long before I was a writer. As a reader, I don’t care if the writer breaks every rule in the proverbial book. I care only that a story is enthralling and reads well… or for non-fiction that information it contains is correct, well researched and digestible. If a story catches me, I am not likely to waste time analysing style… I’ll just want to curl up and read. I want words that flow together without distractions… so correct spelling and basic grammar are a must, though how you use that grammar is, as far as I am concerned, entirely up to you. Punctuation is the writer’s best friend… it silently shapes how the reader will understand your words. Just be consistent. And use a spellchecker… thoughts fly too fast for fingers… but for goodness sake don’t rely on it for grammar. That wiggly green line under a phrase? It isn’t omniscient.
On the other hand, I, the reader, really don’t care if you agonised over adjectives, debated the value of the Oxford comma whilst looking pale and romantic in a Parisian café, or delved through dusty tomes trying to understand the correct usage of a semi-colon. I will not be dismissive or horrified if you start with a dream sequence as long as it fits the tale and grabs my attention, even if your first line is some variant on it being a dark and stormy night. I care nothing for literary fashion… I just want a good read. The best books don’t adhere slavishly to rule books. They take what they need and quietly make it their own.
There are some things the reader does not need to know; any more than a patient needs to be reminded that a surgeon learned his trade on cadavers. When you lie on the operating table, all you actually want to be aware of is that the guy with the knife knows his stuff. When you pick up a book, the words themselves should be enough. A reader doesn’t need to feel the surgical sharpness of over-editing, any more than they want to wallow in a plethora of adverbs.
The style should feel as if it is natural, no matter how or what you write. It should be your voice and so natural that the reader doesn’t even notice it… unless they look or when occasional flashes of power or beauty catch their attention. A good book for me, the reader, is the type I feel I want to curl up with in comfort. It doesn’t shout that it is a polished and sparkly showcase for the writer’s literary skill; a book is a simple, unobtrusive vessel that holds a story.
I think that is the one thing all my favourite writers have in common… they are, within the pages of their books, almost invisible; storytellers, painting a landscape with their own unique voice, who fade into the shadows cast by the flickering of the fire around which the tale is told. But that almost invisible presence shapes the vessel and the creators’ fingerprints mark every page.
Is there a ‘right’ way to write? Who am I to decide? If there is, then the most important thing, is that you do write… and read… and let the words themselves teach you how.