We are writers. We must compose the songs we sing. We must choreograph the dances we perform. We must design what we ultimately seek to build.
We are unique in these things. Composers need not carry a tune. Choreographers need not perform. Screenwriters and directors need not be actors or set designers. Architects need not even be present as their creation is being built.
But we, as writers, are alone with all dimensions of our craft. We are the sole determinants of words as we compose, choreograph and design stories. We are judged according to both, separate and together, on how their sum exceeds the whole of their parts.
Writing voice is but one of six core competencies we must come to know and seek to master. Deficiency in any one of them bars us from what we seek to achieve.
With regard to voice, though, this is ironic if not paradoxical. Because many come to the craft of writing for the sound of their own voice, if not the utter joy of it. And yet – and here is the paradox – it is at once the most likely of the elements that will bar us from the inner circle of the published, while being least among the criteria that allows us entry to it.
Allow me to explain. It takes an agent or an editor many dozens of pages to determine the merits of your story. It takes only a few pages to assess the rhythm and melody of your writing voice. Those first pages expose the writing as that of a professional, someone who is publishable… or not. If it compels, if it flows or doesn’t overwhelm, then it passes muster as acceptable.
And that’s all that is required of it. Any allure of a stellar writing voice beyond that point is a case study in diminishing returns.
Because you don’t have to write like a poet to sell your story. You simply need to write well enough to get through the door into a crowded hall full of storytellers.
From then on, your story is what determines your fate. Little if nothing else matters.
So many writers focus on their words. As they should if their writing voice has not yet matured and found its unique pitch. If it even remotely smacks of awkwardness or the timidity of a neophyte. If it tries too hard.
And yet, despite that focus, such writers tread a solitary path, because voice is virtually impossible to teach. All the grammar lectures and sentence modeling in the history of the world won’t get you there.
Writing voice must, in effect, be earned. Discovered. Grown into. It must evolve into a signature cadence and tonality, with colors and nuance that imbue it with subtle energy and a textured essence of depth and humanity.
Effortlessly. Simply. Cleanly. Without the slightest hue of purple.
There is only one way to discover it. You must write. Practice. Constantly. Intensely. Humbly and aggressively. And you must do it for years if that’s what it takes. Because it refuses to be rushed.
Your writing voice will grow into its own comfortable shoes, on its own terms and in its own time. And once there, you will know you are home.
And then, from that point forward, it’s all about your storytelling.
Allow me to repeat and clarify. You don’t have to write with the spectacular gift of a prodigy or even the seasoned wit and cynicism of a salty veteran. You just have to be good.
And good is always a judgment call. The paradox never ends. Because often the harder you try to be good, the more you’ll come up short.
Good writing is effortless writing.
An adequate writing voice is your ante-in. It’s what gets you a shot at having someone care about your story. It’s what allows an agent or editor to read past page 3 to actually experience your story.
In effect, it could be said that when they cease to notice your writing voice, you are in the game. And your ace in that game, your best pitch, is your story.
Think of an athlete, an undrafted football player, attending a try-out. The first thing they assess is speed. Doesn’t matter how well you run the ball, how hard you hit or how well you catch. If you aren’t fast, as fast as the professionals against which you will compete, you don’t stand a chance at a call-back.
If your speed is adequate, only then do your skills come into play. And if your skills are outstanding, you can be in the starting line-up ahead of a speed demon who doesn’t get the game like you do.
While writing voice is a product of practice and maturity, seasoned by experiencing the work of others, storytelling is a product of seeking out and understanding story architecture. And then applying fresh ideas and concept, innovative thinking and a depth of soul and spirit to bringing story ideas to life across that structural tapestry, and according to the other five core competencies.
Unlike writing voice, story architecture is actually learnable, and in relatively short order. Which by definition means it’s teachable.
The first step in learning is awareness of a need to know. Are you aware of the proper sequence and structural milestones of story architecture? If you aren’t, your writing voice won’t much matter. In fact, other than family and friends, it’s a tragic waste of talent.
Like that gifted, fleet-of-foot athlete who just can’t seem to catch the ball when it counts.
That answer defines you progress along the road to publication. It has little to do with your writing voice… it has everything to do with what you know.
Photo credit: Andrew Mason