Your work, your distinctive voice

If there’s one thing that’s become more critical in traditional publishing, it’s a distinctive voice. A successful manuscript is one that you can spot from thousands after just the first line—you’d never confuse J. D. Salinger’s voice with Virginia Woolf’s (think Catcher in the Rye vs. A Room of One’s Own). Developing style in your writing captures the reader’s attention from the onset and builds a world that is fresh and unique. Plot is crucial, but only writers with both in their arsenals can achieve a manuscript that lives up to the reader’s expectations.

—Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management

You are your fiction.

This doesn’t mean fictionalizing events in your life into short stories and novels. It means writing the way only you can write to tell stories only you can tell.

I’m often critical of MFA programs because they seem to teach people how to write stuff that matches the most popular stuff being written at the time. This may lead to short-term success, but no real satisfaction. If you’re young, most of the stuff that’s popular now will be old hat by the time you reach the peak years of your writing powers. So, if the fads perpetuated by some writing programs excite you, you’ll end up out of date and out of fashion before your time.

Like most potentially great writing, there’s a risk to using your own voice. People may not like it. They may want you to write in everyone else’s voice. I’d rather fail than sound like everyone else; but then, I’ve always been a rebel.

No doubt, there’s probably a greater chance of success writing in a safe, rather generic voice rather than a unique voice that scares some prospective publishers and readers. If you’re happy with this, that’s okay, and it could make for a successful writing career. Otherwise, you have a long row to hoe as soon as you try something new, something uniquely you.

When I say “you are your fiction,” I mean that the way you think and feel and naturally write is your real fiction as opposed to a sanitized version of the style you want to use. Your voice grows out of the way you see the world and the way that world interfaces with the stories you want to tell. Personally, I think it’s a shame to corrupt that perspective with a writing approach that sounds like the top twenty-five authors of the moment.

I see the location of a story as inseparable from the story and believe that the magic surrounding the story is real. I’ve never been able to camouflage that–not that I want to. So, I write the way I write because writing any other way wouldn’t be me.

We all have a choice, I think when we decide whether to be ourselves when we tell our stories or to be a carbon copy of the last book we read.




Teach your writing students not to follow the crowd

“I have no doubt that writing can be taught—but here the burden of responsibility falls mostly on the teacher, not the writer. By this I mean that writing must be taught in a way that emphasizes discovery and growth of the student-writer’s voice, rather than emphasizing adaptation of a writer’s voice to a history of literature or to current trends in literature. I believe that this is the best way to foster originality and freshness in young and so-called ’emerging writers.’” – M.B. McLatchey

Writing programs are sometimes criticized for emphasizing the best of prevailing styles of storytelling so that students end up stuck in conformity, to turning out more or what’s already been turned out by the successful writers of the day. If so, then the teachers are basically saying, “Based on the evidence, this is what editors and publishers want now, so you need to supply it.”

When I was in school, my teachers emphasized the best of the past, the so-called canon of novels we were all supposed to read to become educated. Plus, those books purportedly showed us what we needed to do to become successful authors.

We need to read new stuff and old stuff because we want to be storytellers and for us little is more enjoyable than a good book. In reading, we discover what works and what doesn’t, for we are either pulled into the tales or we’re not. At this point, the students won’t need prescriptions from the teacher so much as a blank piece of paper and a wide open door.

The sky’s the limit out there. Go find it without charts and maps, outlines, lists of DOs and DON’Ts, or recipes for success based on either history or the trends of the day. Given a chance, the student will find his/her voice and style. When s/he returns to the classroom, we can talk about the results–is there a compelling story on the page or not? If so (or if not), we can lead the students into figuring out why there is or isn’t.

If the teacher says “this is why it works” or “this is why it doesn’t work,” then those pat answers begin to channel students down roads being used by the writers that teacher admires or dislikes. When the student sees (without being led) why his/her stories are working, then s/he is ready to emerge from the classroom with the capability of telling unique stories and organic styles that belong to them alone.