Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Your Writer's Voice

By Linda Rohrbough

I don’t think it’s any secret among writers that a great voice will help a writer sell. Making money writing is something a lot of writers want to do. Samuel Johnson, an English writer who lived in the 1700’s, said, “Anyone who doesn’t write for money is a fool.” My friend and mentor Jodi Thomas said, “People want to write the book of their heart, but they might want to think about writing something they can sell.”

Further, there’s this notion that you can “sell out” your writing. In other words, you can just write for money and not for the “creative genius” and “pure inspiration” inside you. Which is a form of writing harlotry, I suppose.

This idea that you can sell out your writing is a very romantic notion. And one I disagree with. I had a professor of English in my first college creative writing program who tried it. He confided to a few of us that he tried to write pornography, because he figured it paid better. Despite his best efforts, he simply could not break in. He tried to sell his “writing soul” for filthy lucre and it didn’t work. He came to the conclusion that even stories the literary community looks down its nose at have an element of sincerity that cannot be mimicked. (If you’ve spent much time in universities like I have, you’ll find there’s a lot of that going on – they pretty much despise anyone who’s making money writing.)

By the way, I am not at all advocating writing pornography to make money. It’s just an extreme example to make the point that even authors who are writing what they believe they can sell still have their own spin they bring to the mix, whether they’re aware of it or not. You can’t really write like someone else. You write like you. And no matter what you’re writing, it should, if you’re developing your skill level, start to sound like you. We call that voice.

People like to talk about voice like it’s something that can be taught. I think that’s baloney. Voice comes from pounding the keyboard until you break it (I go through a keyboard about every six months), cranking out stories, and learning to tell them in a way that puts a noose around the reader’s mind so they simply cannot pull themselves away. There are techniques you can learn to help you write engaging stories, but voice itself cannot be taught.

When you start to be you, writing what interests and intrigues you, is when you develop your “voice.” And when that happens, your writing will sound like you, no matter what genre you’re producing. (Although it does seem to me that some styles of voice lend themselves to certain genres more readily than others.)

Developing your voice is a lot like learning to be a painter. After awhile, painters learn what colors work for them and work together. They learn to lay those favorite colors in amounts that work for them (twice as much Titanium White than Alizarin Crimson, for example) on their palette in the same order every time. They find a set of brushes that feel right, and ways of holding and moving with those brushes that become habit.

Writers do this, too, with the rhythm of the language, choosing just the right words, layering in conflict and the sensory details of each setting. And they start to find their voice. The only way this happens is with practice and a certain amount of trial and error, which often requires feedback in a setting that’s safe, like with a writing buddy or a critique group.

Malcom Gladwell, author of Outlier: The Story of Success, says 10,000 hours of practice is sufficient to bring out world-class talent in any field. He points to a number of famous examples from Bill Gates to the Beatles, and even Mozart. In the writing world, the theory is writing one million words will get you there. Some people try to do their million words in a single year, which is 2,740 words a day to put you just a hair over a million in a year. I got my writing legs under me when I started as a reporter for an international computer news network. With a quota of seven short news pieces a week, I thought it would kill me. But I got stronger and found I had a voice, kind of by accident. (Later when I became more experienced, I went full-time with a quota of fourteen stories a week. I run into reporters at trade shows now whose quota is six stories an hour, but they’re writing very short pieces for blogs and/or tweeting.)

Is writing 100,000 hours the ticket to reveal your voice? Will writing a million words do it? You know already there’s no guarantee here. What I do know is you can find your voice, if you persist. My friend Debbie Macomber says, “Talent is on every street corner. But persistence is hard to find.” So in the words of Winston Churchill, “Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever give up.”

About the Author: Linda Rohrbough has been writing since 1989, and has more than 5,000 articles and seven books to her credit along with national awards for her fiction and non-fiction. New York Times #1 bestselling author Debbie Macomber said about Linda’s new novel: "This is fast-paced, thrilling, edge-of-the-seat reading. The Prophetess One: At Risk had me flipping the pages and holding my breath." The Prophetess One: At Risk has garnered three national awards: the 2012 International Book Award, the 2011 Global eBook Award, and the 2011 Millennium Star Publishing Award. An iPhone App of her popular “Pitch Your Book” workshop is available in the Apple iTunes store. Visit her website:

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