I’ve written two novels now but still am rather mystified about what “voice” is to an author. My first novel entitled, “Listen to your pet,” was a somewhat humorous story about “pet-parents” and how they interact with their dogs and cats. I just wrote it as I saw it in my head, pretty much.
On the other hand, since I’ve always admired Hemingway so much, I tried to follow his style in my second book, “The Old Fish and the Sea,” which was a serious literary work, at least it was supposed to be serious but several of my ex-friends told me they laughed all the way through it. Even though I thought I did a good job imitating Hemingway’s style, that book didn’t sell nearly as many copies as my first one, yet I thought it was better executed.
Where have I gone wrong?
Mr. Hemingway #2
First of all, in an attempt to demystify a difficult topic, “voice” is, simply put, how you write – how you write, not how you imitate someone else. Just as no two people have the same fingerprints, so no two authors ever write in exactly the same way. Sentence construction, chapter endings, paragraph construction, how we put the whole ball of wax (our novels) together…all these elements define your writing voice. Even if I gave a writing assignment based on a well-outlined plot with thoroughly-defined characters to two people with similar personalities, life experiences, etc., their results would be two very different novels.
Moreover, you cannot fully imitate another author, no matter how hard you try. And even if you did, would you really want to be remembered as Hemingway, Junior? Or would you prefer to be remembered for yourself?
Your first novel may have done better, plot and genre aside, because you wrote as you and not someone else. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it really won’t sell more books.
Voice is somewhat like identity. Young people often try hard to “find” themselves by trying on different personas. But identity cannot be forced. If they try to act like their favorite character in a movie, say, it’s still an act. Only the shaping power of life experiences and social relationships confer identity.
It’s the same with voice: You can’t force it by pretending to write as your favorite author. It will always be an act whereas the real you could probably write much more winningly if you simply “be yourself.”
Than again, maybe not. It sounds to me as though you’ve already found that out. So be yourself and sell more books if that’s your goal, or pretend to be someone else and be lost to history. Forever. (Pardon me while I wipe the tears from my eyes and blow my nose on your letter.)