How to write fiction | Part 4: finding your voice
It’s the final part of our #WeeklyWritingWorkshop! I hope you have enjoyed it, and found something useful to help you move forward in your own writing. Please share the series with your friends and fellow creatives, and subscribe to The Narrator!
We left off in Part 3 having just started tearing apart our first draft, so that we can begin polishing…
Opening the door
In his seminal book On Writing, Stephen King talks about finding your ‘Ideal Reader’ and keeping them in mind throughout the writing process until you are ready to actually give them your work to read. The Ideal Reader should be, above all else, completely honest; this is not someone who will skim-read your manuscript and then tell you they liked it without offering any specifics. And look, I know how long and lonely the process has been, but if you are looking for someone to tell you what a brilliant writer you are and how your work is perfect just the way it is, you are never going to improve. Not even Stephen King, one of the most successful writers in history, has a flawless first draft needing zero revisions. No one is perfect!
If you are just starting out and haven’t yet found your Ideal Reader (King is lucky in that he has a wife who happens to be the perfect fit for the role), then give your draft to a handful of people (no more than five) and gauge their responses carefully so you can figure out who is the right candidate to critique your work. And when I say ‘carefully’, I mean it; not everyone is good at giving helpful criticism (it is an art form in itself) and many of your potential Ideal Readers will just want to tell you how they would have written about your chosen subject (especially if they are writers themselves), which is no use to you. The perfect criticism is simple and honest and probably confirms to you something you already knew; this scene is boring; you forgot to tie up a loose end; I didn’t understand why this character would make this decision in Chapter 5. Ideally, at least one of your readers will have some grasp of story structure so they can advise you on foundational issues which need addressing.
Most helpful criticisms can be fixed with clarification, by sharpening the focus or thinking a little deeper about backstory or motivation. And if all five of your readers come back with the same observation, that the ending just doesn’t work or that you have taken too long to get into the action in the opening scene, then it should be obvious what you need to do.
How you go about polishing your work so it reads nicely and has an even tempo is probably the most malleable part of the process. Some writers might prefer printing out their work and making corrections the old fashioned way, with pen on paper. I find that taking periods of rest during editing is essential, because looking at the work with ‘fresh eyes’ is the key to figuring out how to improve it; you don’t want to get lost in the weeds! The more you polish, the clearer the story should become, and the easier the process should get. The most important test in determining which scenes are working and which aren’t (if it’s not immediately obvious) is whether you are able to follow the character’s emotional journey. Keep asking: what purpose does this scene/chapter fulfil? Would the story still work if it wasn’t there? Never stop questioning your work, and be honest in your responses, because if you lie to yourself or cut corners at any stage of the process you are just creating more work later down the line.
Listen to what your subconscious is telling you, because it already has the story figured out!
Finding your voice
Your voice will evolve, and mature, the more you sit down and put yourself through this process. Once you have successfully reached the finish line you will already be a different person than when you started. It’s natural, in the beginning, to channel other writers who have inspired you along the way. Your first draft might read like a poor imitation of Nabokov, and that’s fine. Just keep doing it, and keep reading, so that eventually your inspirations merge with the essence of your own personal style and something new is created. This chemical reaction can only occur once your confidence has been built up, and the only way to build confidence is through regular practice!
Your own voice will also be born out of your obsessions. The inclination to obsess over things, to burrow deeply into a subject or hobby or period in history, is a common trait among writers and informs the choices they make when mining their subconscious for new material. It’s likely that, since you were a child, you have gone through periods of intensive obsession and acquired a lot of (seemingly) useless information as a result. It is time to open that box and see what treasures are inside, so you can finally put all of your accumulated knowledge to good use!
The base of every story you ever write will probably be shaped in some way by your treasure trove of obsessions, so do not neglect it – make sure you are constantly reading, learning and researching, filling up your trove so you will always have material to draw on!
That’s it for this four-part series! It’s worth remembering, however, that every writer is different and what works for me may not work for you. So if you have reached the end of the series and feel more confused and bewildered than you did before, you may need to search around for writing advice that is more tailored to your style. The best way to figure out your process is through trial and error; eventually you will find what works (as long as you don’t give up)!
Here is a list of books that have helped me find my voice and get a grasp on the elusive process of writing fiction:
Stephen King – On Writing (2000)
Natalie Goldberg – Writing Down the Bones (1986)
Natalie Goldberg – Wild Mind (1990)
Haruki Murakami – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2007)
Patricia Highsmith – Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966)
John Yorke – Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them (2014)
Blake Snyder – Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need (2005)
David Lynch – Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity (2006)
Joseph Campbell – The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)