Discovering Your Unique Voice

A thought to ponder:

If you become too focused on becoming the next (author of your choice), you risk never becoming the first you.

I’m sure someone of greater import than myself has said something similar before, but, ironically, the origin of the thought is, in this case, not as important as the thought itself.  As aspiring authors, it’s only natural to take cues from those who have inspired us to take up the craft.  We pour over the published works of those enjoying the sort of success we all hope to attain: to, one day, be counted among the favored few whose stories are read and loved by devoted patrons around the globe.  While the emulation of our forebears can certainly help illuminate the path ahead, it can also lead us astray if not tempered with the proper perspective.

The first of two potential issues arising from emulation is the deification of those you are emulating.  Let’s say that you, like myself, are currently reading Dan Brown’s latest novel Inferno (or perhaps one of its predecessors that were, admittedly, a little more gripping), and as you read, you find yourself marveling at how well-versed Mr. Brown is in his subject matter.  Then, you take note of the way he adroitly weaves the plot lines of this numerous primary, secondary, and even tertiary characters together, surprising you with the pattern that emerges where, at first, there were only disparate threads.  Like the skillful author he is, Mr. Brown has drawn you into his world, his paradigm, and in light of his considerable commercial success, you arrive at the belief that every word he has written is perfect and he can do no wrong.

Mind you, I mean no disrespect to Dan Brown in choosing him to help illustrate this issue.  In my mind, he is a writer’s writer.  His meticulous attention to detail and accuracy in the settings of his novels is remarkable and he can twist an intellectually stimulating tale as well as anyone I’ve ever read.  That said, he is not perfect.  He is human just like you and I, and we are all prone to error.

Simply because Dan Brown fancies the occasional use of an unqualified “it” now and again does not make it correct.  Conversely, the fact that other authors avoid said usage of “it” like the plague doesn’t necessarily make it wrong.  While it’s true that there are generally accepted rules of grammar that college professors would all love if the literary community at large mechanically adhered to without question, if the proliferation of The Twilight Saga has taught me anything, it’s that accepted conventions fall victim to the perception of the masses.

Stephanie Meyer is arguably a much less polished author than Dan Brown, yet her books sparked a genuine cultural phenomenon the world over despite her lack of grammatical prowess.  She connected with her audience through the humanity of her characters (shockingly self-centered though some of them may be), whereas some would describe Dan Brown’s characters as thimble-deep.

The point here is that we shouldn’t do things just because authors we admire did them.  Some of us can thrive in a world of slightly altered reality and careful research.  Others prefer free-flowing imagination and sparkly vampires.  Ultimately, it’s your story.  If something feels right in the context of your world, do it, and if it doesn’t, don’t, no matter what you’ve seen others do before you.

The second and more serious issue that can arise from emulation is the loss of your unique voice as an author.  To help illustrate this problem, let’s consider, for a moment, the incomparable J.K. Rowling.  This woman is everything a fiction writer aspires to be: astonishingly creative, possessed of keen understanding of human nature, remarkably easy to read, and, of course, wildly successful.  With all this going for her, who wouldn’t think of borrowing at least a page or two from Rowling’s playbook? 

Suppose you’ve been held captive in a subterranean mine since before the turn of the century and recently emerged to discover the wonder that is Harry Potter.  You feverishly devour the entire series in an extended sitting (you’re very hungry from enduring your malnourished captivity after all).  Later, someone informs you that the books were not meant for eating but reading, so you buy another set and dive in.  After the last exquisite line of book seven, you vow to pen your own series of seven novels in which the protagonist, an eleven year old girl who lives in the attic over the stairs, receives a curious letter from a school called Pigzits stating that she is not as ordinary as everyone previously supposed.

Hang on.  Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but if you’re writing a novel with the intent of seeing any return on your investment of countless hours, you should probably consider offering your intended audience something original.  While there does seem to be an emerging market for copycat novels – books aimed at those who just can’t get enough of, for example, teen vampire romance – like so many bands that rode the coattails of their predecessors to instant fame in the 1980’s, their success is likely to be short-lived.

While there are certainly many things we can learn from the works of J.K. Rowling and others like her, we mustn’t lose sight of what made their works great in the first place – original ideas.  Before Harry Potter grew to mass popularity, no one had ever heard of Muggles, Quidditch, or house elves.  Why?  Because they were all original creations from the mind of the author.  J. K. Rowling created an entirely fictional, and yet believable, extension of our own reality and now we have movies and conventions and even a theme park dedicated to it all.  Unique ideas, no matter how absurd, tend to stick out in people’s minds, and are, thus, instantly memorable.

So, be inspired by the works of others.  Employ their literary devices, add new words to your vocabulary, and glean what you can from their techniques.  Then, plumb the depths of your imagination for freshness – the bold, the illogical, and the preposterous –  and don’t be afraid to question the reasons of those you admire.  In so doing, you will discover your own unique voice, and, maybe, go on to create something truly spectacular.

Happy writing everyone!