Jon James Miller is a screenwriter, novelist and frequent online presenter. His first novel, a historical fiction based on an original screenplay, will be published Spring 2015. For more information, go to: www.jonjamesmiller.com Follow Jon on Twitter @jonjimmiller.
If you look the writer's voice up on Wikipedia’s website it defines it as “the individual writing style of an author, a combination of their common usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works).” But a writer’s voice is much more than the sum of its linguistic parts. I would argue it is the voice of a lifetime of passion, rage, confusion, regret, wonder, curiosity, hunger, joy and a myriad of other human emotions we all go through. The difference is a writer is able through mastery of craft to bring all those experiences to bear in creating an original artwork. Yet again, something more than the sum of her emotional parts.
It isn’t easy to define what one writer’s voice is made up of. Even if they work in primarily one genre – horror, humor, history, drama or thriller – their voice can take on characteristics that transcend genre. Even writers closely associated with a genre such as Stephen King with horror, Anne Rice with Vampires or Ray Bradbury with science fiction, very often created masterpieces that go beyond the limitations of those genre boundaries. That’s because they grew as artists over the course of their careers, and as they did their creative voices deepened, resonated in a reader’s mind the more experiences they infused in their works, the more they mastered their craft of storytelling.
To master one’s voice a writer first has to understand who they are as a storyteller. And before they can understand what kind of storyteller they are, they must experiment. Student writers are often told to mimic other writers, ones they look up to or feel an affinity toward their style. I remember wanting to write like John Steinbeck, especially his masterpiece East of Eden. I didn’t know back then why I liked Steinbeck’s writing so much, and try as I might, I never came close to emulating that style. But it was a place to start and started me on my path to find my own voice as a writer. Looking back, there is very little to compare or contract Steinbeck from my own humble body of work. But the one thing he did instill in me was that the writer has to be confident in their writing to make the story that they are telling worth the read.
I am a confident writer. I have confidence in my craft because I’ve worked hard to achieve a level of consistency and quality. I also know my own writing process and that it is different than other writers, like a pair of fingerprints. The word authority begins with author for a reason. It is because every writer must be the authority of their work – have mastered it backwards and forwards with every word chosen and put in the right place like a jigsaw puzzle. And the fingerprints all over every one of those jigsaw puzzle pieces that make up that work are what I like to say is the writer’s voice. Whether it’s a horror story or historical drama, the story could not have been assembled in the particular way it is without some record, some evidence of its creator. The writer’s voice is like his or her fingerprint and no two voices are alike.
Finding your writer’s voice is not easy. Like a child first learning to speak, there will be effort and failure, trial and error and considerably mimicry. The same is true for learning to write. First we learn the basics of our native tongue. Only later, when we have mastered our particular dialect, exercised our expanded our vocabulary and become comfortable speaking our language are we then able to express ourselves. Even then, our storytelling will be simplistic, obvious and even hackneyed. What truly brings a story to life is the storyteller. And the most valuable tool a storyteller has is their particular point of view when telling a story. The more experience a writer has telling their stories gives them an advantage over younger artists, simply because their voice – the instrument in which they create their art – has been honed and matured in a way that cannot be replicated.
When I was a young boy reading Steinbeck, I didn’t know what a literary giant he was. I knew my teacher’s admired him, knew that The Grapes of Wrath was required reading and that it was considered a classic. But all that fades away into the background when you sit down and are alone with a writer, reading their story by yourself. That’s when Steinbeck began to speak to me in his authoritative writer’s voice. When he opened the world to me in such a way that I didn’t want to put East of Eden down. I wanted to know what happened to Kate, the femme fatale of the story who had manipulated, cajoled, corrupted and distorted her way to get what she wanted. I never thought about how Steinbeck had created his character as a way to address the nature of man. How she was a mirror for the world around her, changing and evolving in good ways as well as bad. I only knew that I liked Steinbeck’s voice in my head, how he engrossed me in his characters. In the way that Steinbeck was god, telling the story of how his creations were misbehaving, falling short, learning as they lived their lives.
Steinbeck and I have little in common as storytellers now. I tend to write in the first-person where he wrote in third-person close. I tend to use sarcasm and swear a lot where he was more chaste and leaned more on metaphor. But in the end I couldn’t be the writer I am today with the voice I have if Steinbeck hadn’t come before, seeded that spark of passion in the written word. And I’m sure there are ways I am not even aware of that he crept into my head and left some of what he was as a literary lion for me to always try to aspire to as a storyteller. My little voice compared to his giant one, telling our stories for future generations to judge the merits of. And while he inspired millions, I’d be happy with inspiring one kid to take a chance, seek out their voice to tell their story.
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