When I was fourteen, I tried to write like Shaun Hutson. When I was seventeen, I tried to write like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, William S.Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft.
Whenever I look at my old fiction, I usually end up either laughing out loud or cringing with embarassment or both. The fact is, when I was younger, I used to think that fiction had to sound formal and old-fashioned in order to be considered ‘serious fiction’. When I was even younger, I used to think that basic things like characterisation didn’t matter if you included enough guns, monsters, blood and guts in your story. Both of these are hilariously stupid ideas. In fact, they’re probably ideas which Hutson, Doyle, Burroughs and Lovecraft would probably laugh at- well, maybe not Lovecraft…
Anyway, I’m sure that every writer and/or artist probably has their own version of this timeline or are working on creating it at the moment. In it’s own way, copying the narrative voices of other writers or the art style of other artists is all part of the learning process. But, as pretty much any decent book about writing will tell you – you can’t write in another writer’s narrative voice better than they can. It’s impossible. It’s like trying to reverse-engineer an incredibly complicated machine from two hundred years in the future.
If you want to create truly amazing fiction, then you have to find your own narrative voice or narrative style. If you end up becoming well-known or famous, then this has the added bonus of letting you laugh at other people’s attempts at copying it too.
It took me until I was about twenty to start finding the beginnings of a narrative voice which actually belonged to me. A narrative voice which was a perfect fit with me.
The thing is though, my narrative voice isn’t just a voice. It’s a feeling. It’s a state of mind. It’s almost like a persona. An alter-ego. An amplified version of all the best parts of my mind. It flows, it’s spontaneous. And it feels amazing, wonderful and brilliant when I use it. When you’ve found your own narrative voice, these sentences might make more sense to you. Otherwise they probably sounds like the nonsensical ramblings of an eccentric recluse who spends more time talking about writing than actually writing.
Before I carry on, I should probably point out that when I write fiction, I usually use a first-person perspective. For some reason, my narrative voice only really “works” properly from this perspective. The opposite is probably true for some writers and it takes some time to work out what particular perspective or perspectives you work best in. Even stranger, I can only ever seem to write poetry in the present tense (but that’s probably a topic for another blog post).
Anyway, I digress. This is supposed to be an article about helping you to find your voice, not a chapter from my autobiography.
So, here are some basic pointers about finding your own narrative voice:
1) Your narrative voice will change over time. Even when you do find your own voice, it’ll keep changing and evolving gradually. This is a good thing. It’s a sign of progress – after all, every writer and/or artist is still learning. Even the famous ones. Especially the famous ones.
2) It’s ok to be influenced by the narrative voices of other writers, just don’t try to copy them entirely. The trick to copying other narrative voices is to copy several at once – this will give you a unique blend of narrative voices which may well form the beginnings of what, with enough practice, will eventually evolve into your own narrative voice.
3) If narrating a story just feels like an intellectual exercise, then you’re doing it wrong. This is kind of hard to describe, but writing in your own narrative voice has a certain vivid emotional quality to it – it feels something like a combination between catharsis, humour, enthusiasm, madness, euphoria, cynicism, fascination and magic. Your own narrative voice might feel different, but if you aren’t feeling anything then you’re doing it wrong.
4) Look at lots of other narrative voices, immerse youself in them. You’ll pick up ideas and techniques without even realising it. Stephen King has his famous advice about reading a lot and it’s totally true. He expresses it better and more concisely than I could. Go and read “On Writing”.
5) Be honest. It might be fun to play at being a gonzo journalist, a hardboiled pulp fiction writer, a decadent vampiric chronicler or a t0t4lly_l33t_cy3erpunk_n4rr4t0r and it is fun (in fact, it’s an essential part of finding your own narrative voice) – eventually, you have to be honest.
You narrative voice has to sound similar to the way you would think about things or describe them. It should have an honest quality to it. Once you’ve got this, then you can write in these other styles with a greater degree of authenticity and uniqueness.
If you worry that your own honest style of thinking is “boring” or “crappy”, then try to imagine what the best possible version of it would be like and write using that. Just remember – you are unique, you are the only you on the planet.
6) Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. (Ok, I’m actually practicing my non-fiction writing and art at the moment – but it took me a lot of practice to find my narrative voice for prose fiction).
7) You might actually have several different narrative voices. For example: the narrative voice I use for poetry is slightly different to the one I use for fiction and the narrative voice I use for fiction is slightly different to the one I use for non-fiction writing. They even feel slightly different to each other too when I’m writing. Different types of writing can sometimes require slightly different narrative voices. However, these should ideally be different aspects of the same narrative voice rather than radically different narrative voices.
8) A good narrative voice should have a slightly informal quality and a sense of personality . It should make the reader want to listen to it and want to read more. It should stand out from the crowd, it should feel like an old friend and it should be easily readable. If you can refine your own narrative voice to fit these three criteria, then your readers will want to read more- they’ll re-read your work and may even become fans of it.
In conclusion, finding your own narrative voice takes time and it isn’t an exact science and, even when you find it, it’ll probably keep evolving and changing. But it’s an important part of being a writer and it will improve your writing significantly. Just remember that it’s ok to experiment and it’s ok to make mistakes.