Wednesday, July 7, 2010

What makes one's 'voice' distinct (with help from Star Wars)

Literary agent Chip MacGregor has a terrific post up about finding your writing 'voice.' I've thought about this topic quite a bit. What would Lord of the Rings have read like had it been written by C.S. Lewis instead of J.R.R. Tolkien? What if Edgar Rice Burroughs had written LOTR? How about Anne McCaffrey or Marion Zimmer Bradley? The majesty of LOTR is in the story, but the brilliance is pure Tolkien.

So just what is one's writing 'voice?'

It's your personality on the page. As the writer, you have a unique voice -- something that sounds exactly like you, that is completely different from everyone else. The best writers develop a strong sense of voice, so that you can actually tell the author wrote it -- "That is obviously Mark Twain," or "That's got to be Edgar Allen Poe" or "I can tell Charles Dickens wrote that." In contemporary writing circles, it's easy to sound like everyone else, since conferences and classes all seem to suggest there is a "right" way to write. That tends to flatten out voice in favor of correctness. But if three decades in publishing have taught me anything, it's that a great writing voice will make you stand out.

As an agent, I find myself MUCH more drawn to a great writing voice than any other factor. Think about some of the contemporary writers who have a strong voice -- Haven Kimmel, Douglas Adams, Garrison Keillor... nobody mistakes them for someone else. They simply don't sound like everybody else. They sound like themselves. And I find the more I write, the more I sound like myself. And, frankly, the more I sound like myself, the better "voice" I have in my writing.

Again, I keep hearing people at conferences who more or less want all writers to sound the same. That's undoubtedly helpful to beginning writers, who simply need to keep their creativity in check long enough to learn the basics of the craft. But it's also why I keep seeing the same novel coming across my desk -- instead of Fiona and Drake in Scotland, the setting is now Becky and Charles on the prairie, only the story is the same. The only things that's changed are the costumes. It's boring. And it's the curse of writing classes and conferences. (Don't get me wrong -- I love writer's conferences. I just don't want everybody coming out of them sounding like clones.) The best writers learn the rudiments, figure out how to craft a novel, then take the steps of learning how to do it in their own way, using their own voice, so that the story YOU tell is not the same story your NEIGHBOR will tell.

Which brings us to the example phase of this post. (This is going to be fun!) Most people know that Harrison Ford played irrepressible smuggler Han Solo in the Star Wars film that started it all (what we now know as 'Star Wars IV, A New Hope'). But did you know that Kurt Russell screen-tested for that same role?

Weird, right? I love Kurt Russell as an actor — there's nothing the guy can't do. But Han? Harrison Ford nailed that role so perfectly that it hurts my head trying to imagine somebody, anybody, else in that part. Did you know that Robbie Benson tested for the role of Luke Skywalker? How about Andrew Stevens? They're all name actors now, but can you imagine what Star Wars would have been like if anybody other than the actors we now know and love had gotten those parts instead?

For reference, here's Mark Hamill's streen-test. As I watch his clip, it reminds me that not only does one want to develop a distinctive writing 'voice,' one also needs to be able to execute when the opportunity presents itself.

But that's another post. ;)
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  1. Great post, Johne. I love Kurt Russell, but that just didn't sound right.

  2. You know, this is what I keep coming back to. After testing my "voice" on several genres, I realize it's the same, no matter if I'm writing: horror, fantasy, romance, comedy or contemporary lit. I wish they'd emphasize this point to new authors--and save them the headache of imitating the "great"s.

  3. That's not to say that there's no value in imitating the greats, however. Learning to feel confidence is a good thing, even if that confidence comes by emulating what works for someone else. By learning what confidence feels like when writing with another's voice, we can grow to feel confidence when writing with our own. It's a by-your-bootstraps kinda thing that totally shouldn't work (but sometimes does).

  4. I've seen some of these clips in a documentary on the making of the films, and you're right! They are excellent examples of having the right 'voice' in your writing, and how to develop it. I've never seen the full extent of this Kurt Russell clip, though, and it's interesting.

  5. GREAT example. Along the same lines, I remember seeing a clip of Tom Selleck testing for Indiana Jones. I like Selleck, but that was another role that belonged entirely to Harrison Ford.

  6. I totally agree, Johne! No one else could play those rolls and make them as believable!

    And you're right, Katie. I saw that also. As much as I love Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford was the consummate Indiana Jones!

  7. It really is hard to imagine anyone else playing these characters. And Chip did have some great things to say about voice yesterday.

  8. I was going to use the Selleck example, but figured it was overkill and deleted it. Great minds!

  9. Great examples,Johne. I've read a lot about voice and usually end up shaking my head at the end of the article. Your article looks at it from a different perspective that really helps me to understand voice--and one that I'll remember because of the wonderful examples.

  10. I like the examples you used to describe the importance of voice. Nicely done :)

  11. Nice post. I agree on being creative and the need not to sound the same as your neighbour. Also, good examples with the film, there can only be one Luke Skywalker, and one Han Solo. ;)

  12. Fascinating, Johne!
    So where's the screen tests of Douglas Adams and C.S. Lewis doing LotR?

    More seriously, I've been writing for about 30 years. I suppose I have a unique voice by now. When people discuss voice, I sure wish I knew what mine was.

  13. Excellent post Johne

    Leaves one free to be ones-self within the crazy world of pros - bless you for clarifying it so simply.

    with a smile of appreciation