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. ;)