I haven’t written a “Thoughts on the Craft” in a long while, so here goes…
As a writer, I don’t pay much attention to this and I’ll explain why later, but as an Editor for a small magazine, authorial voice is hugely important when we make our decision to accept or decline a piece for publication. It’s worth talking about.
So what the heck is Authorial Voice? In a nutshell, it’s how writers articulate themselves, or rather: it’s how they tell a story.
Authorial voice encompasses a lot of things and it’s as unique as a fingerprint. It has nothing to do with breaking the 4th wall or whether or not the writer uses the work as a soapbox. Authorial voice is much more organic and much more intimate than that. It’s not a device at all, and it’s not something you can beg, borrow, or steal. It’s something that happens as a writer matures, and it cannot be taught in the workshop setting. It can’t be taught period. It comes from experience and maturity.
Authorial voice is a combination of a writer’s perspective and how they articulate that perspective via the written word: how they punctuate, what words they choose to use, what things they choose to describe and not to describe, and what devices and words they use to do so. It’s in how they plot a story, or don’t plot a story. It’s in their syntax, their phraseology, how they construct their sentences, and the mood and movement of those sentences. It’s not a style or technique, though a writer’s voice can be influenced by those things, and it can be influenced by the style, technique, and the voices of their own favorite authors. No two writers have the same influences, so if you’re an attentive reader, you’ll see that no two writers sound the same. And it all starts with language. It starts with how we learned to speak and write and what influenced us along the way, be that our local culture and dialect, what we gleaned from watching TV and film, and the voices we heard and/or read along the way: the voices of other authors and the voices of the world around us.
In the early stages of the writing journey — once we’ve learned proper grammar — we are then taught the basic rules of story construction. We’ve all seen the Writing for Dummies books. We learn basic technique and construction. We learn about beginnings, middles, and ends. We learn how to construct dialog; how to use simple language; how to avoid the adverbs and info dumps; what imagery is, etc. blah blah blah. These things are important to learn, and they produce competent writing that conforms to a set of easy to comprehend standards. Standards are good. However, as an Editor, I feel the rules produce good, well-written, but often boring stories. The flavor is missing, and that flavor comes from the writer. It comes when a competent writer, who knows all the rules and standards, decides to break them. It comes from experimentation. It comes from a writer who is finally not afraid to toss convention to the wind, a writer who is not afraid to stop trying to imitate those they adore, and a writer who is not afraid to speak honestly as themselves. Over time, the voice, our voice, just happens. The more we read, speak, write, and interact with the world around us, the more pronounced and unique our voice becomes, and as an Editor, that’s what I want to hit the page. Personality! Yeah, that’s what it is. Every story has been told before, so the ones I choose to publish are chosen because of how the writer told the story, the rules they broke or didn’t break, the choices they made, and their unique perspective on the subject matter.
Now voice, just like technique and all those other wildly scary variables we find in the written word, can be well received or not. Not everyone is going to like your voice, and so some writers choose to repress the voice and simply write to the standard conventions. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, and it has its place. It produces a sense of sameness, and that is comforting to a lot of readers, mostly readers who have a rigid set of expectations when it comes to the fiction they like, but … and there is always a big but, isn’t there?
But I am not one of those readers. I am also not one of those Editors, and my little Lit-zine is not one of those venues. I loathe expectations. I want to be surprised, so I look for voice above all else because that, to me, is where the real art comes from. It comes from writers who were willing to take risks; it comes from writers who weren’t afraid to put themselves on the page; and that’s why, as a writer, I don’t think about it too much. Voice is a natural process: it can’t be mindfully cultivated or hurried along. It just happens when you write honestly, when you write for yourself. It comes with time.
At A&A, we like to publish the off, the oddball, the abstract, and the unique, so if you are feeling adventurous, why not stop by for a read.
Cheryl Anne Gardner, Head Fiction Editor at Apocrypha & Abstractions Literary Journal