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Writing Bad is Hard to Do

Among the spectrum of artistic endeavors, few are more esteemed than the established voice. Van Gogh is a familiar brushstroke, Bach is a memorable melody, Shakespeare is a heroic couplet. But not just any brushstroke, melody, or couplet—for theirs are so singular, they are eternally possessed.

In the writing world, especially, voice is a powerful thing. It’s what distinguishes a Dickens from a Hemingway, an Austen from a Twain. If an author’s voice is recognizable enough, a careful reader may glean attribution from but a single line.

As a writer, the concept is seductive. One’s voice is no less than an immortal signature. Most of us are still trying to find ours—that unique slant to our prose, that trademark we may claim. Until then, we learn by that finest form of flattery: imitation. The hope is that some conglomerate of the ancient hand and personal experience will morph into our own consistent beat.

But perhaps we do our prose an injustice if we confine it to our egotism. Perhaps rather than searching for our own voice, we should be searching for our story’s voice; filling the page with words unique to the character, setting, and tone of the particulars. After all, if good actors are those who portray people other than themselves, good authors would be those who write dialogue other than their own. For the sake of the art, we must lose ourselves in it.

This often requires sacrifice, and many darlings will be killed. A finely crafted sentence may not warrant exposure from the mouth of a moronic character; an overwrought description may better suit a humble tale by surgical omission. Sometimes, less is more and more is less, depending on the story.

As a potential example, I submit the opening lines of three novels I hope to distinguish from each other through varied voice:

“It was a disagreement over an extra deuce that set me off to the ramshackle outskirts of the Frontier.” Fang Hunters, a sci-fi western adventure.

“I tell you this tale in strictest confidence, under the auspice of hope and trust, as Gazwick is a man unlike any other—a man who would contest this story’s validity for the further grant of humble anonymity rather than attest to its truth for the garnishment of unbridled fame.” The Adventures of Hopthorne Gazwick, a gothic fantasy mystery.

“2 a.m. found me calling in favors at The Boneyard.” Murder on the Orion Express, a sci-fi noir mystery.

Whether I pulled it off is for you to judge. I am still learning the craft, after all. But this is a distinction I strive for: to establish a voice in accordance with the work at hand. And if I do it right, you’ll never even know I was there.

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