I often hear authors and editors referring to a novel where they believe the writer has ‘found their voice’. What is this mysterious benchmark and how does one know when it has been achieved?
Authorial ‘voice’ is different from the point of view character voice. It is the author’s ‘persona’, the voice behind the curtain whose outlook determines the tone of the novel. This tone can be humourous, optimistic, cynical or downright bleak. The subject matter and plot may not determine the tone, it is the author who makes the choice.
Carl Hiaasen writes from a humourous slant but his books are full of deceit, crooked politicians, violent deaths and serious societal issues. He’s chosen a funny delivery either because of his personal view of the world or he’s deemed it the most effective way of conveying his theme.
On the optimistic side, many SF writers from Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and forward view the future with hope. Star Trek too had a positive, almost utopian, vision of man’s future. The significant hurdles to reach such a future are myriad and the challenge is often the crux of their stories.
Cynical voices in the SF world would include Richard Morgan, whose homages to the noir-detective genre are almost necessarily cynical, echoing Philip Marlowe. The first-person point of view convention in this case blurs the distinction between author and protagonist voice.
Bleak books are often dystopias (1984 for example). Things are bad and they’re only going to get worse. Christopher Moore bridges depression and humour brilliantly. A subset, or perhaps a set on its own, would be the novels of a world or universe in chaos. Nothing follows the rules we understand; action generates overwhelmingly unequal and nihilistic or discordant reaction. China Mieville’s compelling novels seem rooted in such a null-value system.
To the question of finding one’s own voice. It may or may not reflect the writer’s outlook on life. It can be chosen to distance the writer from the material in order to tell the story more effectively. Damon Knight wrote that his fiction improved dramatically after he invented a writer to write his stories for him, one who was more mature, skilled, inventive and knowledgeable than he. I think he does himself a disservice here, he likely became all of those with experience as a writer and maturity as a person. It’s worth exploring the value of donning a mantle when one does write. That mantle can certainly be of a ‘better’ writer. You put yourself into this new creation running the keyboard and then proceed to tell the story from within the disguise. The voice takes on a new identity, separate from the person owning the byline.
One need only look at the titles of many authors’ websites to see the persona adopted by them as illustration of the above. They have found a mantle. My analysis and categorization convince me voice exists. But do writers really ‘find their voice’ or do they just become better writers? Does voice translate into reader popularity?
My next novel, The Sixth Helix (currently scheduled for late 2018 release) is a better book than its predecessors. Have I found my voice or just refined it from Transient City and Rogue Town? I was more confident in writing it from page 1 of draft 1. Confident in the story, the characters and setting. The mantle I found in this case was the self-assurance of my skill being up to completing the book as I imagined it, no falling short of my ambition. I hope readers will agree.