You can write anything, conventional wisdom tells us, even stories that have been done a million times before, if you tell it your way. If you have a fresh, exciting voice. But what exactly is voice? The bad news is that voice can’t really be taught. The good news is that you already have your own voice, and therefore don’t need to be taught it. You just need to trust it, listen to it, and use it.
Here’s how I found mine. Twice.
1. I was a graduate student living in almost total isolation in the north of England, in cold and bleak Yorkshire. Have you seen the new Jane Eyre movie? It was like that, except without that smoking hot Mr. Rochester looming about to liven things up.
So… only the cold, damp, grey nothingness. I was writing a doctoral dissertation on AIDS literature, which meant that I spent my working hours reading and writing and thinking about profoundly upsetting things. When I wasn’t working I lay on my couch, wondered if I would ever see the sun again (the answer was no, not until I moved to Los Anegles), and watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Doesn’t this sound romantic? I was, of course, deeply depressed.
At that point I’d been in England for several years. While still a Masters student, I’d had a complicated social life that I’d spent a lot of time chronicling for my various friends back home in the States. I sent out big, chatty emails filled with my adventures—or lack thereof—a practice that had died out somewhat when my world shrunk down to my sofa, my Buffy tapes (yes, tapes—this was a long time ago), and piles of David Wojnarowicz and Tony Kushner books that made me sob every time I read them.
In those happier emails, I’d managed to make experiences I didn’t necessarily enjoy come across funny. Interesting. And I thought about how different they were from the way I’d always written things before. I’d been a very histrionic adolescent, and had chosen to attend a small liberal arts college where my tendency toward melodrama would be greatly indulged and exacerbated, and all of this was very apparent in my fiction. I liked to write very overdramatic short stories that were all about cigarette smoke and ennui, loss and regret. Somehow, throughout this period, my creative genius remained undiscovered.
So, back to the couch. While lying in my usual crucifixion position, staring out the small gap in my drapes at the depressing sky—it was dark at 2pm, assuming it wasn't raining all day, which it always was—and shoving chocolate biscuits in my face, I wondered why it had never occurred to me to try to write a story the way I wrote those emails. Funny. Chatty. First person. Irreverent. Still some cigarette smoke and regret, perhaps, but a whole different feel. Why not write like me, in other words?
And so I got up from the couch (okay, maybe not that very second) and wrote what eventually become English as a Second Language, my first published book.
2. This story is in two parts. The first part starts when I was in the 7th grade. I was loitering around in the local five and dime one day and I found this huge barrel of bargain books. They were all fascinating. Bare chested men with flowing locks of hair clutching gorgeous women in luxurious gowns to them, clearly about to kiss. Or have sex.
In 7th grade, I was kind of unclear on the differences between those two things.
But I bought one of those magical books, and discovered a whole new world. My first romance novel was about a dastardly pirate captain and a feisty English miss. It featured kidnapping, sparring (both verbally and with swords), and, of course, tempestuous lovemaking, using metaphors that went right over my 7th grade head. Flowers. Petals. Blossoming. Thanks to this book, I, ever the know it all, informed my 7th grade friends that sex would be a lot like gardening.
Gardening or no, I was hooked on romance novels from that day forward. I spent most of my free time crawling around on the floors of used book stores looking for new authors, reading stacks upon stacks of category romances, buying armloads of historical romances in all the stores I found them (which were a lot more stores than these days, but let’s not get into that), getting on the Reader Service for my favorite lines, buying hardcovers of the authors I came to love, and in all other ways, becoming a rabid romance fan. I did not conceal the covers of my beloved books from judging eyes. I had no shame about my so-called “guilty pleasure.” I did not hide my books away for fear of censorious commentary. I was, a roommate once told me, meaning to compliment my apparent quirkiness, the only person she knew who was interesting and liked romance novels. Imagine!
But despite the fact that romance novels had long been the great love of my reader’s heart, when I got published, it never occurred to me to write one myself. And here’s the second part of this story. My second book was just about to come out when I met Jane Porter at a dinner with our shared Grand Central editor. And we became friends, and I decided to read every single one of her Presents. That was quite a few books. And back in those days I was much better about updating my blog with all the books I was reading at the time. So I posted a lot about Jane’s Presents.
Which I loved. More than loved. These books were like the high-octane, crack version of romance novels. Some of Jane’s books I swear I read without breathing, unable to put them down. (I love them all, but I always think about two in particular-- The Sicilian’s Defiant Mistress, which made me blush and fan myself, and The Sheikh’s Disobedient Bride, which changed the way I thought about what you could do with a romantic relationship in a short book.) When I commented on this on my blog, and a reader asked me what a Presents was, as she’d never heard of them.
So I said that basically, a Presents was what happened if King Leonidas from the movie 300 dated a regular girl from the secretarial pool, except with much better clothes all around.
And my good friend Michelle Rowen, also a fabulous author, commented and said that I had to write that book.
And so I did, except I decided it was more fun to make the heroine a princess rather than a secretary, and that book became Pure Princess, Bartered Bride, my first Presents.
Those are my two stories about voice.
And let's be clear, those are my two success stories. I’m not telling you about all the half-finished manuscripts, the years and years and years of writing writing writing with no reason to go on and no idea why I felt so compelled to keep doing it. All the endless reading I did, all the new ideas that seemed to fizzle, all the thousands of hours I spent writing instead of living, loving, interacting, even showering. So what made those two books different?
It was the voice.
Until I figured out that I could break the mold I was in, whatever mold that was, my voice was unable to come out and onto the page. And once I broke free of the limitations I'd placed on myself, I wrote books unlike anything I’d ever written before. And what made the books stand out from all the many chick lit novels in the slush piles of the early 2000s and all the many category romance novels in the Harlequin queue was not my superior storytelling and obvious genius (though I like to pretend that has something to do with it): it was my voice.
I didn’t ask myself how I was going to “harness my voice,” mind you. I didn't think about voice at all. In the first case, I thought: It would be really fun to write a book the way I wrote all those emails. And in the second, I thought: It would be really fun—and really hot—to write a romance novel about King Leonidas that packs an emotional whallop like one of jane's books.
I never could have stumbled upon either iteration of my voice if I hadn’t let go of all the ways I thought I was supposed to be writing.
None of us are likely to tell a brand new, original story. What we can do is tell our version of the story that speaks to us, in our voice. And that’s what makes what we do fresh, new, original.
So, what do you want to write? What story do you think sounds like fun? Why haven't you written it yet?
Megan Crane is the author of more than twenty novels, most of which rely on voice over plot. We all have our strengths. She also teaches writing and has given a few workshops, so you may have heard her talk about gardening and King Leonidas before. Luckily, if it involves Gerard Butler, she's happy to repeat herself. You can find out more about her at www.megancrane.com.