by Mary E. Martin
Sometimes critics speak of a writer’s voice. But what do they mean? I think of it as a goal to be achieved on a very long road. It’s that uniquely personal “way” you have of expressing yourself to the world in word and thought—the sum total of yourself as a human being. You might say it’s the Holy Grail of writing.
But how and when do you find your voice? I remember when one of my sons was in grade eight. His English teacher complained to me that he had not yet found his own writing voice. Astonished, I said, “He’s only twelve. Surely you know that writers spend their lives seeking that voice and then perfecting it?” Before you find that Grail, I think there are many steps and stops along the way.
I remember attending a writing class when I was not very far into writing a first draft of Conduct in Question, the first novel in what eventually became The Osgoode Trilogy. I was truly amazed to hear the teacher say that he usually revised his work twelve times—on average. My God! I thought. You mean three times won’t cut it? And so, began a very long journey through countless drafts of three novels, featuring the protagonist lawyer, Harry Jenkins.
It is said that a carpenter must have proper tools and this is true of any craftsmen—writers included. And they must be skilled in the use of those tools after long years of practice. So what are the tools of the writer?
Many of us spend hours choosing just the right computer and clearing away a quite space of our own to write. Certainly, we need pens and paper and lots of good light. Oh, and an ergonomic chair. Fine, so far as it goes.
But what else is needed? What are the real tools of the writer? Dare I say, a strong, fundamental grasp and passionate love of the language, a broad vocabulary and a sense of grammar, are necessary? This does not mean a writer must be able to cite a rule for every sentence they write, but they must have such a fine grasp of their tools so that their proper use is automatic. After all, they are only tools with which to express one’s view of the mystery of life and they should not get in the way of the flow of thought. Unfortunately, I have seen writing in its most formative stages, where the lack of knowledge of sentence structure is appallingly absent. [My children have referred to me as a member of “the grammar police.”] Surely, mastery of these essentials must be the very first step on the journey, before one can even begin to explore and express one’s thoughts and passions.
But this takes us only so far. We have to develop a sense of so many things; namely, plot sequencing, character development, and dialogue, just to mention a few. On top of all of this, we need an idea or many ideas. We need inspiration, plus an attitude of flexibility and curiosity, which permits abandoning a line or direction and picking up a new thread.
I have often been asked if I write on a scheduled basis—so many hours in the morning etc. The answer is NO. I only sit down to write when I feel I have something to say. For me, I do a lot of “writing” in my head.
Consequently, when I do sit down to write, I rarely suffer writer’s block. Perhaps that sort of block is really to prevent us from running “on empty” when we have nothing to say. Sometimes, you have to sit back and let the well fill up again. I’ve been asked if I make a plan or outline of the novel before writing it. I am amazed that anyone could do that! For me, it’s a process of growing the characters and the events over time. I do, however, make a chart of where I’ve been.
These are just a few items I’ve found along the path to finding the writer’s voice. But here’s one thing I do try out with each passage. I read it out loud to myself. Why? If you read your work aloud—just to yourself—then something quite magical happens. Your inner ear comes alive. Remember humankind has told stories long before anyone could write. The first story-telling was undoubtedly around the campfire. I find when I read aloud then all the bumps and awkwardness are immediately spotted. I might have read [with my eyes] a certain passage fifty times over and would not have picked up what the voice registers instantly on the ear. Don’t forget, language was first in the spoken form and there is something within us which hears the false or awkward. If you do this with all your writing, you will quickly become aware of your clumsy wording. Eventually, you will sense the cadence and the rhythm of your prose. And that, for me, is part of the writer’s voice. And, by the way, I did read this aloud. Hope it sounds okay.
Mary E. Martin grew up in Toronto where she began practicing law in a small estates firm. In 1999, she became a full time writer and photographer. Her own writing The Osgoode Trilogy, in the legal suspense genre, was greatly inspired by her law practice of twenty-eight years, which she says gave her a window on the world and humanity.