By Mark Pepper
Kermit the Frog has a very distinctive voice. So does Miss Piggy, Fozzy Bear, Gonzo and the rest of the Muppet crew. Personally, I wouldn’t want to sound like any of them. (I may have Gonzo’s nose, but that’s a different matter.) It’s possible to alter your speaking voice to a certain extent – you can alter your general tone, and certainly improve or remove an accent you may not like – but what most people are trying to do here is to make their voice less distinctive.
I’m shooting from the hip when I say this (what’s new?), but I suspect that many writers often try to do the opposite. They worry unduly that there is nothing that makes them stand out from the crowd, and they think that they can rectify that by creating a writer’s voice.
This is fine if you naturally fall into a certain rhythm or style of writing, but it can be a problem if you have to force it. That’s the equivalent of you adopting an accent you’re not very good at and hoping people will take you seriously.
Two writers who spring to mind who have distinctive voices are Stephen King and Elmore Leonard. Once you’ve read a bit of King it would be practically impossible not to recognise his work from a couple of random paragraphs. He writes as he might speak, seemingly letting his words fall from his brain in whatever order they manifest themselves, then he adds afterthoughts in parentheses where you or I might think we should rewrite to make it all flow better. Part of his voice derives from what he terms “Skull Cinema” – his ability to see everything he writes as though he’s watching a movie in his head. Personally, I think it works; when I finish a Stephen King novel I’ve already seen the movie, and, apart from Misery, Hollywood’s interpretations have always been a terrible disappointment by comparison.
Just remember that the man’s a genius and his name and reputation afford him the ultimate artistic licence.
As for Elmore Leonard, he writes in his Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing: “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Here then is a writer who is very consciously aware that he wants his own voice, and he would seem to be openly admitting that the end result is occasionally contrived with this aim in mind. Just occasionally, I think he tries too hard. Hey, who am I to criticise, right?
What I’m trying to say is that you and I cannot afford to try too hard. You could spend an hour on one sentence just to give it a “voice” that a lot of people may actually find pretty grating.
I was given a piece of advice by my first acting teacher – the guy who coached me for my successful RADA audition back in 1987. When I was desperately looking for an unusual audition piece to stand out from the crowd, he said, “Mark, you don’t have to be different to be good; being good is different enough”.
You don’t need a writer’s voice to succeed. You just need to have something interesting to say, and you need to say it well.