This past weekend I attended a benefit concert for an old friend, listening to a band new to me. I commented to my Brenterest friend that the band had talent, “They could make it.”
My friend shrugged. “I don’t know if their sound is unique enough to make it.”
I froze. I’ve never heard anyone talk about writing that way, but the cogs and gears fit together in my mind and something shifted forward. It holds true for writing as much as music, and the words have stayed with me.
We writers start out with scraps of our voice, but it isn’t honed yet. We may not recognize it. This voice is rough, it needs time and craft and patient work, but when we’re new we don’t know that. We read the latest rules, writing fashions which ebb and flow as much as any other fashion, and only see the problems with our work.
Our voice gets quiet in response, hiding shyly behind crossed-out paragraphs and angry red ink.
We keep writing, maybe finding a critique group. If we’re lucky, we’ll find a good one. But most likely, we find a group as inexperienced as us, and those critiques will be based on what the critiquing writers read in the rules last week and are actively working on. Our voice grows quieter still, until it’s washed from our final drafts completely. The story stands, polished and shiny for everyone to see, but it’s lost its uniqueness. It sounds like a story anyone could have told. It doesn’t sell and we grow more discouraged with every rejection.
Neil Gaiman once said, “You’re not selling them the story. You’re selling them the way the story is told.” We’re selling our unique voice, our way of telling. The lucky writer recognizes the problem, and pulls their voice out of the mental drawer where it was stuffed, applies it, and discovers something else has happened in the interim. This voice has picked up a few rules it respected, it got in the practice of our first drafts if nothing else. We grow bolder, protective of our voice. We learn to tune out the critique partners who will cut our voice. Eventually, to avoid them.
We may still struggle to sell stories, but we’re moving forward. We still need to practice and hone the craft of our particular strangeness. There will be readers who hate this voice. This will hurt. There will be readers who love it. Appreciate them. Our job is to find our voice, learn its strengths and weaknesses, cultivate its evolution, and spend the rest of our writing lives honing its magic.