Have you ever sat down with someone younger than you and told them the complex details of something you knew backwards and forwards?
If so, this feeling, this confidence is the cornerstone of your writing voice for fiction.
Talking to this younger, less experienced person, you probably weren’t afraid of getting the details wrong. You weren’t afraid of criticism from a higher realm of expertise. You weren’t self-conscious about your choice of words. You probably had enthusiasm because the topic was important and might have helped the younger person.
In earlier versions of my story, I had my main characters, Johanna and Maxwell, in a hospital setting that made me feel timid. The bottomless pit of details in clinical medicine has always worried me sick.
In the back of my mind I’m worried about how people from work might react if one of my characters says something negative… about a surgeon or a drug, for instance.
This mindset is a straight-jacket.
What if Maxwell wanted to say, “All surgeons are brain-dead.” I couldn’t let him. It would be too politically dangerous for me.
In that earlier version, I felt unsure about the wording of every sentence because I wanted the viewpoint character, a doctor, to sound highly intelligent but not boring.
In that same version of the story there was also a viewpoint characters living in a science fiction type world. When writing his part I felt fearless and authoritative. After all, who could be offended or say I botched an important technical detail in a simple sf world?
A professional author was reading this version of the story and saw glaring problems with the chapters involving the hospital with the MD viewpoint character.
But in the science fiction setting where the viewpoint character was not particularly intelligent, things got better. The author helping me wrote the following in the margin: “For what it’s worth, [your] sentence-level writing seems more assured/less awkward as chapters progress.”
Hey, he didn’t say I was going to set the world on fire, but at least he saw improvement.
It took me awhile to figure out what was going on, but I figured it out.
I need to do anything I can possibly do to be the only expert in the room when I’m writing fiction.
I need to stay out of hospital settings and other settings that make me feel self-conscious and afraid.
I need to be anonymous and use a pen name so the people at work, my friends and family, can’t frighten me out of saying what’s on my mind and in my heart.
I need to pretend that I’m writing to a nice, inexperienced younger person who wants to hear what I have to say and who, by some miracle, knows less about it than I do.
A “strong writing voice,” if you can tolerate the concept, is based on confidence. I suspect it is confidence and nothing more.
M. Talmage Moorehead