Finding My Voice: The Art of Losing Lewis

Voice. It’s a term I didn’t hear bandied around a lot when I first sat down and started writing, trying to to pull together the strands of story I had into some form of narrative. A unique voice is something that authors strive for, publishers long to discover, and readers cling to. This is a brief story of my search to find my literary voice.

Voice as a concept can be difficult to define. I’d say the best way to look at voice is as the complete package of how an author tells their story – sentence structure, language, word choice, and more. I didn’t realise it at the time, but even as a child, I was drawn to strong literary voices.

Growing up, I read classic children’s literature. From Enid Blyton to Roald Dahl, I was immersed in writers who captured my imagination. Two authors, however, particularly stood out to me in terms of their voice. Gordon Korman’s classic Bruno & Boots series (thanks, Scholastic school catalogue!) taught me that books can make you laugh out loud. His structure, particularly around dialogue, had me chuckling away on the couch in my parents’ living room.

Korman was a comedic influence, but the author who grabbed me with his writing and flung me into a world beyond my dreams was C.S. Lewis. I can remember sitting at a dinner in Christchurch’s Old Stone House, reading our brand new hardcover copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It was Lewis and the world he’d created that caught me up, but it was also how he told his stories. The whimsy, and the way he would pause to talk directly to me as a reader was something I loved. By the time I got to The Last Battle, I was sitting on that same couch in my parents’ living room, unable to stop reading as Lewis (literally) tore his world apart.

Those voices we read as children stick with us, as so many impressions on young minds do. Lewis had wiggled his way into my brain from the moment I read these lines:

Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.

I could imagine myself in a big old house far away from home. I had a big wooden wardrobe in my bedroom! Lewis was talking to me about the familiar, but stretching my mind as to where I could go from the world I knew. It’s no surprise, then, that when I sat down to draft my first novella, the voices of Korman and Lewis came through so strongly. I even found myself pausing to talk directly to the reader at first (which is quite jarring, I can tell you), just as Lewis had done. It wasn’t until I began reading over my work at the end of my draft that I realised how much I was trying imitating my literary influences.

This is what makes voice such a precious thing: there’s an intangible quality to one’s literary voice that you can’t quite articulate, and it takes time to develop it. As you read through my Inspector Ambrose novellas, you can chart the growth in my voice as I move through the years – that’s why there’s such a difference between Mrs Milliard’s Mech and The Clockwork Dungeon – there’s about three years and 300,000 words between them.

After finishing my first three novellas, I blogged my novel-writing journey, and how I pitched my first novel to publishers at Literary Speed Dating two years ago. I took on the feedback I received from those publishers and worked with Alison Arnold (editor of The Rosie Project) on my novel. It was in this editing process that I spotted the growth I’d had over the intervening years, and how much I had refined my voice since then. I had come a long way from the days of mimicking Lewis’s narrative interruptions.

I guess that’s why it’s called finding your voice rather than picking your voice. It’s rare that a writer can nail their voice immediately – it develops through practice and discipline. Long is the time spent whittling away at your influences to find out who you are under all that, rather than who you want to imitate. But the good news is that there comes a moment when your voice begins to really form into something you can point to and say ‘This is who I am.’ In many ways, voice is the quality you can’t cheat. It shows that you’ve spent the time uncovering not just what you write, but who you are as a writer. It’s deeply personal, but desperately compelling.

I haven’t arrived when it comes to voice – I recognise I’m still growing, and that’s a good place to be in. I can, however, tell you the moment I knew I was finding my voice – it was at the end of my second novel draft, right in the last three lines. I remember writing the final words of my story, and having a sense of change in myself as I drew back to see what I’d just finished.

It wasn’t just Lewis anymore. It was me.

It was Laking.

If you want to really get your head around voice, some of the strongest author voices I’ve engaged with recently include Garth Nix in Sabriel, Shivaun Plozza in Frankie, and Graeme Simsion in The Rosie Project. In each of these novels, the author’s voice pulls you in to their story instantaneously. Check them out – your own voice will be all the richer for it.


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