Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

The Voice

The high school had a fundraiser Friday night, a musical event in the school auditorium. In the course of some 2-1/2 hours, a number of acts, including students and teachers, performed a variety of mostly rock-based songs (perhaps the oddest moment was listening to the school’s bandleader sing Stacy’s Mom Has Got It Going On). Especially nice to see was the vast breadth of music embraced by current students. In my day, it felt like every band at our school’s rock night played heavy metal. Friday night, we were treated to several songs written by kids, along with covers of the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and Neil Young; there was a group that played Celtic-style hard rock, a la the Dropkick Murphys; a current Top-40 hit whose name escapes me; two different Peter Gabriel songs by two different acts; and one from the Mamas and the Papas. The kids really covered the spectrum there, which is much better than at the  Cabaret Night a couple years ago, when every other girl sang an Adele song. I like Adele, but it was a bit much.
There was some skilled musicianship on display, and some clumsy, sloppy stuff, too, which is part of the fun. I have no doubt that some of these kids will be able to have successful careers as working musicians, particularly as their individual and ensemble skills improve, but I don’t think any of them will be headliners, at least not as far as singing goes; the truth is, vocally at least, these kids just sound too much like everybody else. Of course, we can never predict these things with any real accuracy, but I don’t think anyone there was likely to become the Next Big Thing.

In music, there are trendsetters and copycats. Looking back 50 years, the Beatles stood the music world on its head. Nobody sounded like them, and the world ate them up. That spawned the British Invasion, and the airwaves were inundated with copycats and sound-alikes. The Dave Clark Five, Gerry & The Pacemakers, The Searchers, The Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, The Who, The Kinks – all were bands that had, at least in those early days, a similar sound and style to the Beatles. All were gobbled up by record companies looking to ride the Beatles’ coattails to stardom and a big payday.

But while those bands had success, none of them could match the Beatles in terms of volume of hits, popularity, or cultural impact. In terms of groups, only the Stones and The Who came close in terms of impact, and we’ll toss the Kinks in there, too, though they’re really a tier below. The other bands hung on for a while, and a number of successful careers came out of that era (think Steve Winwood, Graham Nash, and just about everyone who ever played with the Yardbirds), but what separated those big three ‘Beatles copies’ from the rest? They developed a unique voice, a unique sound, a unique style, that separated them from the rest of the pack. They may have gotten signed because of some resemblance – real or imagined – to the Beatles, but they ultimately made it because they were different. And really, really good. This is a trend we see in the music business all the time.

As writers we hear a lot about ‘voice’. Voice is a particular style, a rhythm and a flavor that belongs to you, and you alone. It’s your vocabulary, it’s the way you put words together, the way you describe your worlds, and it’s something you have to find on your own. It’s part of what sets you apart from the rest of the pack, and it’s one of those slippery things that is hard to pin down. Is voice natural? Can you teach it?

Honestly, I don’t know the answer to either of those questions. But voice is one of the things that separates us from every other person writing in our genre. We can’t be copycats. If you want to stand with the greats, you have to develop your own style, find your own voice.

10 Responses

  1. Voice can be so hard to define, much less to teach. And I know that we all have a bit of it that comes through our writing, but I think each book ought to have its own unique voice, too.

  2. And not only that, but voice should change from book to book if the characters change. One thing I don't like is when an author writes from the POV of a similar character and the voice is the same every time.

  3. Nice insight, well illustrated. My favorite musician at the moment is Neko Case. In addition to having a truly unique sound (not only vocally, but in the particulars of her music — its instrumentation, its time signatures) she did it all herself, and in 2009 got to claim that up until that year no other independent album had debuted as high as Middle Cyclone (Billboard #3). For obvious reasons, I find her extremely inspiring…and she is also a fantastic writer, using words in some of the most creative and memorable ways I've ever encountered.

  4. Thanks for commenting. Y'all make a great point about voice changing from book to book. I think for most voice does change, yet there will likely always be some sort of common 'feel' that makes a writer recognizable over many years.

  5. Yay for individuality and unique voices 🙂 I have to admit, I never got into The Beatles. A lot of my friends love them, but they're just not my thing…

    Coincidence that my school is running a music showcase tomorrow night? Huh, 🙂

  6. In my experience I had to find that certain character that allowed me to not think too hard about what I was writing and just let it flow. I've seen it with my CP's. I'll read a story of theirs that I think is good. Then they send me the next one and it's fantastic. Totally them, and I'm like, that's it! You found your voice. So, I'm not sure there is a formula.

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