That’s already a contradiction. If your voice sounds caged or restrained or even as if you worked on it, it’s not working. So how can you train your voice?
You can’t proceed the way you’d attack plot or metaphor or an unfortunate addiction to adjectives. Still, you can get out of your own way, giving your voice every opportunity to come out and flash something appealing. Because voice is a bit wild—and should stay that way. But wild can also mean running amuck, and you don’t want that, either.
Here’s a start on taming and training.
1. Think about your audience—and only your audience. Nothing else.
Contrary as it may seem, the more you think about anything related to ego or how good or bad you sound or the effect you want to achieve or how many books you will (or won’t!) sell, then the more you damage your voice. Be yourself. Let yourself sound like yourself. That’s how your readers get the real thing. You can always polish. But you can’t polish what isn’t worth polishing because it isn’t real.
2. Ignore the superficial, obvious, or clichéd. What do only you see? Know? Value?
This necessitates risk. But gems are rarely scattered on the surface. They’re down deep. That’s what you—only you—can say, so you’ll have just the right words for it. The poet Muriel Rukeyser calls it “Going diving.” She’s talking about poetry, of course, but for any writer, “If you dive deep enough and have favorable winds or whatever is under the water, you come to a place where experience can be shared, and somehow there is somewhere in oneself that shares.”
3. Embrace tradition, then transcend it. Revere, but without losing individuality.
Use everything you’ve read and discovered to identify your place among your literary predecessors. Not so you can imitate them, of course, but so you can perfect the voice you developed because the authors before you made you who you are—a blend of yourself and those who made you yourself.
Where would Claire Messud be without Ralph Ellison and Charlotte Bronte, or Chad Harbach without Merman Melville, or Alice Hoffman without Emily Bronte? And that’s just the short list.
Obviously, these folks can generate their own scenarios or voices. Yet neither ideas nor the words for them spring out fully formed, like Aphrodite on the sea. Even Aphrodite came from somewhere, as do our thoughts and expression of them, which reflects both idiosyncrasy and tradition. As Cormac McCarthy put it, “The ugly fact is, books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.”
Tip: A great voice reflects the canon preceding it while striking a chord that resonates with both past and future, with both who we are and the forces—and voices—that created who we are.