An early seafaring novel by a celebrated nineteenth-century novelist begins:
It was the middle of a bright tropical afternoon that we made good our escape from the bay. The vessel we sought lay with her main-topsail aback about a league from the land and was the only object that broke the broad expanse of the ocean.
Years later the novelist wrote another first-person seafaring novel that begins:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.
The opening of Omoo raises some intriguing questions—Why does the narrator need to escape from the bay? Whom are the narrator and his companions escaping from?—and gives a clear and vivid picture of the waiting ship. The opening of Moby-Dick is irresistible. What makes the difference?
The answer, of course, is voice. And judging from these two Herman Melville novels, even the greatest voices develop over time. Certainly when he wrote Omoo Melville had not yet found what John Gardner (in On Becoming a Novelist) has called “his booming, authoritative voice.” In the Moby-Dick opening, Gardner points out, the rhythms “lift and roll, pause, gather, roll again.” The authority is unmistakable. ...
A strong, distinctive, authoritative writing voice is something most fiction writers want—and something no editor or teacher can impart. There are, after all, no rules for writing like yourself. Voice is, however, something you can bring out in yourself. The trick is not to concentrate on it.
But though you shouldn’t consciously work on your voice as you write, there is a way to encourage it when you get to the self-editing stage. Start by rereading a short story, scene, or chapter as if you were reading it for the first time (rather as you would read in self-editing for proportion). Whenever you come to a sentence or phrase that gives you a little jab of pleasure, that makes you say, “Ah, yes,” that sings—highlight that passage in a color you like (we use yellow) or underline it. ...
Then go through and read aloud all the sentences you highlighted or underlined. Don’t analyze them for the moment, just try to absorb their rhythm or fullness or simplicity or freshness or whatever made them sing to you. What you’ve been reading aloud will represent, for now, your voice at its most effective. And making yourself conscious of it in this mechanical way will strengthen it as you continue your work.
Now read through the same section again, and when you come to those passages that make you wince or that seem to fall flat, just draw a wavy line under them. Go back and read consecutively all the passages you didn’t like, and this time try to analyze what makes them different from the passages that sang to you. Is the writing flat? Strained? Awkward? Obvious? Pedestrian? Forced? Vague or abstract?
If flatness seems to be the problem, take a look at the surrounding sentences and see if they don’t all have the same structure. Too many straight declarative sentences in a row, for instance, will flatten out anyone’s writing. If the problem is abstraction or vagueness, rewrite for specificity. “A man walked into the room and ordered a drink” hasn’t one fifth the bite of “A dwarf stepped up to the bar and ordered a Bloody Mary.”
If the passage seems obvious, check for explanations—whether in dialogue, interior monologue, even narration—and cut or rewrite accordingly. And if the writing seems strained or forced or awkward, try reading the passage aloud, listening carefully for any little changes you’re inclined to make while reading. More often than not, those changes will be in the direction of your natural voice.
If you do this exercise often enough, you will develop a sensitivity to your own voice that will gently encourage the development of the confidence and distinction you’re after. And this is as true of character voice as it is of narrative voice.