Voice is that ineffable quality agents and editors are looking for. They may not be able to describe it or tell you how to put it in your manuscript, but they know instantly when voice is missing or mundane and are quick to hand out rejections based on that lack.
Voice distinctly identifies you as a writer and your books as having been written only by you. It is a gestalt of all the writerly choices you get to make, including point of view, word choice, sentence structure, verb tense, all of it. It can be thought of as the actual “voice” you may hear in your head when you read a book.
Take these three random examples (two books I’m reading right now; the third I knew had a voice different than the others. And for the record, I purchased all the books).
I’d explained where we were going when we had started out. The vampire had said nothing, but then he often said nothing, and he hadn’t disagreed. I had the knife-key in my bra; we’d either find him a nice deep patch of shadow while I did my trick again, or he could keep his hands on my shoulders to maintain the Sun Screen Factor: Absolute Plus.
Taggart glanced at Boyle and smiled; the smile was pointed, it seemed to say that something in his words was an answer to something in the words of Boyle. “The liquor they serve here is swill. I suppose that’s the price we have to pay for not being crowded by all kinds of rabble. But I do wish they’d recognize that they’re dealing with experts. Since I hold the purse strings, I expect to get my money’s worth and at my pleasure.”
He doesn’t wake easily.
As his body fades, the pull of his dreams grows eerily stronger. Now, if his door is open, Janie can’t enter that wing.
She hadn’t planned for this.
She makes an odd request on every shift. “If you cover the east wing, I’ll take the rest.”
In Example 1, McKinley’s voice is conversational, sarcastic, a bit long-winded with those long sentences with lots of subordinate clauses.
Rand’s voice is much more formal, literate while McMann’s voice is almost a polar opposite to Rand’s. McMann uses short crisp sentences and simple word choices.
If you read any of these authors and then pick up another book, you’ll know immediately it was written by someone else. That’s voice.
- Word choice: do you use high-falutin’ words or plain? Voice is included in the distinction between crimson and red, avaricious or greedy, and somnambulant and sleep-walking. Do you use slang? Curses?
- Sentence structure: Fragments and short crisp sentences like McMann? Long literary sentences like Rand? Parenthetical asides like McKinley?
- Point of view: first person, third person. Limited, tight, or omniscient?
- Verb tense: past or present tense?
- Verb “voice”: passive or active?
- Dialog: do you use it? How often?
- Addressing the reader: some writers do (McKinley is one), others don’t.
So, if voice is so important, how do you develop it?
Practice, of course, but as The Boy’s basketball coach once said, “Perfect practice makes practice perfect.” In other words, if you practice crap, you’ll never get any better. So, what do you practice?
Practice outracing your inner critic. So long as someone is censoring your words, you’ll never tune in to your own natural voice. You’ll keep second-guessing yourself and stop digging deep into your creative well to say what you really want to say.
Practice someone else’s voice. Read 50 to 100 pages of your favorite author (or any of the three here). Then sit down, set a timer, and writer for 15 minutes in the same voice. Need a prompt? Write whatever comes to mind using these three words:
FAIL BALL BLANKET
Write anything at all, so long as you don’t stop to criticize yourself. See what feels right and what feels wrong writing in someone else’s style.
Then do the exercise again with a different author. Then do it again. As you copy other writers’ voices, you start to learn what feels right for you. You may find McMann’s fragments feel right to you. You may enjoy the literary style of Rand. You may love writing directly to your audience the way McKinley does. You may find Stephen King to be closer to your style.
Finding your voice is a bit about experimentation so plan on failing for a while before you pinpoint exactly what feels right for you (and what your critique partners tell you is real improvement and originality).