I remember when I first heard the word 'voice' in relation to writing, and I thought WTF? Do they mean the dialogue?
But if you've ever read an Austen novel and been able to imagine perfectly the smirk on the face of one of her heroines as she delivers a subtle but devastating assessment, that's because you 'hear' it in the voice. If you read Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and suddenly find yourself thinking in a Glaswegian accent (and using the c-word where normally you'd just pause for breath), that's because you've been drawn into the voice. And if you've read Chuck Palahniuk's Choke and suddenly realised you were rooting for the sex-addicted con man, you'll know what a sneaky, powerful thing great voice can be.
But what exactly is voice?
Here's my understanding of it:
If your novel is in 3rd-person, the voice of your novel is the style, personality and attitude you give your writing.
If your novel has a 1st-person narrative, the voice is the phrasing and speech patterns of the narrator.
That's pretty straightforward, right?
|CC image by Danny Getz|
For example - I'm not a MG reader. I doubt I've read a published MG novel since I was that age myself. Just not my thing. But I've read quite a few samples lately *cough cough* which were MG, and I could still see great voice in the writing. Or not, in some cases. But whether I like MG or not doesn't actually matter. It matters whether an agent who reps MG or someone picking your book up in a bookstore likes the voice in your MG novel because they're your target readers.
It's the same as with the 3 examples I gave above - ask a hundred readers if they liked the voice in Emma or Trainspotting or Choke and you'll get different responses. Austen, Welsh and Palahniuk aren't going to be everyone's favourite authors. Doesn't mean they don't all have great voice.
Not connecting with a voice doesn't mean it's not there - and that's the really tricky part. The part where if you get an agent's response that they "just didn't connect with the voice" and you think but all my CPs said it had tons of voice...
|CC image by Alex Proimos|
The thing (and you can start throwing things at me now) is to keep going until you find the one who does like the voice in your MS, and all the other components which make up your novel. This might be the thing which makes your novel from the POV of a sociopathic serial killer draw people in. (Dexter, anyone?)
I read an article which said that voice is something a writer develops over time. I don't know whether this is true or not. I've read a lot of MSs by first-timers that I think have fantastic voice. And some where the voice isn't stand-out. But again, that's just my opinion. But I can see, especially with authors who publish a series of books, how they find a voice that works for them and their readers and stick with it. At least for a while. Then maybe they go off and write a book for adults about a town council election with nary a wizard in sight...who knows. Maybe the voice stays the same, maybe it falls flat, or maybe it changes and is still great voice.
Voice, if you get it right, is what will make a reader feel like they know your characters and the world you've created, and were there when the story unfolded. It's the suck you in element that makes you forget you're reading, and can make an otherwise horrible character sympathetic. Most of all, it's what might just get you a "WOW" when the reader closes the book.