What is Voice?
On their websites, agents say they want:
“A distinct voice is imperative.” ~ Linda Epstein (Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency)
“…fiction with fresh, unique voices...” ~ Allison Devereaux (Wolf Literary Agency)
“…voice-driven narratives…” ~ Chelsea Lindman (Greenberger Associates)
“…unique, literary voices…” ~ Rachael Dillon Fried (Greenberger Assoc.)
“…fresh voices…” ~ Shannon Hassan (Marsal Lyon Literary Agency)
“…a strong voice…” ~ Claire Anderson Wheeler (Regal Literary)
“…a captivating and distinct voice…” ~ Fiona Kenshole (Transatlantic Agency)
“…a resonant, lively voice…” ~ Roz Foster (Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency)
“…the strength of the voice…” ~ Rachel Hecht (Foundry Literary)
“…character driven stories with strong voice.” ~ Samantha Dighton (D4EO Agency)
“…strong voices…” ~ Laura Biagi (Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency)
“…strong voices…” ~ Pooja Menon (Kimberly Cameron & Assoc)
“…strong voices…” ~ Adrienne Rosado (Nancy Yost Literary Agency)
I could go on, but you get the picture.
What is this magical thing called “voice” that all agents say they want?
Voice refers to two things in writing: Author’s Voice and Character Voice.
So which does an agent want? Both.
I’ll explain author’s voice in this newsletter and character voice in June’s newsletter.
“A writer's voice is the individual writing style of an author, a combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialog, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works).” ~ Wikipedia
Simply put, it’s the words the author chooses and how he strings them together.
Those definitions are actually an example of author’s voice. In the first, the Wiki author is formal and uses the most exact words he can find to make the definition seem professional. My definition is casual, reader-friendly, and simplistic. Neither is right or wrong. They’re just choices.
The good news is: As long as you keep writing, your own voice will develop naturally—it's not something you have to study or learn.
The bad news is: It can take some time (years) for a writer to develop their own particular voice, and it may require some experimentation with different styles of writing.
Examples of Author Voice
Here are some examples of famous authors’ writing and my interpretation of things that make their voice recognizable.
Stephen King, On Writing
She and her mother lived in a trailer home not too far from me, with their dog, Cheddar Cheese. Sondra had a burbly, uneven voice, as if she were always speaking through a throatful of tightly packed phlegm. She wasn’t fat, but her flesh had a loose, pale look, like the undersides of some mushrooms. Her hair clung to her pimply cheeks in tight Little Orphan Annie curls. She had no friends (except for Cheddar Cheese, I guess). One day her mother hired me to move some furniture. Dominating the trailer’s living room was a nearly life-sized crucified Jesus, eyes turned up, mouth turned down, blood dribbling from beneath the crown of thorns on his head. He was naked except for a rag twisted around his hips and loins. Above this bit of breechclout were the hollowed belly and the jutting ribs of a concentration-camp inmate.
No one does a better job making simple things sound creepy. Note the passive verbs: had, were, wasn’t, was. (He sure uses them a lot for someone whose advice is to use active verbs.) He also “tells” a lot, but with an exceptionally strong and confident storyteller’s voice. He wants his novels to read easily, smoothly, and feel comfortable, so he chooses a conversational style and simple words. He thinks: "Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word." His power is in his creepy imagery and his flawed characters.
Dean Koontz, Sole Survivor
Down through the vaulted conifers came fluttering white wings of storm light, and again, and still more, as if the cracking sky were casting out a radiant multitude. Thunder and the rush of wind beat like pinions at Joe's ears, and by the many thousands, feathered shadows swooped and shuddered between the tree trunks and across the forest floor. Just as he and Barbara reached her Ford Explorer at the weedy end of the narrow dirt lane, a great fall of rain hissed and roared through the pines. They piled inside, their hair and faces jewelled, and her periwinkle-blue blouse was spattered with spots as dark as plum skin.
Koontz enjoys writing lyrical descriptions, but he also inserts action to keep his plots moving forward. He rarely 'tells," preferring to "show" every facet of his world. He prefers long sentences in the narrative portions. His novels are fast-paced, and his characters are usually either very good or very evil.
Max Brooks, World War Z
Just outside of Greater Los Angeles, in a town called Claremont, are five colleges - Pomona, Pitzer, Scripps, Harvey Mudd, and Claremont Mckenna. At the start of the Great Panic, when everyone else was running, literally, for the hills, three hundred students chose to make a stand. They turned the Women's College at Scripps into something resembling a medieval city. They got their supplies from the other campuses; their weapons were a mix of landscaping tools and ROTC practice rifles. They planted gardens, dug wells, fortified an already existing wall. While the mountains burned behind them, and the surrounding suburbs descended into violence, those three hundred kids held off ten thousand zombies! Ten thousand, over the course of four months, until the Inland Empire could finally be pacified.
Brooks writes in first person and uses a journalistic style. His focus is on plot and what happens next. His word choices and sentences are relaxed and conversational. It’s rather unusual that he basically “tells” a whole book—but the ideas are so interesting that it works.
Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart
So intent was Frank upon solving the puzzle of Lemarchand's box that he didn't hear the great bell begin to ring. The device had been constructed by a master craftsman, and the riddle was this-that though he'd been told the box contained wonders, there simply seemed to be no way into it, no clue on any of its six black lacquered faces as to the whereabouts of the pressure points that would disengage one piece of this three-dimensional jigsaw from another.
To me, it always seems as if Barker is narrating his books from a podium at the head of a class - he writes as if every line is important. Born in Britain, he uses British turns of phrase. "Indeed," his books have a formal style and you may have to keep a dictionary handy, since he likes to include words like “ameliorate” and "theologians."
Blake Crouch, The Pines
Ethan’s chest heaved under his hospital gown and he could feel the bass drum thump of his accelerating pulse rate. He glanced back toward the nurses’ station, caught a glimpse of Pam disappearing around the corner.
For a moment, he was alone on the corridor.
He eased the tension and then jerked back hard enough for the steel edges of the bracelets to dig into his wrists. On his left, it broke skin, blood sprinkling on the sheet.
His legs were free.
He threw his right one over the side of the railing, stretching and straining to reach the wall, but he was three inches short.
Crouch embraces the modern style of using third-person close limited POV. He shows instead of tells. His writing focuses on plot and action, so he specifically uses short lines and many paragraphs. This is called “using the white” space, and it’s been said that James Patterson sells so well because he’s a master of using the white—short lines, short paragraphs, short chapters—which makes it easy for the reader to read quickly when it’s exciting.
Your own "Author's Voice" is based on the style choices you make, such as:
Long descriptions of characters and setting VS short descriptions, leaving it to the reader to fill in the blanks.
Mostly descriptive narrative and thoughts VS mostly dialog and action
Casual and comfortable word choices VS a formal style with unusual word choices
Long sentences VS short sentences VS a combination of the two
Characters who are blatantly good or evil VS characters who are multi-layered in shades of gray
After some trial and error, some styles will feel more comfortable to you than others, and soon, you’ll have your very own AUTHOR’S VOICE. Just like the best-selling, award-winning author and poet, Erica Jong --
“I write lustily and humorously. It isn't calculated; it's the way I think. I've invented a writing style that expresses who I am.”
~ Erica Jong
Until next time: Let the horror bleed onto the pages with every word!