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Agents and editors often say that they’re looking for a narrative with a compelling voice or a “voice driven narrative.”
What does that mean?
When agents talk about voice, they’re referring to the voice of a writer, an author’s voice. Voice is not just about style or a distinctive style, it is inseparable from the writing itself. Voice is a writer’s perspective of the world.
It incorporates elements of style and tone, for example, voice can be descriptive and poetic or it can be spare and pared back. It can be the central feature of a narrative or it can be neutral. What is important about voice is that it is honest and consistent.
I would describe voice as a writer’s signature. Voice inhabits the writing, and it is what gives the writing dimension. It is one of the most powerful tools that you can use to make a manuscript compelling.
Voice varies from author to author. There’s the stylized hardboiled prose of Raymond Chandler or Cormac McCarthy or the evocative lushness of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”. When I think of great voices in storytelling, some of my favourite examples are Elizabeth Strout’s narration in “Olive Kitteridge” or “My Name is Lucy Barton”. There’s Jonathan Safran Foer’s child narrator, which is stylistic and imaginative like in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”. There’s the lilting rhythm of Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things” which sounds like poetry, and there’s the quiet, rhythmic authority of Chimamanda Adichie’s “Americanah”.
Author voice is something that needs to be cultivated. It’s unique to each writer. As a writer, you automatically have a voice, but in order to utilize it, it is something every writer has to develop. Honesty in voice is essential. It’s very obvious when a writer is “trying” on a voice. It immediately pulls a reader out of a narrative.
One of my former colleagues used to say that he disliked “MFA voice”. He described it as an affectation, overly stylized and artificial that used a distant and overly passive tone in writing. I don’t know if it was fair to describe it as an “MFA voice”, but it is a mistake that writers often make early on in their career, especially in creative writing classes, thinking of voice as something that has to be hammered out or particularly unique.
Remember that voice doesn’t necessarily have to be stylistic, it can be neutral. Voice should feel natural, it shouldn’t feel separate from the writing. A narrative led by voice does usually feature a distinctive voice, but that doesn’t mean that a stylistic voice is necessary to make a narrative compelling.
One of the most effective ways to establish voice is through rhythm and varying sentence length. There is a very well-known quote by Gary Provost that discusses the power of sentence length in creating rhythm and tone. His advice ultimately ends with, “Don’t just write words. Write music.” It’s a remarkable example of how sentence length can create an atmosphere and be arresting, but also capture a reader’s attention.
Voice is a presence within the words, something that is utilized whether you choose first person or third person narration. It’s often easier to create a compelling voice in first person narration. If you are using first person narration, it’s important that a character’s voice is unusual and strong enough to carry a narrative. First person narration needs to be earned, the voice needs to be a character in itself to be able to draw in a reader.
A writer’s voice is their interpretation of the world around them. I think of the metaphor of a violinist playing a piece of music. The notes to the piece are the same for every violinist, but each musician’s interpretation will be different. I suppose voice is the bow hand, it’s the way the bow hand draws music from the strings. Voice is an integral part of writing, it is difficult to describe because it is so inseparable from writing. One thing I do believe is that voice isn’t something you can seek, it is something that you develop from within.