What is Voice?
People ask a lot what voice is, in part because it's a word that a lot of professionals
in the industry use as a code for something that's missing in a book, or that's right
about it. Editors and agents will say that "voice" is the main reason that they buy
manuscripts, not because they are looking for a book in a particular genre or on a
particular topic. They will keep reading a manuscript even if they think there are
problems in it, so long as there is voice. But if there isn't voice, then they put an
otherwise well-crafted manuscript down.
But what is voice? This is what a lot of aspiring writers want to know. I've a list.
1. The grammar mistakes that you make on purpose when you write.
2. What makes the narrator in the book you are writing not you.
3. The way that your plot unfolds.
4. The subject your book is about.
5. The theme of your book.
6. The balance of dialog and description.
7. The kind of magic system you employ, rule bound or not, metaphor or not.
8. The way you talk about men and women and the relationships between them.
9. The way you present your villains.
10. What you can't stop doing if you tried.
11. What you lose when you let yourself write by committee.
12. What makes people throw your book across the room.
13. What makes people remember your book years later.
14. What makes people reread your book again and again.
15. The way you begin sentences, and end them.
16. The number of adjectives you use in front of a noun.
17. The number of prepositions you use.
18. The way you put your sentences together, including how many clauses you use
and how long your paragraphs tend to be.
19. The length of your chapters and the way that you end them and begin them.
20. The way that scenes are moved out of and into.
21. That one word that your editor keeps taking out of your manuscript, but you
know you still have too many uses of, but you just can't get rid of.
22. The unnecessary details that you keep putting in, to make your world seem
larger than just a book.
23. The parts of the book that you clearly savor, where every part is luscious and
you couldn't cut back to save your soul.
24. The things you forget about while writing, which of the five senses, what
physical details that don't matter to you, dialog tags and so forth.
25. The parts of the characters that are really you, even though no one else would
guess that they are.
26. The cadence of your words and sentences all delivered together, which mark
you as from one part of the county, as from a particular religious group.
27. The literary allusions and heritage that you reveal with every sentence.
28. Your vocabulary, which is formed from the English you know and have read
and every other language you have ever learned, even a little bit of.
I think I can tell the difference between a book written post-Harry Potter and one
not. Also one post-Twilight and not. I think I can tell the difference between a
writer who has read Dickens and Shakespeare and one who hasn't, which isn't
necessarily here or there, but means there is a different texture to the language.
Voice is something that most people tell you not to worry about. The worst thing
you can probably do is try to create a voice in yourself. Mostly what this does is
mark you as an amateur who has a voice that is merely imitative. Some of my
earliest books were written in the "style" of other writers I admired. There is
nothing wrong with trying on different styles as you work into your own, but you
can't borrow someone else's voice. Even if you are writing a Regency romance,
you are going to write your own, not Jane Austen's and not Georgette Heyer's.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison