What We Talk About When We Talk About Voice

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Ah, voice. The semi-ambiguous, yet oh-so-incredibly important descriptor of…what, exactly?

Whenever I’m asked to define voice, I will openly admit I tend to struggle. You know, I say. It’s the writing. How the words are put together. The flow and rhythm and word choice and…words. 

The words. Yes, I see now why I’m a writer.

As difficult as it can sometimes be to describe, voice is a huge component when it comes to how people read and interpret your writing. And in the publishing industry, it is, quite frequently, a make-or-break element of a manuscript. For example
The voice didn’t grab me.  
I didn’t love the voice as much as I’d hoped.  
The voice is too X for my tastes.
are all reasons I’ve seen submissions rejected or books poorly reviewed (or even used when recommending a rejection myself). By the same token
The voice is so compelling (or quirky or [insert happy adjective here]). 
The voice is strong and well-written. 
are all praises I’ve seen (and/or given) for submissions and published books.

So, okay, we all know it’s important, but what is it? And why is it so important? (These two questions are related, so the answers will be two-fold).

Voice is everything I said above, and more. It’s every syntax and word choice you make, it’s why you said the color of the sky right before a snowstorm instead of grayish blue or even just gray. It’s why you said Kristoff was completely and utterly drained instead of Kristoff was so so tired or Kristoff was f*cking exhausted.

It's the difference between
"I am an hourglass.  
My seventeen years have collapsed and buried me from the inside out. My legs feel full of sand and stapled together, my mind overflowing with grains of indecision, choices unmade and impatient as time runs out of my body. The small hand of a clock taps me at one and two, three and four, whispering hello, get up, stand up, it's time to  
wake up 
wake up 
'Wake up,' he whispers." —Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi
"There's these two kids, boys, sitting close together, squished in by the big arms of an old chair. You're the one on the left.  
The other boy's warm to lean close to, and he moves his gaze from the telly to you sort of in slow motion.  
'You enjoying it?' he asks." —Half Bad by Sally Green
"XTC was no good for drowning out the morons at the back of the bus.  
Park pressed his headphones into his ears.  
Tomorrow he was going to bring Skinny Puppy or the Misfits. Or maybe he'd make a special bus tape with as much screaming and wailing on it as possible." —Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

It’s what you say, how you say it and it’s embedded in every sentence of your manuscript.

Which is why it’s so important. Voice is a fundamental part of a book—if the reader doesn’t connect with or like the voice for one reason or another, chances are very likely they’re not going to really enjoy the book. For agents and editors, not liking the voice in a manuscript means they aren’t going to love the manuscript, which means they’re not going to offer (because believe it or not, the work behind publishing is very much a labor of love). Not liking a voice means they’re probably not going to offer an R&R, either. (Probably). Why? Because fixing the voice isn’t something you can really do. At least, not without a ridiculously huge overhaul.

Don’t get me wrong, a problem spot here and there where the voice feels off can totally slide as long as the voice in the rest of the manuscript is solid—problem spots, after all, can be fixed. Entire manuscripts with large-scale voice issues? Much more difficult.

So what does this mean? How do you learn to write a compelling voice? How do you know if your voice is any good?

The answer is pretty simple, really:

  1. Read (a lot). 
  2. Write (a lot). 
  3. Trade critiques with CPs (a lot). 
  4. Repeat. 
  5. Also, read. 

This may seem like a simplistic way to answer a complicated question, but there’s really no better way to become a better writer and learn to recognize (and, eventually, produce) compelling voices.

And once it clicks? There’s no going back. Which, in this case, is a pretty awesome thing.

What do you think? Would you add anything to the voice explanation? Also, what are some examples of compelling voices you’ve come across? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
When it comes to writing, what is voice and why is it so important? @Ava_Jae shares her thoughts. (Click to tweet)  
.@Ava_Jae says voice is frequently a make-or-break element of a MS. What do you think? (Click to tweet)  
Voice is "what you say, how you say it and it's embedded in every sentence of your manuscript." (Click to tweet)


Heather said...

I think it's interesting, because earlier this week I read two blog posts, one giving advice on how to find writing voice and the other saying that trying to "find your voice" is ridiculous because it's innate. I think this helped, a little, not because it changed my mind but it put into words what I couldn't figure out before. "If the reader doesn’t connect with or like the voice" well then, perhaps an 'innate' voice isn't the best key at all...

I know that voice is something I currently struggle with all. the. time. but I do think that Neal Shusterman and A.C. Gaughen have unique writing voices and some of my favorites, screw the criticisms on Goodreads.

Ava Jae said...

Heh, so I take a middle ground with this. On one hand, I agree that voice is innate, and I think when you focus on "finding" your voice, a lot of writers tend to...force it, I guess. That being said, the voice doesn't develop if you don't do anything, which is why I think it's so important to read widely and write plenty. :)

Heather said...

That argument would make sense too. I recently read a pretty painful book, and I can see how that forced voice would come through... But then I think the innate voice goes back to the talent vs. skill argument with writing, and I don't enjoy that one either. Blah.

Ava Jae said...

Ahhh no no no. I don't mean innate like you're born with a great writing voice—I mean innate like it's something that develops naturally, subconsciously as you read and write. I definitely disagree with the talent argument, too.

Heather said...

OHHHH, that would make more sense. Yes, that would definitely do it. I was confused. XD Thanks for clearing that up.

Ava Jae said...

Ha ha no worries! :)

Leandra said...

I agree that it takes lots of practice to develop your own unique voice. And I think in revisions is where you can help to bring out and develop the voice in a manuscript if it's currently sort of 'buried'. Revising for voice = get yer shovel! ;)

Ava Jae said...

That's a great point! Revisions can totally be the perfect place to refine your voice. I like the buried/shovel analogy, too. Or you could look at is as a chisel. Either way, agree. :)

Lola R said...

I usually call it writing style instead of voice, but I think this post is pretty spot on! Great post! It's really difficult to describe what voice is exactly or how to describe an author's voice.

I think that voice/writing style is a very personal preference, whether a reader likes the voice or not, can really depend from person to person. A few authors have a writing style I connect with and I will probably read everything by them, just because of the writing style. It's also easier to get into a book when I like the writing style. On the other hand I couldn't stand the writing style of Shatter Me and it was one of the main reasons I DNF'd the book, while I know many other people love it.

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Lola! I agree—voice can be extremely subjective, especially, I think, with stronger (and more unique) voices. I loved the Shatter Me series largely because of the voice, but I know there were definitely many like yourself who couldn't connect with it at all and thus hated it. (Which is understandable, because if you don't like the voice, enjoying the book is going to be much more difficult).

Ellen said...

Ava -- Another excellent post! I've sounded off on "voice" myself (see https://ellenbooks.wordpress.com/2014/05/31/finding-your-voice-2/ ) to add the idea that narrative voice can be thought of as yet another character. A strong narrative voice -- regardless of whether the story is told in first, second, or third person -- can add personality to the telling of the story, or dimension in other ways. The example I use is historical fiction: when the story is told in the manner that (for example) 19th Century novels were written, then you have a distinctive voice for that particular novel. And it wouldn't be the voice of the author, either. So I put "voice" out there apart from even the author's natural storytelling style, and consider it another element of the book that has to fit as well any other piece.

Ava Jae said...

Yeah, I think it depends on the MS, but the narrative voice can definitely be a voice/character on its own, too. Thanks so much, Ellen!

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