(This post was originally written by me for my writing group blog.)
Since I started getting serious about writing, I've done a lot of research about the various elements of fiction writing, and about what agents and publishers are looking for, and one specific nugget has stuck out: It's all about the voice.
For three years I've read various agents - probably everyone that writes a blog - tout how important voice it. If you've got it, almost nothing else matters. They can fix plot problems. They can deal with weak characters. But voice... well, either you have it or you don't. And if you've got it, you're golden.
The problem I stumbled over time and time again was trying to figure out what voice was. What was this thing I needed to have that would snag me an agent and get my book published? And why was it such an indefinable, vague thing that no one could tell me what it was? After hemming and hawing over post after post, most agents ended up with the incredibly not helpful: "We just know it when we see it."
Lately, though, I've seen more and more trying to define it, and it usually goes something like this: "It's what makes you sound like you. It's how you pick up a Hemingway and know it's Hemingway, or a Grisham and know it's Grisham. It's your personality. "
In the humblest of ways, I'd like to say that's wrong. That isn't voice. That's writing style. A person's writing style - the words they tend towards using, the length of their sentences, their use of punctuation, the casualness or formality with which they approach writing – is something that usually remains somewhat consistent once a writer finds his groove. If a writer stays within a certain genre, the writing style can be fairly recognizable from book to book.
But the voice... the voice should reflect the story, the characters, their mood and social standing and education, where they live and where they've come from. If a character is uneducated or mentally challenged, the way Perry Crandall is in Patricia Wood's LOTTERY, you expect the voice to reflect that. If the character is sad or rebellious or buoyant, the language an author uses will show that.
And that is something that changes from book to book, from character to character. A voice can change within a single book if the narrator changes. There's nothing more frustrating to a reader than reading a book with several main narrators that you need a notation at the top of every chapter to tell you who is speaking now.
When an agent says they love your voice in fiction, they aren't talking about the length of sentences or sentence structure; they aren't talking about the style that makes you sound like you. They are talking about what sounds like your characters. Not the characters themselves, but the way the writing reflects the characters. Which is why the stronger the character, the stronger the voice.
Very few readers are going to fall in love with you. They aren't going to rave at coffee shops with friends about the way your writing sounds like you. They're going to rave about your characters. And how they love them. And how they feel like they know them and want to spend time with them.
And isn't that the way it's suppose to be?