Many times at conferences I hear other editors and agents talk about looking for a "fresh, new voice" or a "strong voice." I've never looked for "voice" myself, because it's too nebulous a term, and "I'll know it when I see it" has never struck me as a particularly useful guideline.
I have come to the conclusion that "voice" is actually a code word for several other things:
1) The quality of the writing.
The strongest writing is distinctive and memorable--it leaves whole passages in the reader's head and heart after you've finished reading. Examples: After reading a Carolyn Brown cowboy romance my inner voice has a West Texas accent (REALLY incongruous for this East Coast big city girl). There are entire passages of that I can practically recite by heart--two of my instant favorites are in when Lord Lionel goes to his son Gideon's and excoriates his son's lifestyle, military unit, place of residence and servitors and in when hero Ludovic insists on proving his prowess with a pistol in the cellar. Finally, the scene in Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm when the Duke goes to the Quaker Meeting Room at the end and confronts his duchess is etched permanently in my mind.
2) The world-building.
A lot of historical fiction hinges on the author's ability to mimic the language of the time period, and bring the reader there in imagination. Similarly, in paranormals the world-building is paramount. Marie Force does this brilliantly in her contemporaries--it's her voice that creates the private world of the hero and heroine, and all the complications therein (I'm a big fan!). This is also where the sense of humor or the darkness (or combination thereof) shows up so brilliantly and defines the world.
In dialog, the characters' voices are the author's voice and vice versa. Robin Kaye does this brilliantly in Romeo, Romeo and her other Italian-American romantic comedies, and Loucinda McGary's Irish rogue heroes give me shivers up my spine when they speak in that Irish brogue. And a feisty heroine is just my cup of tea, saying stuff I don't say in real life--check out Kathryne Kennedy's My Unfair Lady or Beth Cornelison's Healing Luke or Joanne Kennedy's Cowboy Trouble.
4) Finally (last and never least!) is the hook--a strong voice will make for a strong hook and a strong hook will often give the author direction for her voice.
So, in the end, "voice" shows up in ALL my criteria, as well as Philip Larkin's (poet laureate, judge of the for Literature), so here they are again:
- heroine the reader can relate to
- hero she can fall in love with
- a world gets created
- a hook I can sell with in 2-3 sentences
- a career arc for the author
- Can I read it?
- If I can read it, can I believe it?
- If I can believe it, do I care?
- If I care, what is the depth of that caring and how long will it last?