Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What Is This Thing Called Voice?

by Deb Werksman

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 Georgette Heyer that I can practically recite by heart--two of my instant favorites are in The Foundling when Lord Lionel goes to his son Gideon's and excoriates his son's lifestyle, military unit, place of residence and servitors and in The Talisman Ring 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.

3) Characters.

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 Booker Prize 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

Larkin's criteria:
  • 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?
Do you have any thoughts to share on the subject of "voice?"


  1. I enjoyed this post very much. I hadn't really broken down the concept of "voice" myself, but these questions/criteria are an excellent way to look at it. I'll be using them myself in the future.

    This is my first visit to your blog and after reading this post, I've become a follower. I know I want to visit often.

    gaby317 @ Starting Fresh

  2. Hi Deb~

    Thanks for the great post and the plug.

    I agree with you about voice. It's present whenever there are all the criteria you listed. It's an author's fingerprint as opposed to something audible like an accent. It's the way they structure a sentence, a paragraph, a scene and the movement and flow of their work. Susan Elizabeth Phillips has an amazing voice whether her characters are from Texas or England, you always know SEP is writing.

  3. I blogged on this very thing last Friday at Romance Roundtable, called Name That. . .Voice. I tend to relate voice to musicians.

    This is a great post and gives me something more to ponder.

    Thank you,

  4. Deb--

    Very interesting post! I think "voice" is a very personal kind of experience, but I do think that a trend you find among successful authors all comes down to their individual voice that becomes instantly recognizable.

    One thing I love about this blog is that I can read a post and know who's writing it without having to see who posted it :)


  5. Hi Deb,

    I agree that there is a certain amount of ventriloquism involved in creating memorable voices, and there's no better place to go for examples than Austen.

    We can hear Mr. Bennet's wry tone as he tells his wife he is well acquainted with her nerves, and Darcy's stiffness when he refuses to dance. Lizzie's playful inflections come through clearly in her conversations with Jane and Charlotte, and who among us can't hear Lady Catherine's voice in her head?

    Austen was as much a master of voice as she was story and character. Not that I'm biased or anything. . .

  6. Great post Deb, and thanks for the kind words. I love when people tell me they can "hear" me in my books. They have no idea what a compliment that is to a writer!

  7. My voice is strongest when I write in first person. It's a shame it's such a no-no in many readers' minds.

    It's been suggested to me that I write the first draft in first person, then change it to third.
    Hmmm...that might work!

    As you know, Deb, I had to do that with one of my characters in Strange Neighbors and I think it helped.

    I must be more of a smart-alec than I realized since that's the voice I usually end up with in first person.


  8. Hi Deb,

    You did a great job covering voice. I hope you don't mind if I cut and paste it in an e-mail to a couple of unpublished friends. Or is that a no-no in the blog world?


  9. My guys were watching a soccer match last night where, for some odd reason, the "voice" of the crowd was muted. It just wasn't the same, couldn't hold their interest, couldn't even inspire their conversation. It struck me that soccer without the crowd is a bit like writing without a good voice too.

  10. Hey Gaby!
    Welcome to the CasaBabes blogs and BIG THANX for becoming a follower. In addition to the witty and insightful posts from us Babes, once a month have a post from our darling publicist Danielle, and most months a post from our lovely editor Deb.

    Oh and can't forget some GREAT launch parties at the beginning of the month.


  11. GREAT POST, Deb!

    Voice is one of those mysterious things, and it is wonderful that you've come up with criteria to help pin it down.

    I do feel like my voice is "evolving" with each new book I write. It is still distinctively mine, but even more so if that makes sense. :-P

    And BIG THANX for you kudos for my Irish hunks. I definitely 'hear' them speaking when I write their dialogue.


  12. Sheila,
    What an interesting observation about the muted soccer game. As an auto racing fan I can tell you that no broadcast will ever compare with being at a race (even a hometown one) live and in person!


  13. I so agree, Ash! My first person voice was much stronger than my third. Unfortunately, as my books changed heroines, my voice changed along with it, but I loved writing that way. I'm writing in third now, and I like the way I can move from one character's thoughts to another, but it's just not the same!

  14. Amelia, it's fine with me if you cut and paste my blog--you can also copy and paste the link and then your friend will have access to all the comments too.

    Renee, brilliant to compare voice to music--makes perfect sense!