What is Voice? Tips from our Fiction Editors

It’s a term often seen on rejection letters or reviews, but what does a ‘fresh voice’ mean? Is this really THE one thing commissioning editors look for? Please could you illustrate with an example – by that I mean could you tell us someone who’s burst onto the scene as being fresh and new, and explain, by referring to what was around at the time, why they are fresh and new. The example we hear so often is Zadie Smith – could you say WHY she was fresh? Was it her style, her subject matter, her slant on things? (sent in to us by Dan Holloway – an authonomist)

From a Senior Editor based in our Sydney office:

“Gosh! They teach whole degrees on this!

Voice is narration, where story is narrative. It’s definitely about how the story is being told, rather than about the story itself. If you think of even an omniscient third-person narrative as having a narrator (which it does, even if the narrator is not a definable character), then you might start to ‘hear’ the voice as you read.

Sometimes a distinctive voice is required; it’s most easily achieved with first-person narratives — think The Color Purple, Raymond Chandler’s laconic Philip Marlowe, or Louise Rennison’s neologising Georgia Nicolson. (You can definitely do this with third-person narratives too, you’re just less likely to be able to rely on patois or personality quirks. For some such authors, distinction comes from lyricism, beauty or brutality. Think Winterson, McCarthy, Morrison, Winton, Coetzee. Or a writer of historical fiction can inventively use period language to distinguish his or her work.)

On the other hand, the Harry Potter novels succeed in part because the voice is comfortable and unchallenging. We all know exactly where we are with the way the story was being told, so we can dive right in knowing that nothing about the writing would distract from the plot points. This applies to a lot of commercial fiction.

And that’s the most important thing about voice. It can definitely add to the story, but it must not distract from the story. Inconsistency, self-consciousness and cliché are three of the many flaws an inadequate voice might display.”

From a Senior Editor at Press Books based in our UK office:

“To me, it’s the voice you hear in your head as you’re reading. It sets the tone for the book, establishes the truth of the characters and is, I think, the backbone of any good story.

It’s one of the main things I look for, along with great characterization and a compelling plotline. I guess what is meant is a voice that rings true from the first page, that reads unlike anything else either because of the voice itself (its cadences, accents, idioms, etc) or because it provides a new viewpoint on a subject that previously seemed familiar. I loved Ross Raisin’s book, God’s Own Country, for this reason. The narrator’s voice is different from anything else I’ve read, the idiom totally idiosyncratic, and his point of view very, very different (thank god) from those we’re usually presented with.”

From an Editor of adult fiction based in our New York office:

“"Voice" is the tone/feeling/sensibilities that emerge from a narrative and hold it together.”