Before writing this piece, I dug through my bookshelves and checked the Internet for definitions of voice in fiction writing. I discovered that most writers needed anywhere from a paragraph to an entire book to define that one simple word. They talked about voice as the author’s style, personality, character, attitude or even point of view.
You don’t say I like the voice, you say I like the book.
Defining voice is difficult because it’s an abstract term. When I’m reading a novel, if it grabs my attention, I don’t stop to analyze how the writer is handling voice. I am instantly lost in the story. If the writer’s voice is stilted, boring or derivative, I close the book.
Learning about voice through my critique group
I belong to a mystery writers’ critique group that includes traditional, fantasy, romance, police procedural, noir, thriller, suspense and more.
Until I started working with my group I had never analyzed voice other than to read about it in books and articles and wonder if my writing had it. We read five pages of each other’s work in progress and get together to talk in detail about what we like, how we feel about the characters, sequence of events or direction and what stands out as a red flag, not believable or out of context within those five pages. We ask lots of questions.
It’s valuable feedback for us to receive multiple perspectives at once. And here’s the surprise: I don’t even have to know who the writer is because I recognize the voice.
What I’ve learned is that a writer’s voice shows itself in different ways. One of the writers in my group writes wry, humorous noir stories in a sly and mischievous voice. Another writes fantasy in such a matter of fact way, the reader instantly loses any skepticism about the subject matter because the voice is so true and believes itself.
One writer knows her setting so well the reader automatically accepts it as a story you can trust, and another’s voice is defined by her extensive poetry background.
Having said all that, it’s still easier to hear another writer’s voice than my own, but one thing I have learned is that voice is everything and if it is distinctive and true, you keep reading.