Voice. There's nothing like it it for selling your novel. Voice is the most important, most frequently requested element that agents, editors and publishers seek. "I just want a terrific story, beautifully written," I've heard agents announce at conferences. "But more than anything, a unique and compelling voice."
Let's be honest. As outrageously demanding as this sounds, as if the bar is set so high almost no one can reach it, it's not unrealistic. All three elements are increasingly important in today's market, whether it's the traditional market or the emerging one. So let's do it. After hyperventilating a little (or a lot), we can get down to business. Let's start by focusing on that unique and compelling voice. Because if we have a great story to tell, the voice will sell it or sink it. (And if the story is good, but not great, the voice can still put it in the running.)
What voice comes down to, for me, is authenticity and heart. Here are four examples from great writers with outstanding voices, in different genres:
From Still Life, Louise Penny's debut Inspector Gamache mystery novel: the opening paragraph:
Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday. It was pretty much a surprise all round. Miss Neal's was not a natural death, unless you're of the belief everything happens as it's supposed to. If so, for her seventy-six years Jane Neal had been walking toward this final moment when death met her in the brilliant maple woods on the verge of the village of Three Pines. She'd fallen spread-eagled, as though making angels in the bright and brittle leaves.
From Tell Me a Riddle, a literary short story by the incomparable Tillie Olsen: the opening paragraph:
For forty-seven years they had been married. How deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, no one could say—but only now, when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled them together, the roots swelled up visible, split the earth between them, and the tearing shook even to the children, long since grown.
From Tomato Red, a crime novel whose author, Daniel Woodrell, has been dubbed the master of Ozark Noir: from page two:
"Can't be none of this be new to you."
The gal with her mouth full of shoe-peg corn (her teeth, from previous description) and the bright idea in the first place drives over and lets me off at the curb, and there's another burglar passed out in the backseat who won't be of any help. She doses a kiss out to me, a dry peck on the lips, and claims she'll keep her eyes peeled and I should give her the high sign once I've burgled my way inside.
From Fair and Tender Ladies, a novel in the mainstream fiction category, by Lee Smith: from page two, written in a ten-year-old's Appalachian voice:
Mr. Castle said NO I forbid it, he has no prospects, and said he wuld send my momma to her mothers sister in Memphis Tennessee where my momma never had been or even heard tell of, to learn her some sense and how to act like a lady at last. Instead my momma packed up her own mommas silver brush and comb, which was all she took, and lit out in the dead of nigt for Sugar Fork with my daddy John Arthur Rowe. He is a redheaded man he had been over ther in Rich Valley with his brother trading mules. My momma and him rode double astride on daddys horse Lightning. She was glad to leave, she said, and never looked back nor cared for a thing but my daddy.
I'm working on a historical novel now, about the Shawnee Indians in the Ohio River Valley, beginning in the 1780s. The voice I use is critically important to the novel's believability, and challenging because the protagonist is a Shawnee woman who's story starts when she is a girl of nine, and goes until she is a very old woman indeed. I've done a ton of research and, in that process, the voice of the adult woman came to me, but the child's voice has a special challenge. It must show that she is older than her years because of what she's already lived through, older in many ways than today's typical nine-year olds because of the century and culture she lives in, but still filled with the energy and idealism of a child. It's difficult to find exactly the right tone and rhythm to convey all that. But I think I've found a way to do it, by combining the formality of language of that time with the childhood energy conveyed in the Appalachian child's voice from Fair and Tender Ladies, (even though the language itself is very different). It's exciting to get into my young character's head, to become her.
When we find great authors we'd like to emulate, one of the best gifts their writing offers us is tone, rhythm, language. In other words, voice. It's incumbent upon us to put our hand out and accept the gift. Not try to sound exactly like them. But recognize them as mentors. Take what's on offer, combine it with our own unique take on our story and its characters, and let our writing voice blossom with their mentoring but our own voice. For me, it feels good to have resources to turn to for the feel and taste of what I want when I've been away from the writing for a while, or feel a lack, somehow, in the tone of a passage or a scene. When I capture that voice, the writing flies. Have you found the unique and compelling voice of your novel? Did it 'come with the package,' or did you draw on external as well as internal sources to form it?