What is voice? You can look it up in a bunch of different places; some people say it’s as simple as the character/person/entity telling the story. Others say it’s the most important element of a novel. Go google it and find a definition that works for you.
For me, though, voice has two elements:
(1) It’s utterly recognizable – it doesn’t feel like anything I’ve seen before. Perhaps it’s the use of a unique metaphor, or word choice, or rhythm of the sentences; perhaps it’s something else – I’m not going to try to pin it down, but I sure know it when I see it.
(2) It has narrative urgency. There’s immediately something at stake, some reason to keep reading – something that’s gonna pull me along, whether I want to go or not.
I know those are both pretty vague, so let me give you some examples of published novels I worked on where I thought the voice worked particularly well:
Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must to do in order to communicate clearly and effectively. In order to make my point understood without question. I have no words I can rely on because, much to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and loose and flat and, therefore, is a horribly ineffective tool for pushing food around my mouth while chewing, and an even less effective tool for making clever and complicated polysyllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences. And that’s why I’m here now waiting for Denny to come home–he should be here soon–lying on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor in a puddle of my own urine.
I’m old. And while I’m very capable of getting older, that’s not the way I want to go out. Shot full of pain medication and steroids to reduce the swelling of my joints. Vision fogged with cataracts. Puffy, plasticky packages of Doggie Depends stocked in the pantry. I’m sure Denny would get me one of those little wagons I’ve seen on the streets, the ones that cradle the hindquarters so a dog can drag his ass behind him when things start to fail. That’s humiliating and degrading. I’m not sure if it’s worse than dressing up a dog for Halloween, but it’s close. He would do it out of love, of course. I’m sure he would keep me alive as long as he possibly could, my body deteriorating, disintegrating around me, dissolving until there’s nothing left but my brain floating in a glass jar filled with clear liquid, my eyeballs drifting at the surface and all sorts of cables and tubes feeding what’s left. But I don’t want to be kept alive. Because I know what’s next. I’ve seen it on TV. A documentary I saw about Mongolia, of all places. It was the best thing I’ve ever seen on television, other than the 1993 Grand Prix of Europe, of course, the greatest automobile race of all time in which Ayrton Senna proved himself to be a genius in the rain. After the 1993 Grand Prix, the best thing I’ve ever seen on TV is a documentary that explained everything to me, made it all clear, told the whole truth: when a dog is finished living his lifetimes as a dog, his next incarnation will be as a man.
Down the rows of the dead they came. Neat, orderly rows of dead rebel boys who thirty years before had either dropped at the foot of earthen works a mile or so away or died on the floors of the big house overlooking the cemetery. Now there were stone markers, but for so many years there had been only wooden boards, weathered and warped, and tall posts proclaiming the numbers of the dead.
The two women knew the cemetery as they might have known the wrinkles on their faces of the pattern of repousse on the coin silver. The white woman, dressed in worn black crinoline, carried a book tightly under her arm and periodically consulted it just to make sure. Her servant, a Creole, walked close by.
Over to their left, beyond the house, cedars and oaks sprouted, survivors of a once ancient grove. The Union had cut them down like a great whipping scythe. Carrie McGavock, the mistress of Carnton, keeper of the book of the dead, hardly thought of the grove anymore. The only grove that concerned her was the one beneath her feet, a grove of boys and men. She knew this was a ghastly thought, and yet it kept her from imagining bones and beetles and scraps of gray. It helped to think of her charges as constituting something monumental and not something in decay. She had seen enough of death and felt entitled to imagine herself as something other than an undertaker.
My parents’ Ford wagon hit a concrete divider on U.S. 95 outside Biddeford, Maine, in August 1990. They’d driven that stretch of highway for maybe thirty years, on the way to Long Lake. Some guy who used to play baseball with Pop had these cabins by the lake and named them for his children. Jenny, Al, Tyler, Craig, Bugs, Alice and Sam. We always got Alice for two weeks in August, because it had the best waterfront with a shallow, sandy beach, and Mom and Pop could watch us while they sat in the green Adirondack chairs.
We came up even after Bethany had gone, and after I had become a man with a job. I’d go up and be a son, and then we’d all go back to our places and be regular people.
Long lake has bass and pickerel and really beautiful yellow perch. You can’t convince some people about yellow perch because perch have a thick, hard lip and are coarse to the touch, but they are pretty fish—I think the prettiest—and they taste like red snapper. There are shallow coves all over the lake , where huge turtles live, and at the swampy end with its high reeds and grass, the bird population is extraordinary. There are two pairs of loons, and one pair always seems to have a baby paddling after it; ducks too, and Canada geese, and a single heron that stands on one leg at lets people get very close to photograph it. The water is wonderful for swimming, especially in the mornings when the lake is like a mirror. I used to take all my clothes off and jump in, but I don’t do that now.
Under a low sun, pursued by fish and mounted by crows and veiled in a loud languid swarm of bluebottle flies, the body comes down the river like a deadfall stripped clean.
It proceeds as do all things moving down the Mississippi in the late summer of the year, at a stately pace, as if its blind eyes were busy taking in the blue sky piled dreamily deep with cloud. There will be thunder by suppertime and rain to last the whole night long but just now the early day is brilliant and entirely without flaw. How long the body has been floating would be a mystery if any individual had yet taken note of its passage and mused so upon it, but thus far, under that sky of blue and white and upon this gentle muddy bed aswarm with a school of sunfish and one or two smallmouth bass darting warily as thieves, it has passed only empty fields and stands of willow and thick brushy embankments uninhabited.
A crow screams and flaps off, bearing an eye as brown and deep as the Mississippi herself.
Sunday morning, early, and the river is without traffic.
Far be it for me to try explaining what works for me about those opening sentences, but in every case, to me, the urgency is clear – it could be Enzo the dog’s frustration at not being able to talk, or the body rolling over in the Mississippi, aswarm with bluebottle flies – but whatever it is, it makes me think, ah, I’m in the presence of a master.
Really focusing on voice, really making that narrator – whatever perspective the narrative is told from – really live, really want to tell us an urgent, important story – is what, a lot of times, separates the manuscripts I fall in love with from the manuscripts I merely like, or fail to deeply connect with.
Hope this helps!