When literary agents are asked what it is that they are looking for in a manuscript submission, the answer is always the same and has been for as long as fiction has been in publication. In fact, it has been for as long as stories have been told. There are the tangible aspects such as writing skill - a compelling story and a resonance with the reader - but there is one special ingredient, one thing that is much less tangible, and not so easy to define. That certain something is either there or it isn't and that is voice.
Voice in everyday terms is how we deliver our speech in a way that is unique to us. It's a fact that when someone you know speaks, you don't have to see them to know it is them. It isn't what they are saying, it isn't in the words they use or how they have strung them together, it is in intonation and delivery, it is in personality and perspective - it is revealed in those "I knew you would say that" moments.
A voice when writing is much the same. It is unique to you in your delivery, your personality and your perspective on the world or your interpretation of the ordinary. It is how you say something without actually saying it and it is how you write between the lines enabling the reader to read between the lines.
A skilled writer can transfer his voice to his writing and his words become much more than just words on a page, they come alive and rattle around in your head. A truly distinct voice sits just to your right, crouching just behind the book you are holding and tells you the story whilst you read.
If you were to pick out two of your favourite writers, chances are you could distinguish a passage from their writing that you had never previously come across, and identify it as their writing.
Most stories follow a similar format of a protagonist having needs and desires, facing obstacles and challenges and finally reaching an end goal. However, if that's all there is to it, then there really are no new stories out there - just a different way of telling the ones we already have. But, this is where voice comes in. The same story format is told but with different characters, events and settings, but without a unique voice, all of these stories become samey, predictable and transparent.
When you read your favourite writers - can you describe their voice? What makes that story unique to them and written in such a way that no other person could have written it? When you have determined that, you have identified their voice. The next challenge is to do that with your own writing - what story are you telling that only you could tell in that way?
A writer's voice will shine through when they really know who they are as a writer - in fact, when they really know who they are as a person. When you really know who you are, and you are aware of how you sound to others and come across to people, you are a step closer to identifying your voice. When who you think you are resonates with who others think you are, you are even closer. Your voice will change over time, but it grows with you and when it does, you know that you are writing with an honesty that can be incredibly hard to force.
One of the most common symptoms of forcing voice, is when a writer overwrites. When you start to litter your work with adjectives to replace the presence of a voice, and when you really overwork your writing, the words tend to remain words on the page and the writing has none of the real you in it. If the words don't come alive on the page the reader can almost hear you trying hard to write and that doesn't sound natural.
When you write with confidence and fluency and you are comfortable in your own writing skin, your personality will start to seep into your writing. With confidence you will put a stamp on your writing that makes it your own.
One of the best ways to develop confidence is to free-write. Set some time aside to just write whatever comes into your head. Don't stop to perfect it or make sense of it, just write and write and write. When it comes to your novel you need to emulate this feeling, just write and don't feel bound by rules and rigidity. Don't write as though you want to be published, write as though it won't ever see the light of day. Focus on shaping your novel when you go back to edit; for now, just say what it is you want to say in the way you want to say it.
Voice is nothing if you don't have skill - your voice is only ever as clear as you allow it to be through the medium of writing. By practising your skill and becoming a better technical writer, you will find that once you have identified your voice, putting it to paper will be much easier. Don't only practise your writing skills, but also practise your editing skills. You will be able to structure your writing into something fluid and natural, and that will eventually take on the shape of your novel.
It would be silly to say that we aren't influenced by those we spend the most time around or those we look up to, and the same applies to writing. If you spend your time reading an author that you love, then chances are you will pick up on some aspects of their style. There is nothing wrong with this, it is part of the journey. It doesn't take away from your own voice, it helps you to adapt and pick up different attitudes and perspectives. Your writing will evolve as does your personality - from books we are always learning, and as we learn and grow and evolve, so too does our voice.
Have you ever had a moment where you are really truly aware of yourself - where you stop what you are doing, you listen to your breathing, you take in your surroundings and for a brief fleeting moment you really are truly living in that moment? This is in simplified terms the definition of mindfulness. By stopping for a moment, focusing on your breathing and yourself within your environment you become acutely aware of your own presence. It is moments like this when we truly know who we are. We can almost visualise how others will see us. Practise mindfulness before you begin to write, hear your own voice in your head and identify with it. Begin your writing by telling the story with the voice that you hear in your head and the person you recognise as yourself in these moments of clarity.
Your inner voice is always there and it is completely private to you. Absolutely no one else can hear this voice - it is the voice that talks to you in the shower, and the one that is background noise in the car or throughout the day. It isn't always the same. Your voice varies in different situations as it does with your writing, but ultimately it is still the same voice. Most of the time you don't realise it is there - it is just a part of you, but sometimes, you can hear it more loudly than others.
By identifying the strongest trait of this voice, you know what you are looking for in your writing. This is your true no-holds-barred voice, no airs and graces, and no affectations. It just simply is you - a culmination of your life experiences, a perspective on your world and a sum total of who you are. No one can replicate that. Nor are they privy to it until you let it flow from your head to the paper.
Ultimately, the secret to finding your voice is knowing that it is already there. Voice is equally about what you don't say as it is about what you do say. Don't force it, allow it to develop and flow on to the page and keep perfecting your writing and editing skills. Once you have nailed this you could be well on your way to writing a novel that makes a literary agent sit up and take notice.