In Search Of That Mysterious Element Called "Voice"

Editors and agents often say that what they seek in a publishable manuscript is a “unique voice.” Voice may be the single most important element in closing a sale, and a story without it can quickly beget rejection. So what is this elusive thing called “voice?”

Voice has substance. It is something you, the writer, can shape. Learn its secrets, and voice will resonate through your own stories.

When asked to explain "voice," many editors merely refer a person to their favorite writers—William Faulkner, T.S. Elliott, James Michener, Tennessee Williams, James Thurber, Clive Cussler—leaving the seeker to decode the hidden meaning between the pages.

Editors and agents know that only in the presence of great writers can we gain an intuitive sense of "voice." That is why they send us to these masters.

William Faulkner, in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 1949, offers a glimpse of what was missing in his day, just as it is in today's literature: "There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?

"[Man] is immortal," Faulkner continued, "not because he alone, among creatures, has an inexhaustible voice but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's duty is to write about these things . . . . The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."

Editors say many manuscripts are devoid of spirit, the quality that beats at the heart of all good voices.

How does one capture more than a mere record of man, this special "spirit"? Henry David Thoreau gives us a clue in his personal journal dated in 1877: "As the least drop of wine tinges the whole goblet, so the least particle of truth colors our whole life."

Ah, this is voice—not that we would write exactly this way today, but the element undeniably dominates his work. If he merely had said, "Small truths color life," no vision would endure. Nothing unique would hook the imagination. The thoughtfulness with which a thing is said is far more important than the words themselves. Experience, observation, and thought are inherent in the ethereal thing we call " voice."

Why does Thoreau ring in our minds for more than 100 years?

In a single sentence this master gives us a way to "see" the unseeable. We can all envision the last drop of wine in a goblet, the thin residue left behind. By his comparison, we sense how a small truth spreads across the surface of one’s entire life. Through the world as Thoreau personally experiences it, turning goblet in hand, we understand his precise vision of truth. He has given us a way to measure it.

Voice, in part, is vision honed to its sharpest point.

Classic writers touch our souls because of the people they are, not as single individuals, but as the many individuals who live inside of them, inside of us all.

John Gardner, the contemporary novelist who died at age 49 in a 1982 motorcycle accident, believed that every individual writer has within themselves different people at different times. In one mood or in one crowd, the serious writer writes fairly tales; in another he writes ponderous novels; in still another, dirty limericks . . . . I don't mean that our serious writer's mind has wandered; I mean that another side of him, after vigorous signaling, has gotten his attention . . ."

"The true writer's mind is not a jungle but a noble democracy in which all parties have their say, even the crazy ones, even the most violently passionate, because otherwise justice, balance and sanity are impossible," Gardner said.

He knew that every fine writer has within him a John Jakes, a Marquis de Sade, a James Michener, a Melville, and a Cussler, and that they all must take their turn at living on the pages. Each character’s goals and conflicts must be clearly seen, conflicts that can only be extracted from the different people living inside of you.

"A true work of fiction does all of the following things and does them elegantly, efficiently: It creates a vivid and continuous dream in the reader's mind; it is implicitly philosophical; it fulfills or at least deals with all of the expectations it sets up; and it strikes us, in the end, not simply as a thing done but as a shining performance," said Gardner.

Our search, then, is not for a single voice, but for the many voices of ourselves, that together make for a full performance—voices only you can express from observing, experiencing, and interpreting your world.

"The richness of human life is that we have many lives," said scientist and author Jacob Bronowski. "We live the events that do not happen (and some that cannot) as vividly as those that do; and if thereby we die a thousand deaths, that is the price we pay for living a thousand lives. Literature is alive to us because we live its images . . . ."

Voice is a reverberation of those many images.

In each separate character's world, actions and reactions are colored differently—red by some and blue by others, depending on who you are upon which page, which day and in what mood.

This is the element editors and agents seek. They continue searching for the "problems of the spirit:" those elements that can only come from the soul in all of its colors and faces.

Voice is more than action or plot or dialogue. It is the particular resonance of each character against their experiences of the world, against pride and prejudice, love and hate, victory and defeat.

Editors and agents want to know who you are. They want to hear your de Sade, your Melville, and Michener, revealed in your darkest moments and your noblest aspirations, thrashing against one another for dominance on the page.

Cross the barriers between your own multiple identities, and the pages you write will embody a rare voice unlike any other—your own. This is the element that seeps through the words and lets the reader feel all that it means to be human.

Voice is the soul of your work, and soul is the unclothed truth of all the people you are.

–Doris Booth,

Editor-in-Chief, Authorlink