Literary agents on "voice"
When fiction is described as having "a great voice", it means the prose is distinct in a way that feels individual, unique, with a narrator who gets right into the reader's head. Strong voice does not mean a flowery writing style. It certainly can, if that makes sense for the narrator, but there is also poetry in minimal, subtle prose.
How to infuse your manuscript with a strong voice?
There's no easy answer.
Voice is ineffable. But it's easy to see, usually in the first paragraph. —Andy Ross
Voice is certainly difficult to define. It's subjective, too, certainly, but literary agents are fairly unanimous on its importance.
A terrific voice and clever premise always capture my attention. —Ella Marie Shupe
The key to tackling voice is in knowing your narrator. If you have a clear idea who your narrator is and how she speaks, then you will have a much easier time infusing her personality/essence/spirit into the prose, even if the narrator isn't an actual character in the story.
Here's what several agents had to say in our Book Broker interview series:
I personally love a submission that establishes a strong voice right away. World building is important but can be distributed throughout the story. Voice though? I want to feel that character’s essence from the get-go so I can thoroughly immerse myself and care about their journey. —Karly Caserza
We always say do as much refining and tweaking as you possibly can before submitting, but manuscripts do arrive in different stages of fine-tuning and if I fall head-over-heels for a voice, I will take the plunge even if there’s a lot of work to be done. —Emma Finn
If I can’t immediately picture where (and when) we are and hear a clear, authentic voice speaking to me while I’m reading, I’m not likely to read very much. —Noah Ballard
To be honest, I don’t read [query letters] first; I always look to the writing and the voice. It takes me less time—I can read five words to a paragraph and guess at whether I may end up offering representation. —Weronika Janczuk
I’m not a trend-chaser so I’m most drawn to a pitch and submission when the writer shows confidence in their voice and has a clear intention in their choices of plot and structure. —Jessica Craig
I’m looking for clients for a career, not just this book, and voice is the thing that makes me confident I’ll love every book you write, no matter what happens with this one. —Sharon Pelletier
What is your favourite novel in terms of voice? What methods have you taken to ensure your narrator has a strong voice? Leave a comment below, or tweet at us!
David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.