Defining Voice in Publishing

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jan 10 2019

Over and over again agents will say the one thing that pushes them to offer representation is the author’s voice. Time and time again I’ve had authors ask me what exactly that means. It’s always been a tough one for me to put into words and defining voice is important since it’s clearly an important part of the business. Heck, I feel like half of the rejections I get from editor say something along the lines of, “I didn’t connect with the voice.”

Voice is the author’s style. It’s the way the author writes that is unique to that author–the way the author writes characters, plot, and dialogue.

On the blog post To Please Everyone Means Pleasing No One, a reader asks:

I queried an agent who asked me who’s voice of current books is mine like? I was dumbfounded that this person asked me this. Isn’t my voice, my voice? I certainly don’t want to copy someone else’s voice because then I wouldn’t be true to myself and my project. In the end, this agent passed on reading my full ms because I couldn’t answer the question.  Submission guidelines were five pages. This always stumps me because five pages isn’t even putting a toe into a body of water.

Your voice is your voice, there is no doubt about that, but everyone’s voice has a comp title or an author they can compare themselves to. Some writers, for example, are short and quippy. They write fast dialogue and lots of it. Other writers tend to write darker with a heavier suspense element and lots of description. While your voice is definitely your own, I would bet it’s also like someone else’s. Maybe you write funny characters and plots like one of your favorite writers or maybe you’re more emotional and serious like another writer.

One last thing, I don’t think an agent rejected your work because you couldn’t answer a question about voice. My guess is the agent read your pages and your query and decided it wasn’t right for her. In the end an agent is a reader in a bookstore deciding what book she wants to read next and most readers base that decision on the cover copy (your query) and maybe, just maybe, the first five or so pages.

7 responses to “Defining Voice in Publishing”

  1. Avatar Hollie says:

    This is perfect timing for me, I’m “trying” to write a critical commentary about voice for my shifter novel.

    I’ve found it isn’t only your author voice that needs to be clear, you have to make sure your characters voices are just as clear and different to your own.

    Thank you for the reminder that as readers we only give books a very tiny chance of hitting our read list. Maybe more authors need to remember that agents and editors are readers first and have the same tolerance as the rest of us.

  2. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    I’m one of those readers who follow authors because of their voice. I define it as an author’s rhythm, but my first love, as a young reader, was poetry, and that might explain the need for a familiar definition. As an example, there are a very few authors who are auto-buys for me, and it’s because of their voice. JR Ward is probably the easiest for me to explain. When I first began reading her Black Dagger Brotherhood series, I immediately picked up a rhythm that was discordant and raw, something so powerful that it made me think of heavy metal music. I had discovered a Scandinavian band–Norwegian, I think–that I would play in the background when I had to write a really intense scene, and theirs was the sound I heard when I read Ward’s books. That, to me, defined her voice.

    Nalini Singh is another author with a voice that stands out to me, though it’s not a particular music I hear, but a rhythm of words and phrasing that pulls me into the story so deeply that nothing else gets done until I finish the book.

    The odd thing is, while I can define or at least feel the rhythm in another author’s work, I have no way of defining my own. I know it’s there, because I’ve had readers comment on it, but as the author, I can’t see it.

  3. Avatar Alex Olivera says:

    Sure, but I also wonder how much of the marrow of the bone of the agent is in play, and how much what is “sellable” is in play. Lets say, just for instance, that there is a sudden turn in the appreciation of literature in the USA, and that miraculously everybody turns to Greek classics and then Homer and Euripides are top sellers… what would an agent do if her/his style is more towrds Stephan King?
    Agents also need to live from something. Idealy, a painter can paint whatever they want, but you need to almost be the one that will determine the market… Is that possible at all?
    I feel that my voice is between Garcia Marquez magical realism, and typical Japanese classic Meiji writers. So to fit the demand in the USA… I wonder if it would be better to be republished in England or even in Japan, once it gets translated this year.
    Do you, by any chance think, that the USA could still be appropiate for dreamy poetic literature? Is there any agent at all that could connect with this kind of voice?

    Warmest regards in this freezing day in New York!

  4. Avatar Bryan Fagan says:

    The other day someone asked what my goal was. I told them two things – 1) Entertain. If I can make a persons day a little bit better I’m a happy person and 2) Connection. I want my readers to connect with these people. Maybe a character of mine reminds the reader of themselves or a long lost friend.

    Whatever it is I need a mixture of those two. But that can only happen with the writer’s voice.

  5. Avatar Hollie says:

    I had an interesting day yesterday, I was told I do have a distinctive author voice. Which is a good thing, now I just have to hope people like it, and write stories that are sellable … easy right???
    I was also told that I am part of the 12-15 year age group who were never taught basic English.
    The things like sentence structure, what goes where and what makes complete sentence.
    I really wasn’t taught any of it, I didn’t forget it not understand it. Although being dyslexic in that time both are more than possible.
    Now I am going to have lessons to teach me what I should have been taught over 30 years ago.
    I can only hope it adds to my writing and I don’t lose any of my voice by learning to write properly.

  6. Avatar Comic_Ref says:

    “Voice is the author’s style. It’s the way the author writes that is unique to that author–the way the author writes characters, plot, and dialogue.”

    SUPER YES! You cleared up so much confusion. I have a hard time explaining this to fellow writing friends– and it also confirms how I felt but couldn’t quite put into such perfect terms. Go you! This is a great post.

  7. Avatar AJ Blythe says:

    It’s important to remember you develop your voice. While the undercurrents are there as you improve your craft you are also honing your voice.