We all know it when we read it, but how much we enjoy it can also be a very subjective thing:
The novel's voice.
When querying to get an agent, problem with voice is some of the most common feedback an author can receive:
Thank you for giving us a chance with this. I’m sorry to say I don’t think it’s one for me. While this has some nice points, when I take a on a new project I need to feel such a strong connection to the voice, I’m afraid I’m not quite there with this. Of course, it’s a really subjective business. Another agent may well feel differently. (an actual rejection letter I received in early 2014)
Thank you for sending me your query. I am sorry not to invite you to submit your work or to offer to represent you. The material just didn’t grab me, and you deserve an unequivocally enthusiastic agent as your advocate. (another actual rejection letter!)
Sometimes, authors' submissions get rejected because of the plot — for example, submitting a book in which the heroine falls in love with a vampire or a book discovers he's actually a wizard — most often it's not the book's plot, but the author's voice.
Other books, I pick then up and can't stop reading. And in many cases, that's not simply because of an excellent plot or a well-formed characters, it's because of the author's voice.
For example, I could read Erin Entrada Kelly all day long. Her latest book, YOU GO FIRST, sang to me from the first paragraph onwards:
Twelve-year-old Charlotte Lockhard balanced an unopened Dr. Pepper upright on her hand and thought: This is what it feels like to hold my dad's heart.
Same as the Dr. Pepper.
Brilliant huh? Well, she is the most recent Newbery Medal winner, so no great surprise there.
How about Jason Reynold's fantastic voice in GHOST:
CHECK THIS OUT. This dude named Andrew Dahl holds the world record for blowing up the most balloons . . . with his nose. Yeah. That's true. Not sure how he found out that was some kind of special talent, and I can't even imagine how much snot be in those balloons, but hey, it's a thing and Andrew's the best at it.
These authors and their characters do not sound remotely alike, but you know straight away that these are characters you want to get to know. And you can tell you are in the hands of experienced authors who make the cadence of their words a joy to read.
Easy for them, you think. How do I make my own voice better?
First of all, YOUR voice is your way of looking at the world. And while your characters' voices will change from book to book, once you mast voice, your readers will always have a sense that they are reading a book by an accomplished author with a point of view.
How can you improve your voice?
1. READ VORACIOUSLY
Sometimes I run into authors who don't read in their genre. Which a) I don't really get at all, since I assume that if you want to be a middle grade author you love middle grade books; and b) doesn't allow them the opportunity to learn from other authors.
My best advice is to read widely within your genre, with a special focus on award-winning or critically acclaimed books, and an equal dash of the popular.
Early on, I'd even copy a page out of a particular book, so I could get a sense of the cadence, or rhythm of the story. I highly recommend this, because it will help you with your writing immensely.
2. READ YOUR WORK ALOUD
Everyone tells you to do this, but not everyone does this. It is critical. When you read your work out loud, you immediately find the awkward syntax, the boring bits, the unresolved nature of your writing. I also read drafts on my kindle. For some reason, seeing it in book form makes a tremendous difference to how I perceive my own work.
3. KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY
Early on, writers stumble around in the dark, unsure of how specific to be. Their work lacks thematic direction and that shows in their voice. The more you understand what it is you want your story to convey, and who you think in the story should convey it, the easier it will be to find your voice.
Yes, I know it's not polite to listen in on conversations, but if you're writing about eleven year old girls, you're going to want to get a handle on them. I've been known to wander the mall and pause now and then to listen to a bunch of kids talking. And though I remember my own kids at that age very well, I also rely on my friends' kids, too.
5. KNOW WHO YOUR CHARACTERS ARE
In my latest book, I have a girl from 1915 who cannot sound like the kids from 2018. At the same time, there are things about being twelve or thirteen years old that will always be universal. The most important thing is to know who your characters are. What do they love, hate, worry about, are afraid of, and cherish? What motivates them? Are they shy or boisterous? Are they frustrated or happy-go-lucky. Your characters' personalities and the kind of story you are telling (see #3) will shape the right voice for your story.
In the end, it all comes down to writing with authenticity and clarity, and then writing and writing and writing in order to make your work as excellent as it can be. If you do all that, I promise: your writer's voice will strengthen!