What is an author’s voice?* I think a lot of people see voice as synonymous with style, and I can understand why. Many authors one might point to as having a strong voice are also strong stylists. But I’m not a big fan of authors who are stylists, in large part because their manner of writing tends to overshadow whatever story they’re telling. That’s a generalization to be sure, but it’s founded on my belief that nouns and verbs matter more than adjectives and adverbs, that less is usually more, that all (or almost all) darlings should be killed, and that unless the author’s presence is critical to the story the author ought to get out of the way. But that’s just me.
Coming at the question from a direction both more illuminating and a great deal less cranky, think for a moment about any writer you love, and ask yourself what it is that is irreducibly distinct about the way that writer writes. What is it that makes Dickens different from Tolstoy or Jackie Collins, as well as readily identifiable in his own right? Whatever that is — however you might describe it with examples or rules — that’s what I think of as voice.
I don’t think any author’s voice is so distinct that it can be identified in every word or turn of phrase. When Tom Clancy or William Faulkner or Flannery O’Conner has a character say, “Hello!”, I don’t think you can conclude a whole lot about the author’s voice from that one-word sentence. Pull back far enough, however — taking into account the surrounding sentences and paragraphs, as well as the narrative context — and at some point you’ll be able to distinguish between the three authors. And I think that’s probably the most important point thing I can say about the subject of voice: it’s more easily identified by considering the whole of an author’s work rather than looking for specific markers.
One thing I can say with absolute certainty is that I myself do not think about my own voice at all, ever. To do so would be quantum authorship, in which identification of my voice would necessarily change it. I write the way I write, and I encourage other authors to adopt this same hands-off attitude. As far as I’m concerned, nothing good can come of attempts to manage your own authorial voice.
Which is why I’m now quite consternated by the fix I’m in.