Here's a short extract from a novel I read recently. Ignore the lack of capital letters and speech marks. You'll understand why if you read it - and I hope you do. All you need to know for the moment is that a young farm girl has gone to work as a maid at the vicarage and is talking to the vicar's wife. It's her first day.
i'm used to being busy.
then we shall have to find you things to do. what time is it?
i don't know.
the clock is there.
i don't read clocks, mrs.
you never learned?
ain't much use for them down there.
then how on earth do you know what time it is?
we get up when it's light, go to bed when it's dark. animals don't have clocks and they seem to manage.
i see. and when do you eat?
when your guts rumble so loud you ain't got no choice. either that or when mother calls you in and says grub's up.
you laughing at me?
no. i like the way you speak.
well that's a relief cos i ain't about to change.
Isn't that delicious? So simple, so effective and so rich. We can see this girl, her impoverished life, the clear and candid nature, her naivety but also her intelligence. We can also see the vicar's wife, a middle class lady, ignorant of the working class, but kind and friendly. You forget you're reading a novel when you read this. And anyone who says that historical fiction is full of clunky reasarch and archaic dialogue should read it.
Your characters, whether historical, contemporary or futuristic, should leap from the page even without any dialogue at all (although I wouldn't recommend it.) But getting your characters' voices right is only one aspect of voice. You, as an author need a clear voice too. It's what makes you you as you write. It's what makes one author 'sound' different from another and how we can often identify an author by reading a passage blind.
Of course, most of us are not well established enough (or established at all) to have a recognisable voice. So what do agents and editors mean when they say they're looking for the writer's voice? Well, they mean writing that firstly holds their interest; that's clear, authoritative, confident and knows exactly where it's going. It doesn't drone on and on with reams of dull narrative. It's a writer who knows how to use repetition so it isn't annoyingly.repetitive. It's a writer who knows the rules and when to break them. In essence, voice shows a writer who is in command.
Such a writer draws you on so you're not reading the writing but reading the story. Of course it's flipping difficult. That's why I struggle and so do most of us. And even though writing like that I quoted above is way out of my league, my envy is neither negative nor corrosive. It's sheer admiration and something I aspire to daily.
And the novel? The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon.
It is a small (in size only) book and can be read in one sitting. It'll take you a lot longer to get it out of your mind. Trust me.