Tom Doherty & Tor Sr Editor, Melissa Ann Singer's take on voices:
Every good author's voice is pretty distinctive. (Not necessarily, imo. Sometimes a “voice” is very plain or simple, and it’s hard to tell one of those writers from another.)
Not that it really matters--since agents and editors are primarily looking for a terrific story they can sell, but I wonder; can you tell from a chapter if the author is a man or a woman?
Sometimes you can tell, sometimes you can’t. Sometimes it depends on the content of the scene. Some male writers who are trying to write in a female character’s point of view are not good at certain details—putting on makeup or sexual matters, for instance. Others are very good at it. Similarly, there are women who are unconvincing when writing from the male point of view, about similar matters—shaving, erections, etc. The little things, in other words.
Judging contests has given me an interesting perspective on this. A lot of the time, I’ve no idea if the writer is male or female . . . but I tend to assume female when I’m reading romantic fiction since the majority of writers of romantic fiction are female. And then I’ll hit a particular sentence and think, “wait, this writer must be a man.”
However, in general, I don’t consider the gender of the writer when I’m looking at a manuscript. I consider the manuscript. A lot of the time, with submissions, I barely clance at the writer’s name before reading the material, so I don’t always have an gender-association in my mind when I’m reading. Only if there’s something in the narrative or dialog that seems “wrong” or “odd” will I go back and look at the gender of the writer. Generally, however, it doesn’t matter to me, at least not in terms of assessing the quality or publishability of a manuscript.
A young person or adult? Across all genres, or is it easier to tell in some genres compared to others?
Again, sometimes you can tell, especially if the young person is quite young. The under-16s are pretty obvious. But there are many adults who write in a naïve style, whose work reads as if it were written by a young person, so it can be hard to tell if the work you’re reading was written by a 19-yo or a 30-yo.
It is often easy to pick out the work of a much older writer—a person in his or her 70s or 80s. I can’t really say what the markers are, but a number of times I found myself thinking, “this person is older,” and then checking the cover letter or bio and seeing that the writer is 72 or whatever.
Of course, most of the time I don’t notice anything in a manuscript that gives hints about the age of the writer, so undoubtedly I’ve looked at many things by young people and older people without knowing it.
Genre does make a difference. A young person may have a difficult time writing about certain elements of a relationship, for instance, because he or she has limited experience in relationships. Or a young person may have difficulty handling elements about family life or the working world, again because of limited experience. But this isn’t really about age, it’s about experiences. Someone who has never lived in a big city will probably not write about living in a big city as well as someone who has lived in a big city, just as someone who has never lived in farm country may have difficulty writing convincingly about living in farm country.
Research can make a huge difference to a writer, and a good writer can be convincing about anything. After all, historical novelists haven’t lived in the eras they’re writing about, and science fiction and fantasy writers don’t really have spaceships or dragons in their backyards. Good writing is good writing, regardless of the writer’s age or personal experiences.
A really great character writer will give each character their own personality—so there should be no hints there. It must be in the narrative. The narrative must give it away. (not sure what you mean by this. There isn’t always room in a book for a lot of personalities, especially if you have a larger cast/bunches of supporting characters. You can build personality over a series, of course, but sometimes there’s only room for a few personalities in a book, and other characters will have collections of traits/personas rather than full personalities.)
Just curious, but with a great writer, what can you tell about the author from her writing voice?
Sometimes nothing, sometimes a great deal, depending on the particular book, what was going on in the writer’s life when he or she was writing it, how old the person was when it was written, etc.
Sometimes a writer under contract to me goes through a tough time personally, without saying anything to me. There have been cases where I’ll be reading a delivered manuscript and I’ll call or email the writer and say “who died?” (well, the polite equivalent). Because I can see in the manuscript that the writer has suffered a trauma.
One of the hardest things for a writer to do is write a book with romantic elements when he or she is going through a divorce. It’s really hard to keep divorce and separation out of a book . . . and while there are times when it’s wonderful for a project to have that extra layering, it can be difficult to write well about the beginnings of a relationship when you are going through the end of one.
I should say, however, that I, personally, am a story-driven reader. If the voice is convincing, I often don’t notice it as “voice” until I’ve already swallowed a big chunk of the writing. Other times, of course, the voice jumps up and hits me over the head on page one. But is it the author’s voice or a character’s personality that does that? And does it matter, as long as it’s a good book? I’m not sure.