What it means when we say ‘good voice’

Two men in conversation

We asked one of our Fiction publishers, Catherine Milne, what she wants from authors when she asks for ‘good voice’.

I can hardly believe it’s been a year, but the months have rolled around and – ta dah! – we’re in the second year of the Banjo Prize to find Australia’s next great storyteller!  And I’m sitting here now at my desk, feeling happy, because I’m looking at the gorgeous blue and gold cover of Taking Tom Murray Home, by Tim Slee, the winner of last year’s first ever Banjo Prize, which we’ll be publishing in August 2019.

Taking Tom Murray Home was just a unanimous favourite of all the judges – we were all immediately charmed by it. It tells a quintessentially Australian story, of a defiant widow and her two kids forced off their land by death and drought.  There’s a horse-drawn funeral procession and a trail of burnt-out banks and supermarkets and a protest that gets out of hand … yet somehow this story is not dark and dismal at all – instead it’s endearing, charming and uplifting, shot through with this wonderful laconic dry humour.  Like The Rosie Project, or The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, or Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, it’s slightly uncategorizable – but just a joy to read.

I don’t know exactly what it is that sets a manuscript apart and separates itself from all the others we read, but a major reason why we fall in love with manuscripts has to do with what we call ‘the voice’.  I know it must be so frustrating to any would-be author when we airily say things like: ‘Oh, I just fell in love with the voice’ – as though ‘the voice’ was a tall dark and handsome Mr Darcy, who swaggered onto the scene and swept us off our feet.  It’s really hard to define exactly what ‘a good voice’ is – I guess the closest I can come to it is to say that it’s a voice that leaps from the page.  It’s authentic and individual – and immediately I feel like there’s a real narrator there, a real person behind the words.  There’s details there, and specifics. A good voice lifts the work, and transforms it, making it impossible to put down.

Here’s just a little snippet from the first chapter of Taking Tom Murray Home, when Dawn and her kids are watching their house burn down, just so you can see what I mean:

‘You want to just let her burn?’ Mr McKenzie asks.

Mum says, ‘Yeah, it’s just stone and wood now, we got everything out.’ And Mr McKenzie watches and his men they just watch too, waiting for him to say ‘go’ or something which he doesn’t. Then he says, ‘You should have got the cameras in, Dawn, this would have made the news all over,’ and Mum says, ‘Oh, we’ll make the news all right but not with me looking like some old lunatic getting dragged away by the police.’

Jenny laughs, kind of, and Mum pulls her onto her hip. Jenny’s way too big for that but Mum she’s a big woman with good dancing hips Dad says, and Jenny grips her like her pony, when she had a pony, before we had to sell it. The wind changes and the smoke from the house starts blowing right at us.  Jenny lets go of Mum and we huddle in behind her and put our faces in the small of her back and Jenny is looking at me like, wow, it’s really happening, isn’t it? Then Mrs Turnbolt comes out from her car and says, ‘Dawn, I should take the children, right? Best for them to get back of all this, yeah?’

You see what I mean?  So much information is conveyed in those short couple of paragraphs, but so quickly, Dawn, Jack and Jenny become real to us – it’s about their dialogue, the way it feels true, the dryness of the humour, and the way we know they’re all feeling very emotional but they’re not showing it … it just feels truthful, and all we want to do is read on.

Voice is the strongest thing that we readers respond to.  I acquired The Van Apfel Girls are Gone, by Felicity McLean – a glorious, sharp, dark and funny novel with something of the mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock – on the basis of three chapters, just because I fell in love with the voice of the narrator, Tikka Molloy.  Tikka is a young woman who’s never been able to shake off the impact of the disappearance of three young friends, the Van Apfel girls, when she was young.  Again, here’s just a tiny snippet, so you can see what I mean, which is taken from an early scene when Tikka as an adult, returns home to Australia to see her sister, Laura, who’s not well:

I abandoned my tea on the table and threw my arms around her, burying my face in her neck, breathing her in. ‘Oh Lor.’

‘You shouldn’t have come back,’ she said gruffly. ‘You didn’t have to do that.’

‘Yes, I did,’ I said, and I smoothed down the part in her hair where it was mussed up from her sleep. In response, she leaned over and tucked in the tag that was poking out from the back of my hoodie.

‘We’re like chimpanzees,’ I said, ‘grooming one another.’

‘You might be,’ she said archly. ‘You’ve got the face for it.’



I grinned and pressed my cheek against hers.

Do you see what I mean? It’s the details – the old insults, the warmth, just the sheer believability of it.  Voice is such an individual thing.  You can’t copy someone else’s voice – that always comes across as fake. Your own voice is the strongest thing you have – but you have to trust it, nurture it and let it out on the page.

If you’re a writer, and you’re reading this, I hope you decide to enter the Banjo Prize.  You might feel nervous, or think that your manuscript isn’t good enough or finished enough …. Well, there are always so many excuses, aren’t there?  But just stop that all of that right now, and give yourself a stern talking to.

It’s ALWAYS worth entering. Just have a go. Because you just never know.  Something about your manuscript might capture our imagination.  Your voice could just be the one that we respond to.  And if you don’t listen to me, listen to Jeanette Winterson, who wrote these wise words in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?: ‘I know now, after fifty years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/returning, never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance.’

So give yourself a chance.  Dig out that manuscript, and send it in.  You might just make our day.

Words: Catherine Milne


*And if your appetite is whetted and you’d love to read an early reading copy of Taking Tom Murray Home or The Van Apfel Girls  Are Gone, then email [email protected] and tell us which one you want to read, and why – and you might just score yourself a copy…

Posted on May 10, 2019 by

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"What it means when we say ‘good voice’"

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