As some of you may be aware (since I've mentioned it roughly 11,000 times), #PitchSlam and #NestPitch are fast approaching (details on Twitter). I'm reading slush for NestPitch and hosting PitchSlam, which means that I'm crazy. I mean... that I'll be reading a LOT of pitches and first pages in April. A lot, a lot, a lot. And while there are many things that I'm looking for, a lot of time, it really comes down to voice.
What's voice? It's the elusive thing that makes agents want to keep reading. Voice is the main character speaking in the reader's head. It's not the same thing as the author's voice (unless you happen to be reading memoir). I've been fortunate to work with a CP who is awesome at nailing voice, and it really does make a huge difference. When I read her manuscript, I see a twelve-year-old boy standing in front of me, talking. It draws me instantly into her pages, every time. If your main character is an eighteenth century prostitute, she probably doesn't use SAT words from the twenty-first century. Your fifteen-year-old narrator shouldn't sound like a forty-year-old proctologist. An astrophysicist probably doesn't say "should of" or "ain't." When voice is right, it's so right. And when it's off, it's difficult and time-consuming to fix (but doable), which is what makes it so important.
One of the biggest mistakes I see with new writers is thinking that they shouldn't use contractions in writing. That's the fastest way to make your main character sound like a robot. If your main character IS a robot, great. Ignore me. But if not, think about it - even though the main character never addresses the reader directly, the internal parts of the story should still sound like he's sitting next to you, telling a story.
So, how to nail voice? What I like to do is take a minute before I start writing to get to know the main character. Pull up a visual and pretend you're having a conversation. Imagine the main character speaking, telling the story through your fingers. The better you know your main character, the faster and easier this gets. Let the character's voice shine through. Make sure your character's voice grabs the reader, pulls them into the story, and makes them never want to stop. That's how to get picked for these contests, and it's how to make an agent beg to read more.