You often read agents and publishers websites where they say they are looking for new, distinctive voices. They aren't saying that to merely fill up a blank space on a page.
Let's face it. Most mainstream fiction lacks a distinctive voice. "Aha," you say. "That proves a distinctive voice isn't a necessary tool to achieve success." And you would be right - at times. However, by remaining married to that premise your work may also be rejected simply because it "sounds" like every other story that crosses an agent's or editor's desk. Re-read the paragraph above.
Arguably, the voice you choose to "tell" your story can separate your work from the thousands of others piling up in slush piles around the globe. Of course, recognizing that fact doesn't help you one damned bit if you don't know what the hell it is.
Writers are story "tellers," and what we are referring to is the narrative voice - the sound and tone of a human voice readers "hear" as your story opens and unfolds as if it were being told aloud. Voice isn't necessarily your voice, nor is it merely your writing "style", though that certainly plays into it.
Narrative voice is a conscious choice for each story. So, think about it before you start writing. Who do you want to tell your story for you? It doesn't matter if you're writing in first, second, or third person, or if you choose omniscient with a double Salchow and triple toe loop. Who will tell your story and what does that person's voice sound like?
Think of it this way. If you could choose the perfect person to tell your story aloud before an audience, who would it be? Well, that would kind of depend on a number things, wouldn't it?
Genre will certainly matter. Assume you chose someone with the perfect creepy voice to tell your horror story to adults. Would that same person and voice be appropriate to relate your children's fairy tale? Not so much, eh? If you are writing a Romance in a typical American urban or suburban setting, a distinctive voice might not matter so much - but it wouldn't hurt if it separates your work from thousands of others seeking publication.
So, yes, setting matters too. Assume you are writing Sherlock Holmes fan fic. Would a mid-western American narrative voice "sound" right for your story? How about a first-person novel in a Southern U.S. setting? What would the narrative voice sound like?
That brings us to another part of voice - the voices of individual characters. Have you written/read stories where every character "sounds" alike? I have many times. Three-dimensional characters are distinctive - just like "real" people (go figure). They possess a distinctive appearance, mannerism, and voice. Would the voice of your plumber be the same as that of your banker?
What contributes to a character's voice? Gender, age, education, cultural and ethnic background, career--gosh, many factors influence voice, don't they? Creating character separation involves word choices and the use of syntax.
Think about the plumber above. Would he speak in an informal manner and "cuss like a sailor" as he went about his work? Would your banker do and sound the same in a business setting? Toss a priest into the mix. Would his voice sound anything like the other two? How about a teen-age babysitter?
Want examples of narrative voice? Okay, here are a few.
Here's the voice of Raymond Chandler's wise-cracking private detective, Philip Marlowe,
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”
"I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.”
"It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window."
Can you "hear" Marlowe's voice?
Surely, you can hear this one. It's the first-person narrative voice of "Maysie" in my general fiction short story published by The Wordsmith Journal.
"Few of us young’uns ‘round Simpson Creek had shoes back in those days. Not that we knowed any better or cared much one way or t’other ‘ceptin’ come wintertime when we just had to make the best of it."
Compare that voice using dialect against the formal voice applied to my WIP, "Matters of Interest."
"I am Professor William Fitzhugh, my lifetime passion and academic interests, the study of paranormal phenomena. The following private journal entries, I offer for close study by colleagues and others seeking explanations for the heretofore unexplained."
Finally, here is the lyrical voice of my novel, "Waves in the Wind."
The Morrigan came to me today, an old gray crow squatting in the field of stones outside my cave mouth. Behind her, the vast emptiness of the wave-tossed western sea swept the horizon.
“Ossian,” she croaked. “What a poor thing you are, a king of stones and rotting fish.Your wounds are healed, your father will not rise from the dead, nor will your sisters. Your gods are fading Ossian, old gods fall before the new, as I will. But not yet, though the followers of the Risen One grow stronger every day.”
As you can see, the narrative voice can establish a distinctive tone and sound for your story. Individual voices bring your characters to life. Think about it. Play around with voices. Use voice to separate your stories from all the others trying to catch a publisher's eye.