Monday, February 23, 2015

Some Thoughts on Voice

A lot of querying authors ask me what I mean when I say that I didn’t connect with their voice. “Does that mean you don’t like my characters? Do you just not like my story? Are you saying I should just give up this writing thing because VOICE?”*

No, no, and absolutely not! You can write an extraordinary story that has complex, personable characters, and still not have a writing voice that pleases everyone. And it’s definitely something you can work on if you've noticed that enough people have trouble connecting with it. In fact, I often recommend that authors do a round of revision where they focus solely on how their voice is rendered. But I digress—for now, let’s talk about what I think a great voice entails.

In general, your voice should have integrity. It should have some measure of wisdom. It should give your readers the impression that you’re trustworthy. It should bolster the aura of the story you which to tell. At the bare minimum, it should resonate in some meaningful way. If your book is written in the first person POV, your voice should capture the very essence of your protagonist. And therefore, it absolutely has to be authentic and captivating, and it has to have personality! You don’t want to tell your story in a dull, humdrum way when you can be more engaging and dynamic. And of course, your voice should also remain consistent throughout the book.

I don’t think a great voice necessarily has to be bold and assertive. Many authors make this mistake when they revise for voice, and it can be disastrous if it feels forced and artificial. Your voice can be charming and composed, and have a quiet, restrained beauty to it, as long as it has weight and purpose.

It’s difficult to talk about voice without drowning in generalities, so I thought I’d provide an example. Here’s a gorgeous quote from THE PASSION by Jeannette Winterson:

“I didn’t know what hate felt like, not the hate that comes after love. It’s huge and desperate and it longs to be proved wrong. And every day it’s proved right it grows a little more monstrous.”

Here’s something I just whipped up to serve as a counterpoint to Winterson’s quote (it also demonstrates why I should never, ever be a writer):

“I didn’t know how it felt to hate someone after having once loved them. It is overwhelming. It exists despite myself. It is frustrating that it continues to exist, and it gets worse when I try to suppress it.”

And here's a very technical interpretation of the first sentence:

"Hating someone you previously loved was a feeling I was not previously familiar with."

There's such a difference in the voices here. Winterson's voice is moving and heartfelt; it gives you a real sense of how devastating this experience has been for her. My voice is terse and robotic in comparison (and I sound rather stoic, don't I?) Both of these voices could work well in different contexts and for different stories, and that's why voice is so subjective. But I think it's safe to say that the voice in the third version has no personality or verve. It's dull and stirs little to no emotion, especially given the subject matter. And this is definitely the sort of thing you want to avoid. 

If you’re still not sure what on earth I’m talking about, just pick up your favorite book and read it aloud. You hear that? That's the voice! Ask yourself what compels you to trust it, what draws you to it. It’s hard to put in words, but when you realize you enjoy the writing itself as much as you enjoy the story, you know you’re in the presence of a voice that appeals to you.

*I'm paraphrasing here, but you get my drift.

 Saba Sulaiman is a literary agent at Talcott Notch Literary Services, a boutique agency located in Milford, CT. She's looking to build her client list in a variety of genres (because that's the beauty of agenting - see website for details.) Captivating storytelling with characters who are smart and wierd adn wonderful engage in meaningful relationships that evolve over time is what makes her world spin. She's an unapologetic advocate for all things Bollywood and she really, really just loves soup.
Where to find Saba: Website, Twitter

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