Finding your voice, part II, or, why am I introducing you to a small, annoying bug?

My apologies to those of you looking forward to Sunday’s promised foray into book promotion. I shan’t bore you with the details of why it didn’t happen; suffice it to say that I will be really, really grateful when the universe stops finding such amusement in causing the lady with the cane to tumble over sideways. I’m hoping to do a couple of posts on subject this coming weekend, lenient gravity permitting.

I’m walking upright again today — Darwin would be so pleased — but I must confess, I’m feeling a bit stuffy-headed. It’s all in a good cause, however: my backyard lilac tree has been waving bushels of lavender flowers in my general direction. Very beautiful, very pollen-laden.

It reminds me of the small town — a village, really, ensconced within an agricultural preserve — where I grew up, in the Napa Valley. (Note to those not from those parts: please, whatever you do, don’t refer to the entire area as Napa; it makes the locals apoplectic. Napa is a well-developed city on the south end of the quite rural Napa Valley. If you’re thinking of vineyards, you actually mean the latter, and if you’re thinking of a quaint little tourist trap, you’re probably thinking of my home town, 20 miles north of Napa. Believe me, when you’re living there, the difference between a city of 130,000 and a town of 5,000 could not be greater.)

Tourists overrun the Napa Valley in the autumn, when the grapevines sport leaves ranging from bright green to mellow gold to sunburned red, but my favorite time there has always been the early spring. The vines are dormant then, blasted-looking and leaf-free, but the vineyards are full of knee-high fluorescent yellow mustard flowers: acres and acres of neon brilliance.

The local truism runs that if you don’t suffer from pollen allergies during a Napa Valley spring, you never will. Because I am inherently contrary, I never suffered from pollen allergies while I was growing up. Then, years later, I moved to Seattle, where the pollen is evidently virulent in a completely different fashion.

Particularly, I notice, lilac pollen. A-choo.

I bring this up, not merely so you will excuse me if I pause occasionally for a ladylike wipe of the nose, but as an apt metaphor for today’s topic, a continuation of Sunday’s discussion of voice. Let’s cut right to the central issue, as expressed by intrepid and curious reader Gordon’s comment:

Anne — How do we tell if our voice is actually ‘our voice’? Is there an easy answer, or do we rely on our early reader to tell us? Or our editor?

Terrific question, Gordon, and one that is surprisingly rarely discussed at literary conferences or in writing classes. There’s a pretty good reason for this: while craft is general, voice is individual. While craft must be learned — and should be learned, as a means of clarifying and amplifying one’s voice — authorial voice is, like talent, inherent. And, like talent, individual voice is not always apparent in even a very gifted writer’s early efforts.

Which is, I must admit, why my first response to Gordon’s question was, “Please, don’t expect your future editor to define it for you — by definition, the best arbiter for a truly original voice is its author.” Authorial voice can’t really be taught (although there are some writing teachers who would disagree with me on that point). It arises organically, often after years of cultivation.

And I already hear some disgruntled muttering out there. “A very pretty notion, Anne,” these mutterers say, “but we’re looking for practicality here, not philosophy. What precisely is voice, and why should I worry about whether my work exhibits a unique one?”

For those of you who have heard the term bruited about in literary circles but were afraid to ask for a definition, voice is that combination of tone, worldview, vocabulary, rhythm, vocabulary, and style that makes one author’s work differ from another’s, even if they are telling the same story.

It is, to put it as simply as possible, what makes YOUR work sound like YOU, and not like someone else. In a book with a strong, well-developed voice, every paragraph — indeed, every sentence — will be in that voice, a phenomenon the pros call consistency.

And that’s darned hard for a writer to pull off, particularly (as is often the case for those new to the craft) if the writer in question isn’t quite sure what her voice is. “Is my voice how word patterns appear in my brain?” she might catch herself wondering. “Or on the page of a first draft? Or is my voice what ends up in a final revision? And how is what I like to read in other writers’ work different — and the same — as my personal voice?”

Yes, in response to what half of you just thought exceedingly loudly, those are some mighty weighty questions, ones that a thoughtful writer could spend a productive lifetime answering. But think about it on a practical level: as a reader, don’t you expect consistency of voice in a published book? Haven’t you ever read a book where the tone, vocabulary, and/or style abruptly altered so much that it jarred you out of the storyline?

Millicent the agency screener has, alas. So have her cousin Maury, the editorial assistant, and their aunt, Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. Lovers of literature that they are, it genuinely saddens them to see a voice that they have come to like and respect suddenly transmogrify into something else 150 pages into a manuscript. Or 50. Or 10.

And how do you think they are likely to react if the voice is uneven on page 1? Avert your eyes, children — it’s not a pretty image.

Nor are they alone in preferring consistency. Most readers dislike that feeling of being pulled out of the story, so pros tend to edit with an eye to removing it. The result: the authors we tend to love are those whose voices are so consistent that if we took a two-line excerpt from Chapter 2 and another from Chapter 8, we could tell that the same person wrote them.

“Golly,” say the scoffers we met above, “voice sounds awfully important. Why doesn’t every writers’ conference devote immense amounts of time to helping aspiring writers seek out and develop theirs?”

Beats me — unless it’s because by definition, teaching a group means catering to commonalities; to help a writer develop his voice, an instructor would have to read enough of his work to figure out what he does better than any other writer on the planet. That’s assuming, of course, that the instructor has the literary acumen to weed out those elements that are borrowed from other authors’ styles (more common than you might think), as well as the time to encourage the writer, draft after draft, to cater to his own strengths.

Kind of a tough brief for a one-time two-hour seminar with twenty students, no?

To be fair to conference organizers, most submissions do fall under the weight of formatting, grammar, and clarity problems long before your garden-variety Millicent would take issue with inconsistency of voice, so it does make some sense to offer instruction on those issues first. When a writer is still struggling to express herself clearly and in a way that will appeal to an established market, those are definitely the skills she should master up front. And it’s not all that uncommon for an aspiring writer only to begin addressing herself to acquiring craft skills until after she is relatively happy with the overall story she wants to tell.

Or, to put it another way, at the submission stage, if her manuscript is not in standard format, contains many grammatical errors, and is confusing to read, an agent or editor’s rending his garments and crying, “But the voice is not consistent!” is probably the least of her worries. Nor is it likely to be Millicent’s first concern if the story has been insufficiently thought-out.

But let’s assume that you’ve been working tirelessly on these foundational issues, and now are pondering Gordon’s question: how does a writer know when he’s found his voice?

Does his writing abruptly jell in a way it had not before — and, if so, will that appealing congealing be immediately apparent to him? Or will he stumble upon a passage when he is reading his completed manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, AND OUT LOUD (I couldn’t resist) before responding to a request for pages, causing him to cry out, “Wow, I would like my entire book to read like this! I shall instantly drop everything to go back through this entire manuscript, page by page, line by line, to apply this engaging voice consistently throughout the book!”

Um, no, on all three counts. Not usually. Especially that bit where the writer realizes that if his newfound voice is going to work qua voice, he’s going to have to use it consistently throughout the manuscript.

So how does a writer discover her own voice? Well, for starters, it’s extraordinarily rare that an author’s distinctive personal voice shows up in her first writing projects, except perhaps in flashes. Why? Well, as much as we might like to think of ourselves as expressing ourselves as no one else does, doing so in writing is a rather difficult skill to master. Even for those most beloved of the Muses, it takes time, and it takes practice.

It takes, in other words, more than just sitting down and writing a complete draft of a book. That’s the first step, typically, not the last: most writers will experiment with quite a few voices, vocabulary levels, approaches to scenes, etc. in drafting their first book or two. And that’s perfectly fine: after all, how are you going to know what you can and can’t pull off, or even what you like in your own writing, if you don’t try a variety of styles?

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering for the last few paragraphs, professional readers like Millicent, Maury, and Mehitabel tend to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to manuscripts featuring a smorgasbord of voice experiments. To them, inconsistency of voice is a sign that the writer in question has not yet decided what she wants the book to sound like overall. So why not throw that fish back into the sea, to wait for it to grow bigger, stronger, and more consistent?

Okay, so that analogy crumbled a bit at the end; try as I might, I can’t figure out what an inconsistent fish would act like. (Attempt to breathe air every second Thursday of the month, maybe?) But that’s precisely why I used it: see how jarring even a single consistent sentence can be to a narrative?

Besides, most writers begin by imitating the voices of authors they admire, so it’s not at all uncommon to see a manuscript scene that contains a patch that reads a bit of Annie Proulx, a terse dialogue reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway, and a blistering line or two of Jay Mcinerney cynicism, all tied together by a few straightforward declarative sentences.

Tell me, out of all of those disparate elements, which part is the writer’s own voice? Is it really Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel’s job to guess?

Most of the time — and you might want to sit down for this one, campers; some of you may find what I have to say next rather discouraging — a writer comes to recognize her own voice because over time, it becomes the most natural for her to use. Its consistency sits up and announces itself to be how she should be writing all the time.

Which means, Gordon, that you may not yet know what your voice is, but you will probably recognize it when you see it.

I know, I know; that sounds very woo-woo, but I swear that it’s true. For most good writers, one day, after seemingly endless writing, a personal voice abruptly emerges and takes over the narration. Like all of those lilac and mustard flowers bursting into bloom on a rainy spring morning, its essence will waft over the page, marking it.

And the writer says, “Hey, I like that. I think I’m going to write like that all the time.”

To complicate matters, just as those early spring flowers make some people smile and others sneeze violently, a strong, original voice will not appeal to all readers. That’s why, in case you had been wondering, no not all published writing exhibits an distinct narrative voice. The more distinctive the voice, the greater the risk, in a way — it can irritate in a way that a merely clear, pleasant, generic voice may not.

Oh, you didn’t know that was one of the many reasons that journalists are trained to sound so much alike on the printed page? They are urged to keep their individual voices out of the story, so as not to distract the reader.

The ambient mutters have been steadily growing to a near-roar. “Okay, now I’m really confused. If I understand you correctly, it’s safer not to write in an individual voice — but if I want to be known for the beauty of my writing, I need not only to do just that, but to do it consistently throughout my manuscript.”

Nicely summarized, ghostly mutterers: it is a genuine paradox. It’s also a choice that every writer has to make for himself. Or herself, as the case may be. (I’ve alternated so often in this post that I’m not sure whose turn it is.)

Feet continue to shuffle out there, and hips to shift uncomfortably on computer chairs. “What I’m really asking, I guess,” my muttering friends continue, “is what separates a good voice from a bad voice. Or, to put it another way, how on earth can an agent, editor, or contest judge rate voice on anything but personal preference?”

Remember last autumn’s Querypalooza series, when I pointed out early and often that contrary to popular opinion amongst the aspiring, a savvy writer shouldn’t want to sign with just any agent — she should aspire to signing with one who truly loves her work? This is precisely why: response to voice is quite individual. No matter how beautifully-written a manuscript may be, it’s not going to be every agent’s proverbial cup of tea.

Is the common rejection line I just didn’t fall in love with it making a bit more sense now?

In order to represent you successfully, an agent needs not only to like your voice, but be able to identify what is individual about it lucidly enough to be able to go to an editor and say truthfully, “Look, based on the books you have been buying lately, I think you are going to like this manuscript, for these twelve reasons…”

Because a runny nose is apparently conducive to decoding cosmic mysteries, allow me to add: that’s why nonfiction is reputed to be easier to sell than fiction; fiction is inherently much more heavily reliant upon voice, right? Particularly literary fiction, where the freshness and strength of the voice is the book’s primary selling point.

And, let’s face it, no matter how strong a story is, few readers will finish a novel if they dislike the author’s voice. “I just couldn’t get into it,” they will say, setting it aside.

Nonfiction, on the other hand, is much more concerned with the interest of the subject matter, the slant of the approach, and — yes, I must say it — the credentials of the author. (Oh, stop your groaning — you didn’t honestly expect me to talk about selling NF without bringing up platform, did you?) Just think of the many, many nonfiction books sold each year by journalists: while a strong voice may be an additional selling point, clarity is generally the main desiratum.

Unless, of course, it’s a memoir, where voice is nearly as important as in a novel.

Is your head spinning from all this? Not to worry; tomorrow, I shall discuss voice choices in greater detail. (And I’m going to try like heck to do it on the literal morrow, not merely the next time the pratfall-happy medical gods happen to allow me enough energy to post.)

For today’s purposes, it’s less important that you come away from this with a clear idea of the strategic uses of voice than to realize that you may well have more than one voice lurking inside your creative mind at this very moment — and that before you can make it consistent throughout the narrative, you are going to have to (a) identify the contenders, (b) decide which one you want to dominate the narrative, and (c) set aside some serious revision time for implementing that decision. If, as sometimes amuses the Muses to facilitate, you happen to like more than one of your voice options, you might want to (d) give some thought to which would be most appropriate to the book project at hand (which would fit most comfortably into your chosen book category, which is most likely to appeal to your target readership, etc.), reserving other options for your second, third, or fourth book.

Hey, no one ever said that developing a unique voice was easy. Or uncomplicated.

“I’ve got just one more question,” the disgruntled mutterers who have been dogging me throughout this post are piping up to say. “Why did you decide to start talking about voice at the end of the Pet Peeves on Parade series? If my authorial voice is what is most distinctively me in my manuscript, shouldn’t we have been talking about it all along?”

Ah, but remember what I said above about the usually progression of the authorial learning curve: first comes story, then craft, with voice discovery generally lollygagging to a distant third-place finish. That’s necessary and appropriate — and, frankly, it’s a heck of a lot easier for a writer who has already invested energy in polishing up storytelling and craft issues to tinker with voice than one who has not.

There is more to revising a manuscript than deciding whether this sentence is necessary, that paragraph is clear, or a scene tells rather than shows. All of these are necessary, of course — but ideally, a revising writer should also be asking himself, “But does this part of the manuscript fit with the overall voice? Does it sound like ME?”

Just a small, noisy bug to stick in your ear while you’re reviewing your manuscript in the wake of the Pet Peeves on Parade series. Allow it to jump around freely until next time; perhaps it will awaken an exciting aspect of your voice that’s been napping, waiting until you were ready to hear it. Keep up the good work!

8 Replies to “Finding your voice, part II, or, why am I introducing you to a small, annoying bug?”

  1. This is just my post, Anne! I’ve been thinking about what voice is recently, as per discussing it with my agent. I’m beginning a new endeavor, a WIP, you might say. And I realized that voice is also as much about “gut” as anything else. The handling of words, the way the mind works. We often don’t listen to our “gut” when usually it’s more on the nose than what anyone else can tell us about our writing. 🙂 Thank you for this post.

    1. Hey, Kate, nice to hear from you! For what it’s worth, it’s been my experience that for many, if not most, really talented writers, the voice and the craft of the first book seem much more interrelated than they do in subsequent book projects. I think starting a new book with a full array of craft tools is a very different endeavor than the learn-by-doing of a first book. It’s a GREAT time to be thinking about voice.

  2. Anne I just recently found this site and I love it! So much useful information, and you even made me empathize with evil Millicent (a little bit I still hate her like poison).

    I have a question about the importance of Agent vs Agency. In a top literary agency, how much support does a young agent get in terms of getting their foot in the door with publishers, and getting support from the more experienced agents in house?

    For instance I was looking at Daniel Lazar over at Writers House. That’s a solid agency, but he’s a relatively new agent without any huge sells under his belt (as opposed to say, Jodi Reamer at the same agency, a black belt auction shark).

    When Daniel takes a project to the Big 6, how much clout does the Writers House name buy him? Or is it more about the contacts/relationships an individual agent has inside a given publishing house? And if it is about those contacts, do agents share them in-house with other members of their agency?

    Is a new agent at a big agency just a newbie with a glorified business card, or are they protected from up on high flying their agency flag?

    1. That’s a great question, Ian, but I’m afraid my answer will be need to be theoretical, rather than agency-specific. L ‘m uncomfortable making pronouncements about any specific agent or agency — and as a matter of policy, I don’t compare agents directly. (Although I do occasionally praise those whose work I consider particularly outstanding; it’s a tough job, after all.)

      So the general answer to your question is that it really depends on the agency — and how the agent in question got there. As always, the best way to figure out whether an agent has the connections to sell a book like yours is to check his recent sales record — not just whether he has clients on the bestseller lists, but whether he has consistently been able to place debut books like yours within the last couple of years, when the market has been exceptionally difficult for first-time authors. That’s going to be a much, much better indicator of what kind of fit he would be for your work than whether he’s affiliated with a top agency.

      There are definitely benefits to being a client of a major agency, however. It’s not at all uncommon, for instance, for a new agent to have started out as an assistant to a very well-established agent, and thus to be in an ideal position to make great connections. (For a fuller explanation of this, please see the HOW TO FIND AGENTS TO QUERY category on the archive list on the right-hand side of this page.) That’s not always the case, though. And while some agents do habitually share connections with fellow agents, some do not. Again, it depends upon the agent and the agency.

      Agents do move around quite a bit, however, so it isn’t always possible to just look at how long an agent has been at an agency and judge what his connections might be. Generally speaking, this is a reputation-based business: being affiliated with a prestigious agency does tend to make it a bit easier to get a manuscript in the door. But there’s no hard-and-fast rule that may be applied university.

      So no, I wouldn’t say a newish agent at a major agency should be discounted. But it would be unreasonable to expect that signing with any agent at any given agency will automatically give you access to all of the connections anyone at that agency might happen to have. It may be a moot point, however: frequently, the top agents at a major agency aren’t taking new clients, so a newer agent may be a far more realistic querying possibility. That’s important to bear in mind when constructing a querying list — queriers often waste a lot of energy aiming at the big name agents, simply because they’ve heard of them, regardless of those agents’ track records for taking on debut authors. Since it’s considered rude to query more than one agent at a single agency with a particular project, aiming for the bigwig who seldom takes on new clients may well be a significantly riskier proposition than approaching an agent who routinely represents those new to the game — and thus is probably not yet brokering million-dollar deals. In a publishing environment where advances for first books have been plummeting, a proven ability to sell books like yours is probably a better indicator of whether an agent would be worth your while to approach than whether he routinely represents authors on the bestseller lists.

      The best way to answer your specific question, I suspect, would be to Google Daniel Lazar and see if he has given an interview or written something on the subject, or if someone else at Writers’ House has. Or even approach him at a conference an ask: he has a reputation for being quite nice to aspiring writers. You also might want to take a closer look at his sales record; I wouldn’t entirely agree with your characterization of it.

      It’s entirely possible, though, that I’ve misunderstood the purport of your question; it’s been a long day. Was the underlying issue here not whether you’d be best off querying a new agent at a major agency, a less-new agent at a less-major agency, or a major agent at the aforementioned major agency?

      1. No you pretty much nailed it Anne, thank you. HOW TO FIND AGENTS TO QUERY helped too, and now I’m going to spend a nice long weekend reading through all the Paloozas. This site may wind up being my new home page for a bit (sorry Google).

        I think you’re right, the question comes down to choosing between a newer agent at a major agency who’s “actively seeking” clients to build their list, or querying a more established agent at the same agency.

        And doesn’t it seem wiser to go with a newer agent at a big agency? Once your book/proposal is in the hands of a publishing house, does it really matter who your agent is? As long as they have enough pull to get the right projects into the hands of the right people — am I losing anything by going with a newer agent?

        Just to continue the hypothetical example: let’s say Daniel Lazar and Jodi Reamer both take the same YA novel/proposal to Random House. They both have the pull to get the project through the door. No matter which agent is representing the book, it’s probably going to be the same team at Random House reviewing the project, isn’t it?

        Am I more likely to get an offer because Reamer is pitching the project? If both Reamer & Lazar get an offer for the book — is Reamer going to walk away with a better deal because of her track record bringing in the big bucks with Twilight and Matched?

        I understand agents as the gatekeepers at the beginning and I understand agents as contract negotiators at the end, but I get a little fuzzy on what the heck they’re doing in the middle.

        1. Good questions all, Ian. Speaking as a client of a major agency, there are some advantages — among them: when you say who represents you, people in the know say, “Ooh! — but ultimately, what matters most for a first book is whether it sells or not. Most first books that find agents will not find publishers, so both connections and tenacity are usually far more important than the track record for high-ticket sales. Overall, advances have been going up in recent years for already-established bestselling authors, but plummeting for debut authors. An agent who routinely makes multi-million dollar deals for established authors may not be able to pull off anything close to same feat for a new writer.

          To answer your more specific questions, however: every agent has personal connections, over and above the agency’s, so actually, which agent is handling you may have quite a solid effect on which editors’ desks your manuscript or proposal lands. A better-established agent is also more likely to be able to generate the interest for an auction, something that can ramp up an advance considerably.

          That doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that a less-known, hungrier agent won’t sell your book first, or won’t be willing to shop it around longer. It’s also relatively rare that a first novel goes to auction at all, no matter who represents it. (Although the exceptions can be pretty spectacular: The Clan of the Cave Bear springs to mind, but that was quite some time ago.) Not to mention the question that doesn’t occur to many an aspiring writer until after she has signed with a major agent: would you rather be someone’s 37th client, or his 101rst?

          It may sound like a joke, but a major agent may well have less time for someone new to the biz; you might end up having more interaction with the agent’s assistant than the agent herself. Agents — good ones like those you mention, anyway — do quite a bit more for their clients than sell their books. They make sure that advances are paid on time — not a foregone conclusion, incidentally — and collect royalties. (When you are agented, the publishing house pays your agency, not you.) They deal with tax paperwork. They help the writer negotiate with the publishing house over both contractual matters and issues that might crop up later. And, most important of all, they help the writer shape a career.

          For all of these, you will want an agent who not only loves your writing and has the connections to sell it, but also has the time and willingness to devote to you and your work. So, as I said, it really depends on the agent and the agency.

          Just so you know, though, after an agent makes an offer, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask to speak to a couple of his clients who write books in your category. Obviously, a smart agent is going to send you to his happiest clients — probably ones whose books he has just sold — but don’t be afraid to ask to speak to a first-time author on his list. That writer will be able to give you quite a bit of insight into how the agent likes to work with clients.

          1. Thanks Anne, I really appreciate you taking the time to answer some of these questions.

            I think the thing I’m going to take away the most is to collect just a massive amount of information on each potential agent: which deals they put together, and where, and for how much, and how long ago. Read interviews with them, check their Twitter, check their FB. Some nice polite cyberstalking. That seems like the best indicator of which agent will be the best fit.

            (And you were right about Lazar, he had some much bigger deals under his belt than I realized. He may have a query in his future…)

          2. I’m really happy to hear that you’re taking that away from this discussion, Ian. Homework really does pay off in the long run.

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