A Brief Discussion about V-O-I-C-E and #writemotivation check in

One thing you hear so often from agents and editors about what grabs their attention most when they read a manuscript is VOICE.

They will even overlook plot problems and still offer you a book deal if you have a strong sense of VOICE. And yet ask these same publishing professionals to define this VOICE and…well, they know it when they see it.

So, stop fooling around! Tell us! What is VOICE? How do we get VOICE if we don’t have it?

Here are some of the quotes and comments from the SCBWI LA Summer Conference:

“If I’m picturing you at your computer typing away, it’s not an authentic voice. Take specific experiences of perspective of a character and translate them naturally.” Jordan Brown, editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books.

“That which makes an author unique – style. A reflection of who you are.” Laura Godwin, Vice President and publisher at Henry Holt. She said this is is a skill that you can hone. the better you know who you are, the better you will know who your characters are.

“Speak authentically. By knowing your character well, you’ll speak through them.” Farrin Jacobs, editorial director at HarperCollins Children’s Books. She said that she automatically rejects books that are “too voicey”.

(Are you kidding me? A manuscript can have too much VOICE?)

Elise Howard, editor and publisher at Algonquin Books, instead of giving a definition, read Dan Gutman’s faculty bio for the conference as an example of voice which starts out like this: “Dan Gutman was born in a log cabin in Illinois and used to write by candlelight with a piece of chalk on a shovel. Oh, wait a minute. That was Abraham Lincoln…”

Elise added onto Farrin’s comments about the manuscripts that are “too voicey” by saying that the major issue with Middle Grade manuscripts she is seeing is that too many of them are in first person with a voice that is too sophisticated for the age of the character they are portraying. she suggested changing the POV to third person which allows for a wider perspective than first person and can help fix the problem.

Still confused?

Me too.

Then I attended a breakout session with Linda Pratt, an agent from the Wernick & Pratt Agency, where she talked about readying your manuscript for submission. During this session, she discussed some of the main elements that you should take into consideration during your creative process. One of those things was VOICE. Here is how she defined it:

Voice is the element of writing that brings the reader into a conversation with the narrator or the characters. Voice is the key way for a writer to ‘show’ rather than tell. An authentic voice will use: inflections, word choices, and contextual references that ultimately tell the reader who that narrator and/or character is without specifically spelling it out.

She said that VOICE comes through in dialogue, the way the character speaks.

For me, this was the best definition of VOICE I’d ever heard. Linda went on to give some examples of how using word choices would effect the VOICE of a story. This is different from writing in dialect. Knowing where a person is from – knowing their background – should effect the word choices you make. People in Wisconsin talk differently than people in Arizona. Their daily experiences are different.

Here’s an example Linda gave:

When discussing the fact that her dog seemed to be in some discomfort because his, ahem, nether region was perspiring, she hypothesized how two very different relatives would respond.

“Why, Kim, I think Henry’s balls are chafing.” Her mother-in-law from Louisville, Kentucky

“Ya’ dog’s balls are sweating.” Her brother from NY.

Distinct differences in voice.

Keep this in mind when you are writing your manuscript. Listen for the distinct voice in your head that is your character. When you’re writing, think about your word choices. Knowing your character’s background, would your character naturally say the words that you are putting into her mouth?

I hope that helps clear up some confusion and gives you all a better understanding of the elusive animal that is VOICE. Let me know what you think.

Now for my #writemotivation goals, week two is cracking right along.

1. Finish revision suggestions for interested agent and send off my FULL manuscript as soon as humanly possible. I did start the final run-through near the end of the week. I have a ways to go.
2 .Finish up novel revisions on my Middle Grade manuscript for November workshop and mail off copies to my group. DONE.
3. Read through manuscripts received from my group for the novel revision workshop. No progress this week. I did buy some fancy colored flags to use for my notes. Forget expensive purses and matching shoes, give me sticky notes and highlighters. Ahhh! Office supplies. 🙂
4. Continue first draft of new YA WIP. I did write a new beginning pitch for this. Yes, I wrote the pitch BEFORE I finished the story. I’ve hardly started it, actually. (Thank you to the person who gave me this wonderful idea. I read it on one of your blogs, but I’m so brain dead right now, I can’t remember which one – if it’s you, please remind me so I can ping back to the post and share it!)
5. Exercise at least four times a week. Ummm…look! Dinosaurs! (Damn, that worked on my godson when he was three.) I only made it twice last week. 😦 Really need to drag my butt out the door more often.

Here’s to progress on most of the goals, wahoo! Here’s to getting that revision done soon, oh yeah! How are you doing this week?

18 thoughts on “A Brief Discussion about V-O-I-C-E and #writemotivation check in

  1. Too voicey. That’s priceless, and so true. I always think about when they feel like the producers of Transformers just HAD to give an Autobot Ferrari and Italian accent, and dialogue that could almost be considered racist. O_O

    1. ha! now i will always remember “too voicey” as an italian ferrari autobot. if only that would make an awesome mashup tee, eh? but i’m thinking…too much. agree on the racism thing, that’s almost like being stereotypical. you’re characters have to be more real than that. you’re trying too hard at that point; turn down the contrast dial a bit, yo’.

  2. Voice has always been the ineffable aspect of writing that has baffled me. I’ve often been told that I have a great voice in my stories, yet I have no idea what that even means. And, as you pointed out in many of your quotations, nobody can explain it all that well. I will say that the last definition is one of the clearer I’ve heard though it still leaves a lot to be desired.

    As a side note, your love of office supplies reminds me of my law-student wife’s obsession with the right flags, highlighters, and post-its.

    1. although you still need some clarity at least you seem to be capturing that elusive beast on paper. that’s the most important part! and i do solemnly approve of your wife’s addiction, er, obsession. a woman after my own heart.

  3. Whenever I think of voice, I can’t help but think of QueryShark. It was reading the archives of that blog over and over that gave me an idea of what voice is, how you can break all the regular query rules and still get a “yes” if the voice is enticing enough. This is one of my favorites: http://queryshark.blogspot.com/2010/08/172-ftw.html

    But your quote up there is probably the best definition I’ve ever heard of it. 🙂

    *raises mug of tea* To editing! 😀

    1. oh, what a great idea. you’re doing better than me. too much rain is keeping me indoors. time to bust out the dance central and let the kids make fun of my awesome 80s dance moves.

  4. Great post. Voice. It’s a mystery, yet when it comes it’s not a mystery. It “feels” right. It “feels” authentic. I especially like the quote about seeing the writer sitting at the computer. I often see wriiting, including published writing, which reflects an author being authory. You know. I’m really smart so I’m going to write in a way so that you’ll see how smart I am. Okay, but does it help the STORY?

  5. Great info on voice. Love the examples dealing with the dog’s sweating boy bits – that will definitely make it stick in my head. 🙂 Sounds like you’re making solid progress – keep it up!

  6. How did I miss this post? An awesome quest to find the meaning of voice. 🙂

    I tend to use voice and style interchangeably. Not sure if officially they refer to the same thing, but I find that they refer to the same things i.e. the author’s unique stamp on the literary world. You just know when you’re reading a passage from one of your favorite authors. 😉

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. great point. although a writer’s voice may be slightly different from book to book depending on the character, their style is definitely all their own. they are closely tied together.

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