Updated: Sep 8, 2021
While working as a literary agent, I had the privilege of considering between 350 and 500 queries each month. That’s a pretty typical range for most agents I know, more or less. (Way to go, awesome authors! Keep writing and putting your work out there!)
So with hundreds of queries swimming in an agent’s inbox at any given time, how can an author help make theirs stand out from the rest of the pool? Well, there’s definitely no magic formula, but there are some things that authors can do to give themselves the best chances. In this blog series, I’d like to explore some of those elements of success.
First off, let’s discuss voice. Raise your hand if you’ve ever received a rejection that said, “I just didn’t fall in love with the voice” or “the voice didn’t feel as fresh as I’d hoped.” Both are pretty common, honestly. Voice is given as a reason for rejection at least 50% of the time (okay, okay, so I never tracked that for real, but I think it’s a fair guess).
Voice can be elusive in terms of nailing down a definition. Many agents and editors agree that “you know it when you see it”, which means that hitting the “right” voice is highly subjective. But I think there are three components of voice that can help bring some objectivity to the conversation.
Voice Should Reflect The Narrator
I was talking with a content editor at a major tech website the other day, and she mentioned that the company shoots for a “cool aunt” voice in blog posts. Hearing that description definitely brings a certain tone to mind, doesn’t it? A “cool aunt” wants to help, but isn’t gonna lecture; she’s relational but not to the point of being a best friend. Those two words gave me an immediate sense of how the editor wanted information to be communicated. Why? Because she had characterized her narrator.
When developing a voice in fiction, it also helps to characterize your narrator. If you’re writing in third person, that means you need to think about who your narrator is and how they would tell this story. Are they reliable? Snarky? Omniscient? Sympathetic? If you’re writing in first person, you’ve likely already developed a description for your main character, so use that as a basis for developing narrator voice. Are they intelligent? Antagonistic? Emotional? Anxious?
How you define your narrator (think “cool aunt”, “bitter brother”, “optimistic extrovert”) needs to feed into the voice you use for them on the page. Remember, when incorporating this element, it’s important to analyze not how YOU would tell the story, but how THEY would tell the story.
Voice Should Reflect The Audience
Think back to all the research papers that you turned in during high school/college. You were (hopefully) taught to write those papers in an academic voice: one that sounded authoritative and informational and almost professorial…because you were turning it in to a professor. You used third person POV, you avoided conversational wording and dialogue, and you followed a strict formula of formatting like your life grade depended on it. All of those elements combined to create the academic voice you needed to connect with your audience (your teacher).
Similarly, in creative writing, the voice you use needs to connect with your audience. For example, when writing for a middle grade reader, you need to adopt a voice that will appeal to an eleven year old the way your research paper appealed to your professor. I’m not talking merely about slang or language usage (although those can be tools); I’m talking about writing in a way that reflects what’s important to them and what interests them. Your professor thought that citations were important and that research was interesting. What do your readers consider important and interesting? Those things are crucial elements in developing a good voice.
Voice Should Reflect The Author
The final thing that needs to be woven into good voice is YOU! While each book you write should be slightly different in voice (because of your narrator and audience) the common thread should be you as an author. Take your favorite author, for example. You probably would be able to pick up one of their books without a cover on it and know right away, “Oh, this has got to be a M.Y. Favorite book! It sounds just like her!” Good authors have a distinct voice, one that bleeds through subtly from book to book.
Much of who you are as an author comes through into your voice naturally, without you really thinking about it. But there are some conscious choices that you can make that allow your readers to say “Oh, this has got to be a [insert your name] book.”
Punctuation, formatting, and “gray” grammar all play a big role, for instance. Do you use long paragraphs? Are fragments your friend? Do you play with spacing? How do you feel about the semicolon?
Language use also plays a role. Can your readers expect to find poetic descriptions in your text or do you rely on dialogue to set the scene? Do you like using metaphors, similes, and other literary devices? These conscious choices (based largely on subconscious preferences) all play a part in voice.
Thinking About Voice Like an Agent
So how does voice play a role in attracting an agent? Well, in my opinion, voice is established—and ideally “fallen in love with”—in the first 25 pages. In the first ten pages, an agent is mostly looking at concept and characterization; if great voice is reflected in the first ten, then that’s a bonus. But often it takes the first 25 to really settle in and get the true essence of the voice. (Again, I’m speaking from my own general experience here.)
Voice does NOT need to be reflected in the query letter. You could try to implicitly characterize the manuscript’s voice through comps, but the query letter itself is a business tool and therefore it should be written in a professional voice. Don’t try to write a query letter from the voice of your narrator—it can come off as gimmicky because it ignores standard protocol (think back to the research paper!).
When it comes right down to it, voice is and will always remain subjective. And even if an agent likes your voice, they may still need to send a rejection because your voice is too similar to another client’s. The key is to hone the voice of your book as much as possible; that way, you know any negative responses regarding voice are based on opinion/fit/timing rather than on your craft. Hopefully incorporating these three ideas—narrator, audience, and author—will help you on that path.
Until next time, may your voice ring true and your truth find a voice.