Friday, May 09, 2008

What Makes Me Say "Yes"

I get asked all the time by authors what, out of all the submissions I receive, makes me say, "Yes! I want to represent this writer." And it’s a fair question. I’ll tell you now though that if you’re looking for the secret to getting an agent you aren’t going to find it in this post. What gets me really excited about a new writer and a new book is first and foremost voice. That one indefinable thing that attracts us all to someone else’s writing. When I pick up a few chapters of a submission I’m usually attracted to the idea initially because, let’s face it, it’s what got me past the query letter and into the chapters. But an idea is only going to take you so far. The one thing that’s really truly going to grab me and hold me is the author’s voice. I have to fall in love almost immediately and want to get to know more about these characters and story. That’s what will take me through to the end of the book.

Once the author has me hooked it’s going to be the execution that makes the final decision. I expect a little editing and have no problem with that, but if there are major errors or inconsistencies you’ll likely lose me early on. If, however, the characters remain engaging from beginning to end and the plot holds up, it will be pretty dang hard for me to say no.

So I would say voice first and execution later. I would suspect that this is the same thing that attracts all of you to someone you would call one of your favorite authors.



Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

Excellent, honest answer. I want to point the readers of my own blog to this one. Thanks for posting it.

Laura K. Curtis said...

'Morning, Jessica! Not so much a comment on this post (which is, as usual, frank and to the point), but a question for a possible future one. What happens when two authors with different agents complete a project together?

Ada [The Duchess] said...

That's a wonderful answer. Thanks for that insight.

Anonymous said...

Ah well, I've often said yes based on voice :)

Robena Grant said...

Dang. I was hoping for instructions on the secret handshake. ;)

Diana said...

Thanks for the insight!

Heidi Willis said...

Voice is the thing that I struggle with the most. My current WIP is first person and the voice is, I think, probably the strongest thing about it. It's easy to create a great voice with a rural Texan mom.

BUT... my first book was told in third person and alternated between following three different people. How does an author create a strong voice with an impersonal narrator?

I know there are probably thousands of books with strong 3rd person narrators. Faulkner, obviously, comes to mind. Can you suggest a few recently published novels in 3rd person for us to look at to get a feel for great voice?

Merry Monteleone said...

Great post. Small question, have you ever been luke warm about the pitch but fallen in love with the voice and characters?

I know there are books I put off reading because I wasn't interested in the premise but they pulled me in once I finally opened the first page - I put off The Time Traveler's Wife for over a year, but when I finally cracked the cover, I was hooked.

Anonymous said...

Without a better explanation of "voice", I think this post seems like a cop out. Isn't "voice" just another way of saying that you like the way they write? To put this in another context, if you were asked what you look for in a dessert, for example, and you said, "First, I want a dessert that is delicious. Then, I want it to look good on the plate," wouldn't that beg the question--what do you find delicious? I would ask, what kind of voice appeals to you?

Anonymous said...

Hi Anonymous:

I can see why the "voice" answer may seem like a cop-out. At the same time, though, I'm not sure it's something that can be so easily explained.

I think of "voice" as a kind of elusive "X factor." Your manuscript either has a strong one or it doesn't. It's true that not every strong voice will be to my liking, but I do think that any strong voice will catch my attention.

It's more than being able to put together a good sentence. Consider the example of hearing the same story from two different friends. The delivery is going to be completely different from one person to the next. With Friend #1 you find your mind wandering off, with Friend #2 you're completely riveted and hanging on every word. It's not necessarily because one of them has a better command of the English language than the other -- though that could be part of it. The great storyteller can deliver a tale with a certain amount of confidence, energy, affect and immediacy that the other friend can't. That's a great, strong voice. But until someone tells me the story that way, it's impossible for me to say how I want to hear it told.

Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

There's a certain irony in this, though. I had a story rejected by one publisher because it wasn't sensual enough, rejected by another who said the writing didn't grab her and accepted by the third who said the story was dynamic and engaging and pressed all the right buttons. It's just personal taste in the end.

Anonymous said...

In response to "flick's" comment: I would agree, but that's what I think Jessica is saying (and Kim). Something about the way the writer writes it--an intangible expression which permeates the story and sets the voice apart to each of them.

As you noted from your own experience, the voice is as varied as the number of stories on the shelves, and the responses to that voice are too.

Anonymous said...

Heidi--my (unprofessional by any consideration) recommendation for a great 3rd person narrative voice would be Terry Pratchett. Along with knowing how to string together a sentence, he's also managed to make that impersonal narrator hilarious.

Kimbra Kasch said...

Thanks for the info.

Julie Weathers said...
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Julie Weathers said...

"Without a better explanation of "voice", I think this post seems like a cop out."

Not really. Voice isn't a "tangible" like some other aspects of writing. If selling were a matter of point of view or grammar, it would be an easy answer.

My editor at the magazine I worked for had a professor at a California university use her articles to teach voice and style. If voice can be identified and taught from articles about horse racing, then it is real. However, it's also something elusive and not easily defined.

There are only so many stories out there. The difference is in how we tell them. We must have characters so real they come to life and tell their own story in their own way, but underlying all they will know their creator's voice.

Kate Douglas said...

One note on voice and working with a critique group--that seems to be the first thing critique partners want to take out of a story--the author's voice. I've learned to trust my own instincts with my writing--I still have readers to look for mistakes and such, but I no longer listen to comments regarding my style and choice of words. Sometimes that first draft, the pages you write in a fit of creative energy, will be your best work because it's written in your own voice without even your internal editor trying to fix things. Two authors with very distinct voices that come to mind are MaryJanice Davidson and JR Ward. Both write vampire romances--one in comedy, the other dark and filled with angst. Totally different voices, but each uniquely powerful.

Amie Stuart said...

I have to agree w/Kate and Julie. Voice is, by its nature, hard to define and hard to put a finger on, but it's very important.

I do a lot of work in first person and that's my preferred reading voice as well. But one of my CP's works mostly in 3rd and she has a very evocative voice. Which, outside of Marsha Moyer, I've yet to see in first person.

Heidi...I hear you. I'm working on a proposal in 3rd from five or six different points of view (and mostly male!)...and even in 3rd the characters should have their own distinct voices. This sounds sorta copout-ish but listen to your characters. *sigh*

Julie Weathers said...

"Heidi...I hear you. I'm working on a proposal in 3rd from five or six different points of view (and mostly male!)...and even in 3rd the characters should have their own distinct voices. This sounds sorta copout-ish but listen to your characters. *sigh*"

Agreed. I love it when I hit the part in writing, where the characters come to life. They tell you in no uncertain terms they wouldn't say or do something and line you out post haste. When I hit that phase of "watching" things and hearing conversation, I know it has quickened.

"One note on voice and working with a critique group--that seems to be the first thing critique partners want to take out of a story--the author's voice."

I agree with this also. Fortunately, I have two good groups I work with and one person in particular who will tell me privately to trust my intincts. Her greatest fear has been people won't recognize the way things are written are part of my voice.

Anonymous said...

I hate to state the obvious, but surely "voice" is a matter of a storyteller's ability to hold the reader spellbound.

This ability, as both Jessica and Kim have said, is that intrinsic, personal ability to make a good yarn come alive.

Isn't this what our ancestors of old sat around their fires doing?

In this day of computers, tvs videos and instant gratification this ages old story telling ability has been very much diluted.

Storytellers no longer have the immediacy of a fire and a live audience on which to hone their skills.

This distance from their audience is what modern writers need to overcome or their work is doomed to never see the light of publication.

There is no magic bullet or instruction manual that will give step by step instructions on how to achieve that elusive quality known as "voice".

Coupled with this dilution is the added factor that readers are bombarded with such a bewildering choice. On holiday recently I went into a Borders book store to find a book to read and so bewildering was the choice, I couldn't settle on even one book.

And that was a first for this bookaholic.

Anonymous said...

Many of the fine comments above nibble around the edges of something without saying it: voice is pretty much the same thing as talent. And most writers don't have much of it. Experienced readers of dreck (that is, agents and editors) can spot writing that boasts a strong voice precisely because they see so much prose that is competent yet utterly voiceless (that is, written by the untalented).

Julie Weathers said...
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Anonymous said...

I wouldn't equate "voice" with "talent." I've read samples that have a strong voice but the writer was unable to carry a plot. Voice has more to do with the unique way the writer uses words. A strong voice makes you feel that someone's in the room with you. You can hear their words in your ear.

The writer who said it's easier with a rural Texan mom was closer.

Agents love voice because it is easy to judge in just a few paragraphs.