All about that voice

Last week’s post proved popular enough that I’m going to continue “translating” what certain terms mean in agent-speak.

Voice is another common reason for rejection, usually framed as:

“The voice isn’t fresh enough.”

“The voice doesn’t sound authentic.”

“The voice doesn’t appeal to me,” or “I’m not enthusiastic about the voice.”

Voice is one of the hardest aspects of writing. Some say it can’t be taught – either you have it as a writer or you don’t. I disagree – I do believe voice comes naturally to some writers, but it is part of the craft, just like plot or character. You have to work at it.

Let’s take the first instance. A common response, it means that the voice doesn’t stand out from already published books. This is often true of YA stories. The voice may be authentic – it sounds like a teen  – but more importantly, it sounds like EVERY OTHER TEEN OUT THERE.  What makes your narrator special? When I’m reading your sample pages, I don’t want to feel like I’ve read the story before even though the plot is unique. The voice needs to shine. Your story needs to stand out, and voice is a major distinction.

(Distinction does not always mean dialect, by the way. Writing dialect is like adding salt to a dish – a pinch is all you need. Too much, and it’s unpalatable.)

Unique expressions, favorite words, the rhythm of speech and dialogue – all of these combine to create a fresh voice. It may well be straightforward, but it should be recognizably yours.

Second, authenticity. Especially when writing for children, authenticity is important. If you’ve not spent much time around kids recently, or read much current kid lit, you’re going to have a problem. Kids do not sound like adults. Nor do young children use baby talk exclusively. Slang is tricky – it gets old faster than yesterday’s fish.

The easiest way to fix this is to eavesdrop. Yes, eavesdrop. Listen to people everywhere. Hear how they speak, the words they use, the tones that color their voices, the non-verbal sounds they make.

For kids, spend time with your target audience. Don’t have kids? Aren’t a teacher or librarian? Read what they read. Listen to their music and watch their movies and shows. Play their games. Listen to how the characters speak.

If you’re writing a character of a different race, ethnicity, or geographic origin, sensitivity readers can be your best friend. Ask for help.

Finally, what does it mean if the agent say your voice just doesn’t appeal to them? Sometimes this is code for either of the above issues. More often, it really is just personal preference. Agenting can be like dating. “It’s not you, it’s me.”

And if you’ve heard that from multiple agents? Then you either need to do a better job of researching agents to query – or you need to take a good hard look at your story. Read it aloud. Have someone else read it aloud. Does your voice fit your story?

I can’t stress enough that publishing is a business. If you want to be traditionally published, read what sells. Read what wins awards. Ask your local librarian what’s always circulating.

Many writers claim they can’t read while they’re writing, that it affects their voice. That can be true, but you can make time for reading, just as you make time for writing.

Here’s hoping you find your voice!

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Driving Miss Story

Fall is in the air, and with it, hundreds of new queries awaiting my attention in the slush pile. Yes, you read that correctly. Hundreds. Dunham Literary re-opened our query inbox as of September 1st, and lots of busy bees promptly sent in their query.

I’ve also had the sad task of sending out rejections for a few manuscripts that I wanted so much to love. One of the more common reasons for rejection – by any agency – is “lack of narrative drive.”

What does that mean?

“I have plenty of action!”

“My plot is great!”

“Balderdash. What was the real reason?”

If an agent tells you s/he felt your story lacks narrative drive, it’s not a comment on your plot. Not about the events or story arc, though it’s possible those are issues too. And it is a real reason.

Narrative drive is a literary way of saying “Why should I keep reading?”

(Before you complain that we’re not your audience, remember this: Agents read and request stories for a reason. They LIKE those stories and feel some connection to them. If I request your middle grade novel, it’s because I read a LOT of middle grade fiction. For fun. Even if I am way past my 12th birthday.)

Your characters may be vivid and beautifully drawn. Their relationships may ring truer than a silver bell. You may have plenty of thrilling action. The events of the story may be meaningful.

But if I can put your manuscript down and go to bed, your story lacks narrative drive.

When I read your manuscript, I should miss my subway stop. I should be unable to pay attention to the blowout baseball game. My neighbors should be ticked off at me for leaving my clothes in the dryer long after the cycle ends.

(If you’re one of my neighbors, please just pop my load into one of the rolling baskets. I’ll be down soon. Thanks! 🙂  )

 

That’s narrative drive.

A great story should carry you along like a river. The current may be quiet but insistent, or it may be thundering past the rocks, but you should be at its mercy. Unwilling – maybe even unable – to halt your raft and head for the bank.

 

The good news is that if your manuscript was dinged for narrative drive, you can fix it. My advice is to put it aside for a while. After a few weeks or months, pull it back out and read it as if you’ve just checked it out of the library.

Read it in print, or read it on an e-reader. Not your computer screen. Don’t read it as a writer. Read it like a reader. Like you’ve never seen this story before.

Note when you put it down and why. (If you can get some beta readers to do this too, so much the better.)

Impatient? Do the same exercise with your favorite books or books by popular or well-regarded authors.

Think about that WHY.

 

 

 

A worship of writers

Surely there’s a better collective noun for writers? If a group of ravens or crows can be a ‘storytelling,’ why not writers? I’ve not found a better group name, but perhaps you have one.

“Critique group” is the most common collective of writers. And when most writers think of critique groups, they think of a small group of people drinking coffee (or other beverages) and going over each other’s pages.

Well, that’s one helpful function of a critique group. But constructive criticism isn’t the sole function of such a group.

Many people use their groups to brainstorm story ideas. Or help plot out a story. Or resolve thorny plot points. Often it helps just to talk about your story with folks who understand you’re not complaining, not really. Or who know who you’re talking about when you call your characters by name.

A writing friend told me that a well-known romance writer spoke about her critique group at a conference. This writer and a few close writing friends hold a short retreat once a year. Each writer gets two ninety minute sessions – and at the end, each writer has the plots for two new books! The group then meets monthly to check in, and at those meetings, writers can ask for feedback on pages, hash out plot tangles, or discuss progress. It’s up to the individual writer.

This process sounds great to me! My own group is thinking about trying it. We’re pretty flexible, and two of us have decided not to submit work to the others unless it’s a finished draft. (I personally get caught up in the merry-go-round of revision frequently.)

Do you have something special you do with your critique group? Any wonderful ideas for keeping the group fresh and energetic?

One last note – L is for Literary will be on hiatus at least through the end of summer. I’m working on a draft and making plans to revise last year’s book. I’m also doing a lot of reading for the agency – requested manuscripts are in, and I’m looking at a few in hopes of getting my first client!

 

In the doldrums?

Lately I’ve been having very vivid dreams. This morning I dreamt I was floating on a surfboard or boogie board in the sea near Hawaii. I could still see land, but just barely. The waves kept swamping the board. Not choppy, not big kahuna waves, just enough to keep me cool as I floated along.

Oddly, I didn’t feel worried. I knew I needed to get back to land, but no matter what I did, I never got any closer. Drifting along in the doldrums…

Sometimes we find ourself in the doldrums of our stories. Ever had one of those days where you write and write and write – and then realize none of it actually moves your story forward?

No development of character, no action for the plot, not even a great setting.

Yep, that’s the doldrums. Sometimes it’s pages of description and sometimes it’s pages of dialogue. Either way, your story is drifting. Going nowhere.

For your first – or zero – draft, you might want to just keep going. Pantsers often need to write themselves into the story, producing lots of pages they know won’t be used, but that give them great backstory.

Or perhaps it’s a matter of B.I.C: Butt In Chair. You’re writing, trying to meet your page or word goal. Doesn’t matter that you’ll end up cutting most of it; your rear is firmly in gear and you’re keeping it that way.

Maybe you need a break. No shame in taking a timeout from your story to digest what needs digesting in order to produce better quality pages. I often find that if I’m writing in circles, it’s because I need more time to consider the story or the character.

Meditation – Laurie Calkhoven’s workshops are great – can be helpful. Plenty of writers swear by a good walk, with or without your dog. This time of year, a retreat is always appealing, too.

What do you do if your schedule doesn’t allow for a retreat – or even a quick break? I sneak some long peeks at my outline. Even though I tend to the pantser side of the pantser/plotter spectrum, I do create a plot summary and brief outline to give me a map. Many times I’m stuck in the doldrums, it’s because I’ve given up on my map and am just rambling along a dusty byway.

Don’t be afraid – you can always get back. Recently I got up from my chair KNOWING the 1,200 words I’d written were useless. Not bad, just useless.

I gave myself permission to stop writing. Spent a little time meditating and some more time getting chores done.

And you know what? The next morning, I woke up, cut the chapters – and wrote more words. Enough words to replace what I’d written and then some.

This time, the pages were getting my protagonists where they needed to be. Things were happening. Characters were revealing themselves. I knew where I was in the story.

What do you do when you’re drifting?

 

Writing other voices

At NJSCBWI’s summer conference this year, I had the privilege of facilitating a session by Emma Otheguy and Andrea J. Loney, “Writing Marginalized Voices in Children’s Books.”

What a fantastic presentation!

Given the current – and much-needed – focus on #ownvoices, many writers have questions about writing characters that do not resemble themselves. Andrea and Emma had useful, practical, and wonderful advice about writing diverse and marginalized voices.

Perhaps the most practical piece of advice they shared was that #ownvoices writers should do the same things as writers outside their particular community. After all, everyone’s experience is unique. Not all African-American or Latinx writers share the same experiences and backgrounds, just as not all White writers are the same.

The most important piece of advice was to engage with the community you want to write about, especially if you are writing about history or culture that belongs to someone else. You have to do the research, but even the most thorough research has limitations.

“Do you live a diverse life?”

Or are you a tourist, using someone else’s history or culture for your own ends? Your work is less likely to be criticized if you are active and engaged with the specific diversity you write about in a long-term and meaningful way.

Sharing your work is great advice for all writers. Emma and Andrea recommend working with critique partners and sensitivity readers appropriate to the voice you’ve chosen. Ideally, you should share your work with more than one sensitivity reader to gain multiple perspectives.

Finally, above all else:

CONSIDER THE CHILDREN READING YOUR WORK.

Is your work a “clear reflection”? What is a child of the community you write about going to see in your work?

A little tip from me: read widely. Read OUT and read ACROSS. Read as many diverse voices and stories as you can. Make it a habit to choose books that are windows instead of mirrors showing you yourself.

P.S. Check out Andrea and Emma’s books! Such great additions to any children’s library.

 

 

 

Harsh?

Are you harsh on yourself? Harsher than on your critique partners, hmm?

I’m getting into the groove of a new novel, and this article from The New York Times couldn’t have come at a better time. 🙂

Setting yourself free of your worst critic – YOU – is a great idea. Especially in that tender time when you’re settling into a first draft. And while my writing partners are so helpful and much more supportive than critical, I’m keeping this one to myself for a while longer.

Maybe even till it’s done.

Fewer false starts? Probably not in the long run.

A quicker sprint to the end? I sure hope so.

Getting words on that page every time I plop my bottom in my chair? Oh yeah!

We’re our worst enemies when it comes to writing. As Sketch Guy Carl Richards recommends, set yourself free.

See what happens.

 

Pyramid scheme

What does revision have to do with the pyramids? Or suspect money making schemes?

Nothing.

But Gabriela Pereira of DIY MFA does have a wonderful way to get you started on revising your work:

The Revision Pyramid.

One of the best sessions I attended at this years NJ-SCBWI conference, Gabriela’s “Rock Your Revisions” gave me a sure-fire scheme for successful revision. Resembling Maslow’s theory of needs, Gabriela’s scheme lays out a roadmap for revision that should keep you from floundering around, rewriting, redrafting, and creating more work for yourself.

Oh, how I related to this. My last attempt at revising one of my novels lasted several months. Worse, while I wrote more words in revision than existed in the first draft, I never even got to the middle of the manuscript! I wasn’t using what was already good and I never fixed what was wrong in the first place.

I gave up and decided to let it digest for a bit. I’ve started work on  a new novel, but Gabriela’s presentation gave me confidence that, as soon as I’m ready, I can tackle that revision and make a good story great.

For specific details, buy her book and/or sign up on her website (see above). The gist of her advice was to approach revision in a systematic manner.

  1. Write a draft! Get a complete draft on the page.
  2. Don’t start with copy or line editing. Leave the little details till last. Which makes sense. You wouldn’t touch up your makeup if you were about to go in for a facelift, would you?
  3. Approach the most basic level of your story first: narration. What POV are you using? Is it consistent? Does the voice change? Can you distinguish between the narrator and characters and between the different characters?
  4. That leads you to characters. What does your character want? Is he or she proactive or reactive? Are your secondary characters stealing the show?
  5. On to the story. Is something actually happening? What’s your pacing like? Do you have too much – or too little – backstory?
  6. Moving on to the scenes. This is where you examine your world building, descriptions, dialogue, and theme. Yes, theme.
  7. Now you can get into the nitty-gritty of details! Word choice, sentence rhythm, typos, errors, and of course, “killing your darlings.”

Possibly the most important advice she gave was to write fresh. When fixing something, don’t just edit it. Delete the scene, dialogue, whatever, and WRITE FROM SCRATCH.

But if something’s working, leave it alone. Don’t start the whole novel afresh from page one. If you need to play around, do it outside of your manuscript. Don’t fix what ain’t broke. 😉

Find an outline method that works for you and use it. Before you start writing – and after you’ve finished.

Finally, Gabriela advised using more than your critique group. Working with beta readers outside of your group and freelance editors will help you make your work shine.

I’ll leave you with a thought. Everything she advises for revising. . . can also work for your beginning draft. Thinking about the pyramid just might help you get to your zero draft quicker.

And then you can put it into practice revising. 😉