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!