Monday, April 4, 2011


Voice. There's nothing like it it for selling your novel. Voice is the most important, most frequently requested element that agents, editors and publishers seek. "I just want a terrific story, beautifully written," I've heard agents announce at conferences. "But more than anything, a unique and compelling voice."

Let's be honest. As outrageously demanding as this sounds, as if the bar is set so high almost no one can reach it, it's not unrealistic. All three elements are increasingly important in today's market, whether it's the traditional market or the emerging one. So let's do it. After hyperventilating a little (or a lot), we can get down to business. Let's start by focusing on that unique and compelling voice. Because if we have a great story to tell, the voice will sell it or sink it. (And if the story is good, but not great, the voice can still put it in the running.)

What voice comes down to, for me, is authenticity and heart. Here are four examples from great writers with outstanding voices, in different genres:

From Still Life, Louise Penny's debut Inspector Gamache mystery novel: the opening paragraph:

Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday. It was pretty much a surprise all round. Miss Neal's was not a natural death, unless you're of the belief everything happens as it's supposed to. If so, for her seventy-six years Jane Neal had been walking toward this final moment when death met her in the brilliant maple woods on the verge of the village of Three Pines. She'd fallen spread-eagled, as though making angels in the bright and brittle leaves.

From Tell Me a Riddle, a literary short story by the incomparable Tillie Olsen: the opening paragraph:

For forty-seven years they had been married. How deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, no one could say—but only now, when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled them together, the roots swelled up visible, split the earth between them, and the tearing shook even to the children, long since grown.

From Tomato Red, a crime novel whose author, Daniel Woodrell, has been dubbed the master of Ozark Noir: from page two:

     "Can't be none of this be new to you."
     The gal with her mouth full of shoe-peg corn (her teeth, from previous description) and the bright idea in the first place drives over and lets me off at the curb, and there's another burglar passed out in the backseat who won't be of any help. She doses a kiss out to me, a dry peck on the lips, and claims she'll keep her eyes peeled and I should give her the high sign once I've burgled my way inside.

From Fair and Tender Ladies, a novel in the mainstream fiction category, by Lee Smith: from page two, written in a ten-year-old's Appalachian voice:

Mr. Castle said NO I forbid it, he has no prospects, and said he wuld send my momma to her mothers sister in Memphis Tennessee where my momma never had been or even heard tell of, to learn her some sense and how to act like a lady at last.  Instead my momma packed up her own mommas silver brush and comb, which was all she took, and lit out in the dead of nigt for Sugar Fork with my daddy John Arthur Rowe. He is a redheaded man he had been over ther in Rich Valley with his brother trading mules. My momma and him rode double astride on daddys horse Lightning. She was glad to leave, she said, and never looked back nor cared for a thing but my daddy.

I'm working on a historical novel now, about the Shawnee Indians in the Ohio River Valley, beginning in the 1780s. The voice I use is critically important to the novel's believability, and challenging because the protagonist is a Shawnee woman who's story starts when she is a girl of nine, and goes until she is a very old woman indeed.  I've done a ton of research and, in that process, the voice of the adult woman came to me, but the child's voice has a special challenge. It must show that she is older than her years because of what she's already lived through, older in many ways than today's typical nine-year olds because of the century and culture she lives in, but still filled with the energy and idealism of a child. It's difficult to find exactly the right tone and rhythm to convey all that. But I think I've found a way to do it, by combining the formality of language of that time with the childhood energy conveyed in the Appalachian child's voice from Fair and Tender Ladies, (even though the language itself is very different).  It's exciting to get into my young character's head, to become her.

When we find great authors we'd like to emulate, one of the best gifts their writing offers us is tone, rhythm, language. In other words, voice. It's incumbent upon us to put our hand out and accept the gift. Not try to sound exactly like them. But recognize them as mentors. Take what's on offer, combine it with our own unique take on our story and its characters, and let our writing voice blossom with their mentoring but our own voice. For me, it feels good to have resources to turn to for the feel and taste of what I want when I've been away from the writing for a while, or feel a lack, somehow, in the tone of a passage or a scene. When I capture that voice, the writing flies. Have you found the unique and compelling voice of your novel?  Did it 'come with the package,' or did you draw on external as well as internal sources to form it?

~ Linda


  1. Linda, Excellent examples! The one thing I've heard more often than anything else at conferences is "Voice". I know if anyone can come out with a unique voice, they will be swept up by any agent and published by any agency. They are all looking for a fresh voice. A unique voice. And so many of us wonder what they mean by voice. This helps a ton! One thing I like to do is read a variety of genres. I think I've found a unique voice in my new series. We'll see what you say in a few days.

  2. Karlene, if she's anything like she is in Flight for Control, I KNOW you've found a fabulous voice. (We are talking Darby, yes?) Can't wait to see what she has to say.

  3. When it comes to character voice sometimes they come to me before I even start the novel and sometimes they develop as I outline. The one I'm working on now came to me long before I wrote the novel. She is fantastic and I've loved telling her story. It's like a gift when it happens that way.

  4. That is the best, Heather. My favorite, too! I can hardly wait to hear this new voice of yours!

  5. Great post and examples! :) Voice is the one thing that is yours and yours alone. I think the hardest part of writing is finding that voice and then believing in it.

  6. So true, Melissa, and therefore so worth not taking it for granted, and making sure it's as powerful as it can be in its context. If you do that and YOU believe in it, so will readers. Thank you for the great comment.

  7. Voice can be elusive. I think it comes after one has a solid understanding of the "rules," then uses voice to enhance skill to the next level.

    Interestingly, voice can be different from novel to novel. I notice that in my own writing, anyway. Sure, there are elements of "me" in there (the words and phrases I use and such), but what's more important is the characters' turn of phrase that brings the writing to life.

    Um, I kind of rambled, so I hope that made sense, LOL!

  8. Terrific topic and post, Linda.

    Voice is so important. In my second novel the voice is very strong. It rips right at you and it works in conjunction with the situations of the mc well. Voice should work hand in hand with the plot.

    My voice changes from project to project. My strongest, I believe is in Y/A male and twenty somethings.

  9. Laura, it makes total sense! The voice of my current novel could hardly be more different than the last one. At least they're both female. That is such an interesting point you make about knowing the 'rules' first. Maybe that's why our first novels so often fall short, even if there's a great story there.

  10. Y/A male and twenty somethings sound perfect for you, Michael. Yes, definitely voice must work hand-in-hand with the plot. Excellent point. Thanks for dropping by!

  11. I was drawn in by all of your great examples in particular the one with the 10-year-old protagonist from Appalacia. But I'm partial to Southern voices since I fell in love with storytelling and voices from the South when I was kid. So, when I started writing my MG, it seemed only natural to set my novel in 1934 Tennessee. Though, I am a Mexican girl who grew up in S. Calif, far away from the hollows where my story takes place.

    Sorry to go on and on.... my purpose is to congratulate you! There is a 'lovely' blog award waiting for you on my blog. So, when you have a minute, hop on over and take a peek. I love your blog! :-)

  12. 1934 Tennessee sounds like a rich, fascinating setting, Maria. How much fun to write in that voice! Thank you for your lovely comment AND the 'Lovely' blog award! I'm hopping over to your blog now. . .