While we were at the Melbourne Writers Festival I attended a session chaired by a successful Melbourne independent bookseller. He had two publishers, Henry Rosenbloom, founder of Scribe Publishers and still in business after 40 years, and Louise Ryan, Penguin Publishers on the panel. As can be expected they were asked what publishers look for in a manuscript. Both had the same answer. That answer made me sit bolt upright.
I thought I knew what publishers were looking for. That was a good story line, strong characters, tension, vivid description, well written and so on. There’s a list of things they are not looking for as well – clichés, one dimensional characters, flat story line, no tension.
There were many more things I would have added to that list. But I was wrong. Both were adamant the first thing they looked for was a distinctive voice.
I have since heard another publisher echo that view. They are looking for a distinctive voice…preferably a new voice. Voice changes with genre and the writer’s mood but essentially the voice that threads through every story is like the writer’s DNA code.
The stylecheck™ encourages writers to find his or her voice by getting him or her to think about the details in a story. Voice comes through that detail.
Writers Digest describes voice in this way.
A writer’s voice is something uniquely their own. It makes their work pop, plus readers recognize the familiarity. You would be able to identify the difference between Tolkien and Hemingway, wouldn’t you? It’s the way they write; their voice, in writing, is as natural as everyone’s speaking voice. Your voice should be authentic, even if you borrow a sense of style from your favorite author. Cris Freese
He goes on to say that once a writer finds his or her voice, those writers may not be able to identify where it came from but it is there, unmissable and unmistakable.
I have a distinctive voice and when I use it I know I am writing something quite powerful because the words are coming from deep down in my subconscious. I am not trying to be anything but me. But the ‘me’ I am looking for is not the voice that puts people off because it is too angry, too weak, or being apologetic. I am looking for that voice that carries much of that emotion but is delivered in a clear and palatable way to the reader.
Frequently, I experiment and try to write stories using an unfamiliar genre. These are more difficult because I am looking for the heart of the story. Until I find that heart, which is the voice, the story remains flat. People would struggle to work out what is wrong because technically the stories are fine, but something is missing. When I add my voice the story comes to life and that is the moment when I know I have actually succeeded in writing a story worth reading.
We all know voice is not style. Style is the way we write and developing a clear style is important. But voice is deeper than style. It is the unwritten code threading through the words. We know it is there but we cannot quite define what it is that captures our interest.
I recently did an exercise with a friend and we played with the concept of voice. We each wrote a paragraph about one of the saddest occasions in our lives. Each of us wrote about something deeply personal and there it was, not a sad voice but a voice that was a mixture of emotions and the ratios of each of the emotions within the voice were different for each of us. Yes, it was a paragraph about a sad occasion but it was also a mix of triumph, joy, determination and irony among other things. However, if we allowed ourselves to wallow in self-pity the voice lacked energy. The reader would have been bored because readers want to know about crisis and they love tension but self-pity shuts them out of the experience. So how we use voice is important and we are wise to monitor how we are feeling as we write because that feeling will influence the kinds of words we use and how we thread them together.
Voice is the deep seated emotion that lies under everything we write. This is greater than good technique, a strong story line and complex characters. It will thread through everything a writer produces. So I discovered that if I was tired, my writing also was tired. If I was feeling powerful that power transferred into my storytelling. This sense of power also gave me a sense of mastery over my writing and that came through in the way I told the story. That was my voice.
I’ll give the last words to Cris Freese because he says it better than I do.
To set your voice free, set your words free. Set your characters free. Most important, set your heart free. It is from the unknowable shadows of your subconscious that your stories will find their drive and from which they will draw their meaning. No one can loan that or teach you that. Your voice is your self in the story.
The publishers were very clear. Voice determines whether a manuscript is worth taking a risk. So pay attention to your voice. It is critical.