So, you’ve sent you manuscript to an agent, or an editor, and now you wait. Will they like it? Will they take you on as a client, or publish your work? What makes them decide?
Is it the unique premise or clever plot? Maybe the colorful characters? Or the snappy dialog and wonderfully rendered setting? No, the one thing agents/editors look for more than anything else is the voice. When they say they are searching for something fresh or something that speaks to them, they mean the narrative voice.
What is voice? There are many definitions out there. Mine is:
Voice is your distinctive way of telling your story. It comes from three things: Knowledge, Experience, and Confidence.
Let me offer examples from my two favorite writers. Very different, but very distinct.
Black Cherry Blues–James Lee Burke
“Her hair is curly and gold on the pillow, her skin white in the heat lightning that trembles beyond the pecan trees outside the bedroom window. The night is hot and breathless, the clouds painted like horsetails against the sky; a peal of thunder rumbles on the Gulf like an apple rolling around in the bottom a wooden barrel, and the first raindrops ping against the window fan. She sleeps on her side, and the sheet molds her thigh, the curve of her hip, her breast. In the flicker of the heat lightning the sun freckles on her bare shoulder look like brown flaws in sculpted marble.
“Then a prizing bar splinters the front door out of the jamb, and two men burst inside the house in heavy shoes, their pump shotguns at port arms. One is a tall Haitian, the other a Latin whose hair hangs off his head in oiled ringlets. They stand at the foot of the double bed in which she sleeps alone, and do not speak. She awakes with her mouth open, her eyes wide and empty of meaning. Her face is still warm from a dream, and she cannot separate sleep from the two men who stare at her without speaking. Then she sees them looking at each other and aim their shotguns point-blank at her chest. Her eyes film and she calls out my name like a wet bubble bursting in her throat. The sheet is twisted in her hands; she holds it against her breasts as though it could protect her from twelve-gauge deer slugs and double aught buckshot.”
Riding the Rap–Elmore Leonard
“Ocala Police picked up Dale Crowe Junior for weaving, two o’clock in the morning, crossing the center line and having a busted tail light. Then while Dale was blowing a point-one-nine they put his name and date of birth into the national crime computer and learned he was a fugitive felon, wanted on a three-year-old charge of Unlawful Flight to Avoid Incarceration. A few days later Raylan Givens, with the Marshals Service, came up from Palm Beach County to take Dale back and the Ocala Police wondered about Raylan.
“How come he was a federal officer and Dale Crowe Junior was wanted on a state charge. He told them he was with FAST, the Fugitive Apprehension Strike Team, assigned to the Sheriff’s Office in West Palm. And that was pretty much all this Marshall said. They wandered too, since he was alone, how you’d be able to drive and keep an eye on his prisoner. Dale Crowe Junior had been convicted of a third-degree five-year felony, Battery of a Police Officer, and was looking at additional time on the fugitive warrant. Dale Junior might feel he had nothing to lose on this trip so. He was a rangy kid with the build of a college athlete, bigger than this marshal in his blue suit and cowboy boots — the marshal calm though, not appearing to be the least apprehensive. He said the West Palm strike team were shorthanded at the moment, the reason he was alone, but believed he would manage.”
Each of these authors has a recognizable voice. It’s distinctive, and drags the reader into the story.
You also have a distinctive and recognizable voice. The problem is that you haven’t turned it lose. You’ve corralled it inside the rules of writing and the desire to write pretty sentences. Get out of the way. Let your voice loose.
Here are 5 ways to help you achieve that:
Most things we learn along life’s journey come from others. An apprenticeship of sorts. For sure medical school was that. So is writing. To write, you must read. Constantly. That will teach you what others are doing and how they’re doing it. Some writing will speak to you, other writing might not. You will gravitate to word choices, sentences structures, and the sound of some writer’s voices and not those of others.
Your assignment: Go to the library, your local bookstore, or use the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon, and read the first few pages of 50 books. Some will work for you—-the operative phrase here is “for you.” Take what speaks to you and embrace it in your own writing.
The great Australian writer Bryce Courtney often said that the secret to writing was “bum glue.” Glue your bum to the chair and write. So true. Write every day. Write your way. Copy the styles of the writers you like. Not that you will write exactly the same way, but rather elements of their writing that work for you will creep into your own prose. This will evolve over time and before long, like riding a bicycle, you will be off and writing in your own voice.
This is the key. Be fearless. Tell your story in your own words—your own voice. Don’t worry about what others might think or whether it fits the so-called rules. Tell your story your way. Knowledge and experience breeds confidence.
4) Art, Then Craft
Writing is an art and a craft. The art is the storytelling and the craft is making it cleaner and more publishable. Don’t let the craft kill the art. Don’t over edit as you go. Write the story fast, write it your way, in your voice, then go back and clean it up. As Hemingway said: write drunk, edit sober. Get drunk on your writing, spill it on the page, then take a sober assessment and fix what needs fixing. Write fast, edit slow.
Repeat the above steps throughout your career. Continue reading, writing, experimenting. Novels often seem so big that authors get tied up in the plotting, the juggling of characters and dialog, and this kills the creativity. Write shorter things. Start a journal and write scenes that come to you. Be fearless. Write your way. No filters. No critiquing. Just writing, and storytelling. Before long, what you learn will infest all your writing. It will become your voice.
In the end, your voice is yours. It’s personal. No one else has it. Only you. Let it out. Don’t handcuff it or kill it. Let it guide you through your story. In the end, you will have your story, told your way. That’s always the goal, and it’s what agents and editors and, most importantly, readers are looking for.
D. P. Lyle is the Macavity and Benjamin Franklin Silver Award winning and Edgar(2), Agatha, Anthony, Shamus, Scribe, Silver Falchion, and USA Today Best Book(2) Award nominated author of 17 books, both non-fiction and fiction, including the Samantha Cody, Dub Walker, and Jake Longly thriller series and the Royal Pains media tie-in novels. His essay on Jules Verne’s THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND appears in THRILLERS: 100 MUST READS and his short story “Even Steven” in ITW’s anthology THRILLER 3: LOVE IS MURDER. He served as editor for and contributed the short story “Splash” to SCWA’s anthology IT’S ALL IN THE STORY
He is International Thriller Writer’s VP for Education, and runs CraftFest, Master CraftFest, and ITW’s online Thriller School. Along with Jan Burke, he was co-host of Crime and Science Radio. He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of popular television shows such as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars. Visit his website, blog, or listen to him on Crime & Science Radio.