A fiction writer can improve his or her craft by studying books like Eats, Shoots & Leaves, taking courses that teach elements such as plotting and characterization, and hiring an editor. Just as important as craft is a writer's voice. Unlike craft, voice cannot be taught. It can only be found.
Agents and publishers agree that the presence of a distinctive voice is what compels them to accept one manuscript and reject another that's equally polished. If you ask twenty industry professionals to define voice, they probably won't agree on one definition. But they will agree on what voice is not. Literary agent Jim McCarthy comments, "There's a lot of stuff out there and much of it sounds familiar."
How do you create a manuscript that compels an industry professional to accept it for publication?
Editor Chris Roerden presented "Showing Versus Telling: When to Use, and How the Writer's Voice Affects Publication" during the SkillBuild last Saturday in High Point, NC. Roerden stressed that before the elusive voice can be found in a piece of fiction, the writer must do the time developing craft, polishing the mechanics of the manuscript. For reasons that I cited in my blog entry two days ago, this means that the odds are against your voice emerging in your first completed manuscript.
Deal with it. Move on. Write another manuscript, and another.
Harness the beasts of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Figure out how to create page-turner plots and three-dimensional characters. Then, says Roerden, make sure that each of your characters, especially your protagonist, has an attitude. This attitude distinguishes one character from another, reveals their personalities. Finding attitude in your characters is a crucial step toward finding your voice.
Don't expect to skip the labor of developing craft and jump straight into voice. It doesn't work that way. Your voice is what you find while you're on the journey of developing your craft. This means that no one can guarantee when you'll find your voice. But unless you actually start the journey and assume the responsibility of improving your craft, you're guaranteed to not find your voice. If you're wise, you will never stop improving your craft.
To emphasize the importance of attitude, Roerden provided excerpts from published works. She contrasted them with an unpublished piece that read very much like Jim McCarthy's familiar "stuff." Attitude sprang at me from the published excerpts. I discerned no attitude from the unpublished piece. It was without flavor.
Attitude drenches publishable manuscripts. Attitude doesn't wait several chapters to manifest, often grabbing readers from the opening lines. Attitude is present in all genres. In the following examples of attitude from the opening lines of novels, notice that each conveys a unique author voice.
- "It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby." In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming.
- "All children, except one, grow up." Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie.
- "When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton." The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien.
- "1801 — I have just returned from a visit to my landlord — the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with." Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.
- "It's hard to be a larva." Nor Crystal Tears by Alan Dean Foster.
- "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter." The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
Each example of an opening line above delivers on its promise of what the reader can expect in attitude and voice for the remainder of the work. Attitude and voice require momentum. They permeate a manuscript. You cannot fake them by concocting a clever, attention-grabber first sentence. If you haven't developed your craft, you won't be able to sustain the momentum of that first sentence. Agents and publishers have seen this "bait and switch" plenty of times.
There's no shortcut to finding your voice. Take the time to polish your craft. When you're ready, attitude and voice will find you.
Share an example of a memorable attitude and voice in the opening sentence of a novel you've read.