Breaking In: Voice

All agents and editors look for different things in a manuscript. For authors hoping to sell their novel to a major publisher, this variety of tastes and opinions works in their favor: one man's trash is another woman's treasure. But one item comes up over and over again: Voice. The reason is simple. Readers are going to have to live with that narrative voice for two or three hundred pages, so the author's voice needs to be as captivating and compelling as possible.

Voice is difficult to define in the abstract, but agents, editors, readers, and writers know voice when they see it. The voice of your manuscript needs to feel fresh and authentic. Looking to your favorite writers is good for finding inspiration and getting going, but originality is key.

Salt Cay Writers Retreat faculty member David Ebershoff, a bestselling author and executive editor at Random House who edited two Pulitzer Prize winners last year, understands voice. "Find a good story and write it in a way that only you can," he says. "Many stories are familiar, but they become original through the writing."

Another Salt Cay instructor, Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management, suggests two articles on voice: "What Makes Fiction Good? It's Mostly the Voice," by Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which the author writes about the compelling narrative voices from two well-known novels: Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and "Developing Style and Voice in Fiction Writing" by Randy Ingermanson, which focuses on fiction writing and includes a clear breakdown of everything that factors into voice, such as sentence structure, word choice, and even tone and attitude. "It's a good starting point," Kleinman says, "and it should get you thinking about how your manuscript operates."

Voice and the writing itself are as intertwined as any two elements of a book can be. "A successful manuscript," Kleinman adds, "should be smooth in all the right places, difficult in all the right places. It should have an appropriate balance between exposition and action. It should show and tell; it should find its own ratio of the two. The phrasing and the verbs should be clever, but the manuscript shouldn't get carried away with its own cleverness. And perhaps most importantly, the observations the author or narrator makes, the insights s/he provides, should be interesting and fresh. The manuscript's view of the world, whether it resembles the world we live in or is entirely fantastical, should be recognizable and true, but at the same time original and, repetition alert, fresh. Paying attention to these elements will vastly improve both the voice and the writing."

The best way for an author to develop their voice is to sit down and do the work. Put in the hours and let the story pour out. Hopefully the result is an original story told in a fresh and seductive voice. If it's not there yet, nothing works better than simply trying again.

"There are four phases a writer goes through," says Lorenzo Carcaterra, #1 New York Times bestselling author who will also be teaching at the retreat. "(1) you imitate. You copy the style of a writer whose work you admire; (2) you emulate; (3) you equal and (4) assuming you're good -- you surpass."


The Salt Cay Writers Retreat, held October 20-25 on a private island in the Bahamas, offers novelists, memoirists, and narrative nonfiction authors the opportunity to improve their work through small-group workshops and one-on-one meetings with faculty members in a gorgeous and inspiring setting.