Thursday, October 20, 2011

Random Thoughts From The Trenches

As I am finishing up one novel and starting the next, I am pondering the style and "voice" of my new novel.  First and foremost, I want the work to please me, but wanting to get published in this lifetime, my work must have a certain quality that will make an agent willing to sell it.  Thus, producing a novel with a salable voice is possible only if the agent's definition of voice is the same as mine.  Otherwise, writing a novel with a voice to please others means I am a sell out and I am not going down that route this time.  At least I already have a list of agents who I believe would appreciate my style and recognize my voice - a slender hope, but hope nonetheless.
But anyway - why the focus on voice?
Several interviews with and commentaries by agents who take literary fiction say that in many submissions the work itself is good, the grammar at times impeccable, and the sentences flow nicely, but the novel is missing something - missing "it."     
Some agents called it style or tone, but most have called it voice.
The dictionary defines voice as the distinctive style or manner of expression of an author or of a character in a book.  Others say that voice is the author's style, the quality that makes the writing unique and conveys the author's attitude and personality. It is the element that brings the novel together, that makes it come alive.
For me, the following are great examples of true, recognizable voices:
The next day commenced as before, getting up and dressing by rushlight: but this morning we were obliged to dispense with the ceremony of washing: the water in the pitchers was frozen.  A change had taken place in the weather the preceding evening, and a keen north-east wind, whistling through the crevices of our bedroom windows all night long, had made us shiver in our beds, and turned the contents of the ewers to ice.
Jane Eyre/Charlotte Bronte
 I don't buy gold eye shadow, but I do pick up a bottle of Black Death nail polish.  It's gloomy, with squiggly lines of red in it.  My nails are bitten to the bleeding point, so it will look natural.  I need to get a shirt that matches.  Something in a tubercular gray.
Speak / Laurie Halse Anderson

Yet both of them experienced the same flash of envious but joyful surprise as they recognized that the other has passed the had test: the forty-one years that had elapsed, the time of their separation in which they had not seen each other and yet had known of each other at every hour, had not broken them.  We endured, thought the General.  And his guest felt a strange sensation of peace, mingled with both disappointment and pleasure - disappointment, because the other man was standing there alert and healthy, pleasure because he himself had managed to return here in full possession of his powers - as he thought, "He's been waiting for me, and that's what's kept him strong."
Embers/ Sandor Marai

Later he would tell her that their story began at the Royal Hungarian Opera House, the night before he left for Paris on the Western Europe Express.  The year was 1937; the month was September, the evening unseasonably cold.  His brother had insisted on taking him to the opera as a parting gift.  The show was Tosca and their seats were at the top of the house.  Not for them were the three marble-arched doorways, the facade with its Corinthian columns and heroic entablature.  Theirs was a humble side entrance with a red-faced ticket tacker, a floor of scuffed wood, walls plastered with crumbling opera posters.

Invisible Bridge/Julie Orringer

Mom and Pop were at their best when it was worst.  There was a kind of calmness, and it would settle over our house.  We'd spent so much time waiting for the bad part that it was almost a relief when it came.  We didn't have to wait in that edgy, nervous zone, because what we waited for had come, and for a while we were rescued from it.  From the waiting, I mean.
The Memory of Running/Ron McLarty

What are some of your favorites?  


  1. Oh the idea of voice has always tormented me! I think I have developed one for my blog, I don't think I have yet done it for writing. I want to get there!

    My favorite writers on voice -- Alice Hoffman. So distinctive and although not a genre writer, so many of her books speak to her female character's needing more than what is given to them, more than the immediate.

    Funny thing is I also think there is a balance! One writer who wrote In Her Shoes, does have a distinctive voice but I find her themes to be redundant and a little too familiar.

    Good post!

  2. I love Percy Jackson's voice. You can totally tell from the get go that he's a young and snarky kid. I was immediately drawn to his sarcasm.

  3. Eva, I love this post and of course I agree but I think of literary fiction as something very different from commercial fiction. I guess I am not familiar with Speak by Laurie Anderson but the other examples are literature. Bronte and Marai are masterful at conveying voice. Your examples are beautiful and touching.

  4. Thank you ladies for sharing some of your favorite voices. I admit I do gravitate towards classic literature and literary fiction versus commercial...