The following is an excerpt from WD Books’ new release, Writing Voice: The Complete Guide to Creating a Presence on the Page & Engaging Readers. It originally appeared in Writing With Quiet Hands by Paula Munier.
As an agent, I get very excited when I find a writer with a great voice because I know that it’s easier for a writer to learn structure than to discover her truth. I often meet talented writers who have yet to sell their stories because they have yet to find their voice—or they are fighting the truth about their voice.
Part of my job is helping my clients recognize their authentic voice and tailor it to the best commercial project for them. Let me tell you four stories about four very different clients—and how they developed a distinctive voice, used that voice to tell great stories, and got published in the process. Each story offers a different voice lesson for the perceptive writer.
All writers bring a unique set of skills to their work: One author might write outstanding characters, while another might dazzle with dialogue. You don’t have to master every aspect of the craft in order to succeed, but the one quality required of every writer is a compelling, original voice. Your voice, which is often difficult to define and even more difficult to master, can transform your writing from pedestrian to powerful.
In Writing Voice: The Complete Guide to Creating a Presence on the Page & Engaging Readers, you’ll discover effective instruction and advice from best-selling authors and instructors like Donald Maass, Adair Lara, Paula Munier, Dinty W. Moore, James Scott Bell, and many others, plus exercises, techniques, and examples for making your prose stand out, be it fiction or memoir. You’ll learn how to explore the unique way you write, study the distinctive styles of other writers, understand the importance of word choice, develop the right voice for your genre, craft excellent narration that keeps your readers coming back, choose the proper voice for your nonfiction, and more.
1. Reveal Yourself: A Cop’s Story
When I first became an agent, I was overwhelmed by queries; my first week on the job I got more than one thousand queries from writers I didn’t know, and the numbers have grown exponentially ever since. I needed an intern. (As it turns out, I always need an intern.)
I got a call from a professor friend of mine who also writes popular traditional mysteries for St. Martin’s Press. She had an MFA student who was looking for an internship. She warned me that this was not your typical grad student but rather a middle-aged writer who’d spent thirty years as a homicide detective for the Oakland Police Department. I was thrilled because (1) I represented a lot of crime fiction writers who would benefit from a cop’s perspective on their work, and (2) I’m a sucker for a good police procedural.
His name was Brian, and he rocked. He read my queries, he edited my clients’ work, and he finished his thesis, which just so happened to be a police procedural. I liked it and offered to represent him and his work. But first he had to refine his voice.
For Brian’s voice was his selling point, the leverage I needed to pitch his work when I shopped it. Cops who can write are few and far between, so when I find one, I sign him—or her—right up. But voice is a two-edged sword: Brian’s experience on the force informed every word he wrote and gave his prose a confidence and authority born of that experience. All good. But not enough. What was missing in his story was how he felt about that experience. Readers would love his cop hero—but they would love him more if they got to know more about his heart—and not just his head.
This wasn’t easy for Brian, who, like most cops, kept his feelings close to his bulletproof vest. I knew he thought I was making a big deal out of nothing. But he did what I asked (another reason I like working with former law-enforcement and military personnel, as they actually listen to me and follow my advice). He beefed up his protagonist’s inner life, and I shopped the series. Within short order, I got Brian a three-book deal. (Look for the Matt Sinclair series, by Brian Thiem, wherever you buy your books.)
The only real significant revision request from his editor: Beef up the inner life of his hero even more. (I love being right. And I love Brian.)
VOICE LESSON #1: Readers respond most to emotional honesty in a writer’s voice. Don’t be afraid to reveal yourself.
In The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings, author and literary agent Paula Munier shows you how to craft flawless beginnings that impress agents, engage editors, and captivate readers. You’ll learn how to develop the big idea of your story and introduce it on page one, structure opening scenes that encompass their own story arc, kickstart your writing with effective brainstorming techniques, and introduce a compelling cast of characters that drive the plot. You’ll also examine best-selling novels from different genres to learn the secrets that experienced writers use to dive straight into a story.
With thorough examinations of voice, point of view, setting, dialogue, and conflict, this book is a must-have tool for luring your readers in with your opening pages—and convincing them to stick around for the ride.
2. Remember Who You Are: A Novelist’s Story
I’ve known Meera for many years; we met decades ago when we were both beginning writers in San Jose. We hung out at writers conferences and participated in writers workshops and read our work aloud to each other in writers’ groups. Meera was one of the most interesting people I knew; originally a farm girl from Missouri, she’d traveled the world in search of enlightenment. When I became an acquisitions editor for a mind/body/spirit imprint, I sought out Meera to write books for the new line—and she made a career for herself as the author of nonfiction titles, wonderful how-to books on the secrets of living an authentic life.
She wrote fiction, too—fabulous stories starring the exotic people and places she’d met on her travels. While technically proficient, these stories fell flat on the page. Meera was imitating the voices of other cultures, other customs, other writers—and drowning out her own voice in the process. In the meantime, she moved to the country and settled on a little farm she called the Henny Penny Farmette in Northern California. She started blogging about her chickens, bees, and goats.
Her blog was a big hit—and the ammunition I needed to convince her to write a novel set on the Henny Penny Farmette. She’d found her fictive voice right there on the farm. (Of course, she’d never lost it; she used it when writing nonfiction. But her love of other cultures and faraway lands blinded her to it in her own storytelling.) She wrote the first in a traditional mystery series set on the farmette—and I got her a three-book deal. (Look for the Henny Penny Farmette mystery series by Meera Lester wherever you buy your books.)
VOICE LESSON #2: If you’re having trouble finding your voice, start close to home. The truth is often right under your nose.
3. Listen to the Sound of Your Own Voice: The Historian’s Story
When I first moved to Massachusetts, I had no writer friends, and even though I was working at a publishing house with book people, I missed hanging out with writers. (Editors are not the same as writers, though I love editors—especially editors who are also writers.) So I joined the online chapter of Mystery Writers of America and started interacting with the other members online.
There I bonded with fellow Rainer Maria Rilke–fan Brian Thornton, who was from the Northwest (and not the same Brian who writes police procedurals—my world is full of great writers named Brian). We became fast friends and met in person several times at writers conferences. Brian, a history teacher by day, even wrote a couple of great history-related nonfiction books for me while I was an acquisitions editor.
But what Brian really wanted to do was publish fiction. We exchanged some stories for critique. I read Brian’s modern private-eye novel and one of his historical mystery stories. I told him that he should focus on historical fiction, as his historian’s voice seemed better suited for it. Commercial historical fiction is not easy to write; only people who are passionate about it and can make it relevant to the modern reader succeed. The good news is that if you can write solid historical fiction, you can usually get published. So I wasn’t at all surprised when Brian sold his first piece, a historical short story, to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Now he’s working on a historical mystery—and now I’m an agent—so here’s hoping that he lets me shop it when he’s ready. (Did I mention that I love being right?)
VOICE LESSON #3: Capitalize on your voice’s strengths. Not only can this help refine your work, it can help you sell it.
Every fiction-writing guide offers its own set of beliefs, techniques, and methods for crafting a novel, developed from the values a particular instructor deems necessary for powerful prose. But while writers might disagree over showing versus telling or plotting versus pantsing, none would argue this: If you want to write strong fiction, you must make your readers feel. The reader’s experience must be an emotional journey that aligns with your characters’ struggles, discoveries, and triumphs.
That’s where The Emotional Craft of Fiction comes in. Veteran literary agent and expert fiction instructor Donald Maass shows you how to connect readers—viscerally and emotionally—to your characters and your story. You’ll learn how to create an emotional response through showing and telling, develop a moving narration style, understand reader expectations for a character, and more. Readers can simply read a novel … or they can experience it. If you want to give your readers an experience, start by conjuring vivid, authentic emotion on the page.
4. Do Not Confuse Voice with Plot: The Artiste’s Story
Sometimes I’m so bowled over by a writer’s talent that I ignore the lack of market potential for the work and sign the writer anyway. That’s what happened when I read Richard’s writing for the first time. Richard’s talent was obvious, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so; he’d been celebrated for his brilliant short stories. But he’d yet to break into commercial fiction with his novels.
Richard’s work was überdark—and überdark is not an easy sell. Even your True Detective stories have some (wan) light at the end of the dark tunnel of prose. I warned Richard about this, and he did some revision as requested, but he resisted my appeals to explore his not-so-darn-dark side. Eventually I caved—and I sent out the novel as it was to all the editors I knew who loved dark material. One by one they passed, saying it was just too dark, even for them. But if he wrote anything else, they’d love to see it.
I didn’t give up. (I hate giving up.) I knew that we just needed to find an editor who’d fall in love with Richard’s work the way I had. And I’m happy to say that we did; it took two years, but finally I got Richard a two-book deal with a Big Five house.
Unsurprisingly, the editor wanted a little (wan) light at the end of the dark tunnel of prose. Richard balked. The editor called me, and I called Richard. Richard was worried about “compromising his voice.” But voice really had nothing to do with it. If he found an audience, he couldn’t risk engaging them with his compelling voice only to lose them at the end of the story by refusing to make a slight shift in plot from a “so dark you can’t see” ending to a “dark but not so dark you have to slit your wrists” ending. I explained to him that the first page sells the book and the last page sells the next book. He didn’t have to change his voice; he just had to rethink the emotional impact of the ending on his reader. Leaving a bad taste in the reader’s mouth—no matter how beautiful the voice—is not the way to build an audience. (Richard Thomas’s novel Disintegration debuted to great reviews and endorsements by such literary lights as Chuck Palahniuk, Irvine Welsh, Chuck Wendig, Paul Tremblay, and more.)
VOICE LESSON #4: Voice is how you tell the story—it’s not the story itself. Be sure that you don’t compromise the emotional impact of your story to protect what you mistakenly believe is your voice.
About the Author:
Paula Munier is Senior Literary Agent and Content Strategist at Talcott Notch Literary Services. She began her career as a journalist, and along the way added editor, acquisitions specialist, digital content manager, publishing executive, author, and writing teacher to her repertoire. Paula is the author of several books, including Plot Perfect: How to Build Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene. Her first mystery series debuts with Spare These Stones in 2018 (St. Martin’s Press).