Finding Your Memoir's Voice

Literary agent Paula Balzer discussed finding your voice in this excerpt from her book WRITING & SELLING YOUR MEMOIR.
Publish date:

When I received a manuscript called Candy Girl by a former stripper named Diablo Cody, I wasn’t too interested based on the subject matter alone. Stripping had been covered before (no pun intended), and I didn’t think the author was likely to add much to an already crowded market. But then there was the voice. After just one paragraph, I was a) completely convinced that stripping was the solution to all of her problems, b) laughing uncontrollably, and c) definitely interested in being along for the entire ride, or at least 250-plus pages. This is what “voice” is all about.


“Voice” is what gives personality and originality to a work; it’s almost like your book’s fingerprint—only the author can give a book it’s own voice and style. It’s that special something that makes one particular book on stripping hilarious and uplifting while another might be just plain depressing. Voice can make a book about almost any topic fascinating, from teaching to cattle ranching, and it can make the most wretched of circumstances uplifting. Your voice is also a uniting element. It’s the glue that ties everything together. The structure you choose to build your memoir on, your setting, your story, all of these elements are tied together by the voice you use. It’s what introduces all of these elements to the reader. Think of your memoir’s voice as your book’s personality. We won’t know if your memoir is quirky, funny, semi tragic, and ultimately uplifting unless your voice lets us know it is. Frank McCourt’s childhood in Angela’s Ashes and Haven Kimmel’s childhood in A Girl Named Zippy have a completely different feel, even if on some level they are both tragic in their own right. This is because each of these authors has a completely different voice, and they use it to relay their stories in different manners.

Reality check:
We can’t all be the next Diablo Cody or Augusten Burroughs, but ultimately, the world would be a pretty dull place if we all wrote just like they did. While you might feel tempted to emulate your favorite writers, don’t do it. Developing an authentic voice is going to help you create a readable memoir, while a poor copy of something that already exists is going to land your manuscript in the trash.

But does everyone have a voice? The answer, luckily, is YES—everyone has a voice. But no, not all voices are created equal. That’s okay. This chapter is about figuring out what your voice sounds like, and working effectively with what you’ve got. Every voice has its own strengths, and we’re going to figure out what those are and work together to maximize them in your memoir.

What Exactly Makes a Voice Good?

“She’s got a great voice,” is something you hear in book publishing I would bet as much as you do on the set of American Idol. Agents and editors are always on the lookout for a great new “voice”—and there is nothing more exciting than looking at the first page of a manuscript and having that special, one-of-a-kind voice pop right off of the page. But what exactly is a voice? And what makes a good one? It’s definitely not the easiest thing to describe, but an author’s voice consists of the patterns, habits, and language she uses, and how, when put together, they create a style that is that particular author’s alone. I always tell my authors that if they’re writing at their best, and they sent me their manuscript without putting their name on it (which by the way, I would never recommend doing unless you wanted your agent to be incredibly annoyed with you), that I should be able to tell whether it’s the work of writer X or writer Z, if they are using their carefully crafted and well-honed voices. So what elements make up a good voice? A good voice should aim to do the following:

• add style and energy to the writing
• present prose in a manner that is unique, interesting, and readable
• enhance the story being told, not distract from the events taking place
• engage and excite the reader
• relay the events taking place with appropriate emotion

Using your voice means having the confidence and courage to let your writing style shine. This takes loads of practice, diligence, and in some cases, I would argue, “un-learning” some of the very things you spent years learning about throughout your education.

Quick tip:
Don’t be afraid of weird quirky details, as it’s often the quirky details that are the most memorable and add life and color to your story. For instance, in Running With Scissors, Augusten Burroughs could have easily thought, “Hey, wow, it’s really weird that I used to be so into having shiny pennies that I would BOIL THEM,” and decided to leave that detail out of his story. Ultimately, that tidbit turned out to be funny and a great insight into what Burroughs’s personality was like as a child. Had he been worried that such a detail would be dismissed as boring, he would have missed a great opportunity to show off both his voice and his personality when he was a kid.
Turn your most important personal stories into compelling and meaningful reading experiences for others by considering:
Writing & Selling Your Memoir


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