Who better to explain how important Voice is in story than someone who not only sees a mountain range of submissions on a regular basis but has the opportunity to receive feedback on those submissions from editors? I asked my fabulous agent, Elisabeth Weed, if she’d be willing to step in today, say hello to the Writer Unboxed audience, and speak on this topic from her perspective. I’m thrilled that she agreed!
Elisabeth, welcome. The floor is yours.
Voice: An agent’s perspective
Many thanks for including me in your discussion about Voice. Teri asked me to answer a few questions on the importance of Voice from an agent’s perspective: Is it THE thing that hooks you, or is it in the top five elements you must see in a partial to request more? Do you look for Voice in query letters, too? What’s an example of great Voice?
Since receiving Teri’s questions, I spent the last month (during which I requested 6 manuscripts from the slush pile) paying even closer attention to Voice and how important it is in making a decision to take something on. The simple answer is, voice is everything. If a voice doesn’t ring true, you don’t believe your narrator and you aren’t sucked into his or her world.
That said, of the six manuscripts I read, two had phenomenal voices but only one of them also had the page-turning/high concept story to go with it. I am now hoping to sign this novel up (and am in what we agents like to call a “beauty contest” with several other agents who had the same reaction.)
I was on the fence about the other novel, the one without the riveting story, because I knew that character so well, and while she was flawed, I wanted to continue along in her world. However, I had to put my agent hat securely on and soon enough the “voices” of editors rang in my ear, reminding me that without a compelling “big book” narrative, the novel wouldn’t find an audience. I should add that my tastes tend to lean toward the more commercial, which is to say, I’m partial to novels that I can tell you about while riding the elevator. Don’t judge me. :) There are plenty of agents who feel differently, which is why my pass letter to the second author was sincere when I told her she should absolutely reach out to others, and in fact I gave her some names of colleagues.
The other four books I requested had terrific high concepts. And in one case, the cover letter alone, written with a compelling voice, had me refreshing my in box waiting for the partial to arrive, imagining before I’d read a page which editor I’d submit to. Sadly, the voice didn’t translate to the novel’s pages and I ultimately passed. And without a great voice, the other three novels, despite the clever ideas, didn’t work for me.
I risk getting in trouble for this one, but if you haven’t read Therese’s novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, please read the first page–even the first paragraph, and if you aren’t immediately sucked in by her phenomenal voice then you should probably just give up reading books. :) [Note from Teri: I swear I didn’t put her up to that. But thanks, Elisabeth!] Since I don’t simply want to hawk my own books, other examples of great Voice are Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places (be prepared to be too scared to sleep!) and on a lighter note, Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist, which will have you laughing out loud on your morning subway ride.
Thanks so much, Elisabeth, for being here today, and highlighting just how critical Voice can be for agents and, ultimately, in the marketplace.
Write on, all!
Photo courtesy Valentin.Ottone