Friday, December 03, 2010

A distinctive voice

by Bente Gallagher/Jennie Bentley

A few months back, I was doing a signing for A Cutthroat Business, when this woman came up to my table to introduce herself. Turns out she knew I’d be there, and that we’re in the same writers group. I smiled politely, of course, and said I remembered the name—I did, with enough details about her life to prove I was telling the truth—but I didn’t remember the face, although that seemed to be OK, because neither of us make it out to meetings a lot.

I guess I need to mention that I’m a member of an obscene number of writers organizations. There’s Sisters in Crime, local and national, there’s RWA, local and national, there’s the WNBA (B in this case stands for book, not basketball), local and national, the International Thriller Writers, the Author’s Guild, the Friends of the Library... the list just goes on and on. The only one I’m not a member of is MWA, the Mystery Writers of America, and I suffer guilt over that, because I know I should be. Many of these organizations have listservs and email loops that I’m on. Ramona—that was her name—was on one of those with me.

And now she was there, at my signing. She had come out to see me because, and I quote, “I read your emails to the group, and I knew I had to meet you.”

To which my response, naturally, was an incredulous, “Why?!”

And that’s when she said that she could tell, from the email responses and notices to the group, which of the members were published and which were not. She said she could tell by my voice that I was a professional writer.

It struck me as interesting and a little bizarre, but upon consideration, I think I agree with it. My voice is my voice, even in emails. I pretty much always sound like myself, whether I’m writing a chapter in a book, a blog post, or a response to a question on an email loop. Or for that matter whether I’m sitting around talking to someone, since this is also largely how I sound when I open my mouth. My speech patterns, my word choices, my sentence structure—with all those interjections and asides—is very much me.

And that’s the way it should be. According to Ramona—and I agree—the voice comes first, and then the contract. Much like a singer has to develop his or her instrument before getting that record contract or lead role on Broadway, a writer has to develop enough to have an individual, distinct and unique voice before that elusive book contract comes along. It’s the voice that separates the men from the boys. The women from the girls. The amateurs from the professionals.

Oh, sure. There are books out there with fantastic plots, brilliant characters, a truly unique setting and an interesting twist on the tried and true... and ideally all of our books should have at least a few of those. But it’s voice that reaches out and grabs you by the throat. Speaking for myself, I can forgive a lot—a plot where I can figure out the murderer as soon as he comes on the scene in chapter 2, a setting that I’ve read about a hundred and one times before, and a concept that can best be described as same-old, same-old—if the voice is compelling.

This was brought home to me again last weekend, when my local RWA chapter, the Music City Romance Writers, hosted two high-profile New York agents for a mini conference. One of the things the agents did, was do cold reads of first pages, and it was an eye opening experience. Just like when that submission arrives on their desks—or more accurately, in their inboxes—they’d start at the beginning of the first page, out loud, and at some point—often after just a sentence or two—there’d be a mutter of, “I’m out.”

Usually they agreed. Rarely did they give anyone more than a paragraph before it was on to the next submission. The few times they did keep reading, they usually made it all the way to the bottom of the page and then said, “I would have kept going.” 

The reasons for the rejections were the usual ones. Occasionally a weird name or another stumble right up front, occasionally the writing just wasn’t up to snuff, but more often than not, it was just that the voice wasn’t compelling enough.

So here's to voice! And in honor of the season, here's one of my favorites, in a slightly different way:

Happy Holidays!


PatRemick said...

Interesting post and I'm glad to know that Jennie and Bente have the same voice! Also enjoyed the holiday music. I'm a little behind in my holiday spirit this year, so it was appreciated.

Joyce Tremel said...

Voice is definitely the number one thing that hooks me when I start to read a book. If you start out with a page of description in an authorial tone, I'm out of there. I want to "hear" the protagonist in the first paragraph.

I think it takes awhile for a writer to find their voice. Sometimes beginners try too hard to sound like a writer instead of themselves. The writing becomes much easier when it's a natural flow.

Agents did the same thing with queries at the Pennwriter's conference as they did with first pages at your workshop. If you didn't hook them in the first sentence or two, it was a rejection.

Ramona said...

This Ramona person sounds brilliant. I wonder why. :-)

Voice. Yep, it's all about voice.

Jennie, do you ever try to write in a decidedly different voice, out of your comfort zone?

Annette said...

That's my favorite Christmas song. Has been since I was a kid. Back then, I think I liked it because it had the same music as the theme to Lassie. :-)

I agree. Voice can lift a so-so story up to one I can't put down.

C.L. said...

Okay, now I'm looking for the writing equivalent of all those pesky vocal warm-up exercises the choral director forced down my throat.

You've got me thinking about every word I write in a completely new and twisted way.

Many thanks....

Jennie Bentley said...

Thanks, guys! Yeah, isn't she a gorgeous singer? She did all the vocals for the movie Titanic back in the day, and I always thought it was a shame that they didn't let her sing the breakout song, too. Would have made her a household name all over the world, and Celine Dion certainly didn't need the extra help.

C.L. - sorry about that! As for exercises, there's only one thing for it. More writing. If you do enough of it, sooner or later you'll develop your own distinct style and voice.

Ramona, I write naturally in first person, very chatty and informal. I've been trying some things in third lately, and it's been hard. I feel like I lose something when I'm not talking directly to the reader. Might get more comfortable with it over time, but for now I'm back in first, and pretty happy there.

Linda Leszczuk said...

Now THAT is a beautiful voice. One of my favorite Christmas somgs as well.

I think a writer's voice is a bit like a smile. You can force a smile but it always looks forced. Only when it happens naturally does it look/sound real.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I find voice to be a funny thing. I seem to have a completely different voice in writing 1st person than I do writing 3rd person. And I don't mean the obvious I vs. she/he.

There are writers out there that will swear plot trumps character and voice. Personally, given a terrific plot, I can forgive lack of character depth and an indistinct voice. Think Da Vinci Code.

Jennie Bentley said...

Will, I hated The DaVinci Code. Hated it. Just goes to show we're all different, right?

Linda, love the comparison!

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I loved the music and your post had me looking at my first pages again for the hundredth time.

Patg said...

PatR's comment about Bente and Jennie having the same voice struck my funny bone. But, just think what you can do with that. Use your middle name for that third person writing, become that different person, and maybe she'll get the third person down and Jennie or Bente won't have to bother.
Great post.