Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Voice by literary agent Elana Roth

Who needs helps with the ever-elusive voice in their novel? Go on, raise your hands. I know I do. It's something that everyone talks about, but that no one can seem to pin down. Well, look no further. We've got literary agent Elana Roth her to spill the secrets on voice.

On Voice

Let’s be honest. Trying to write a blog post about voice is a really ridiculous undertaking. It’s like asking someone what good chemistry is. You know it when you see it, and you know it when you don’t feel it, but if you had to analyze the components of it, you’d be hard-pressed to find adequate evidence to point to.

It’s not only just hard to pinpoint in the first place, but once you do, it’s also incredibly personal. You know, like when you’re best friend has fallen head-over-heels for someone, and you just see the way he says, “Dude” a lot, and crinkles his eyebrows at funny moments. But for some reason, she’s drawn to him.

So it kind of sucks to say, but voice is incredibly personality specific. There are projects I’ve fallen for wholeheartedly, felt the character’s voice was one of the best I’d seen, and still had editors turn it down saying, “I just didn’t like the voice.” There are projects where the character just irritated me so badly after 3 pages, I couldn’t handle it anymore. But someone else loved it, signed it and sold it.

I think the one thing that is in your control with voice is just making sure you have one in the first place. Don’t be the person your friends would describes as “vanilla” or “white bread.” (Or if you’re Jewish, “seedless rye.”)

What that personality is will be up to you as you write your main character. But things to think about are their attitude, their turns of phrase, their mentality, their passions, their fears….

Still stuck? Think about your best friends. Access their senses of humor. What they smile at. What they hate. What are your character’s most notable traits? What memories do they still remember the most vividly? Use details. Details keep us grounded, and make your character real.

And then here’s the trick: don’t use all your ammo at once. Spread it out. Keep that voice going, so your reader keeps learning more about your main character the longer they spend together. Like one of those three-hour conversations you have with someone that meanders and twists and turns and you learn new things, and venture onto unplanned topics, and revel in how much better you understand that person after talking to them.

Essentially, a voice is something to be listened to. The stronger the voice, the better it will be heard. And once you have it down, that’s all it takes for someone else to fall in love.

Elana Roth is a children’s book editor turned literary agent in New York City. She works for the Johnson Literary Agency, and specializes in children’s and young adult fiction. Once upon a time, she fell in love with children’s publishing by chance at Nickelodeon Magazine. Luck struck again when she began working at Parachute Publishing, where she spent nearly 5 years learning the ropes of the book world on series for kids of all ages (and that includes some adults). Educationally, Elana is a graduate of Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she earned degrees in English literature and Bible (which you could say is really the book that started it all). When she’s not reading, she’s web designing, or throwing pottery, both of which you can find out about if you dig around a little more.


Paul C said...

'But things to think about are their attitude, their turns of phrase, their mentality, their passions, their fears….' This is a wonderful interview with pertinent insights.

Elana, I just included you on my sidebar. Keep up the great posts.

Summer Ross said...

This is very helpful, maybe if I tried writing some of this down for my MC it would help...thanks for posting this!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think you did a good job of describing it, Elana.

Matthew MacNish said...

Well said.

Unknown said...

I don't want to be 'vanilla', 'white bread'.

But as you say, like chemistry, you can't tell even if you are 'vanilla' or can you?

It seems it involves the writer and the reader? And is there a difference between the author's voice and the MC's voice?

Thanks for the post, Elana. It has made me think.

Jessie Mac

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