Friday, May 24, 2019

What Is Narrative Voice and Why Does It Matter?

My last post was about agents wanting more than good writing.  This week, I'm going to give the other side of the story:  why a special something called narrative voice matters a lot if you want to attract an agent's attention.

One of my students emailed me about a discouraging response she got from an agent she queried.  The agent wrote back "the subject is so intriguing, but I just didn’t fall for the narrative voice as I’d hoped I would." Ouch.  

So what does this mean? What is narrative voice and why would an agent need to fall for it?

Remember that most agents get hundreds of queries a week.  One agent I spoke with said she got 10,000 a year.  Do the math--that means overload of words and ideas.  To catch their attention, yours must stand out.  

There are a couple of good ways to stand out, in my experience.  One is with an intriguing subject (a different plot or location, a specialty subject, characters who do something unique or are in an unusual situation).  My student's manuscript evidently passed that test--it's likely that the agent's assistant put it in the "pass" pile during that first sift-through and it got to the agent herself.  I'd say that was encouraging.

But the other aspect of a winning query and sample is the voice.  Narrative voice, a fancy way of saying the tone or style the writer uses to convey the story.  Sentence structure, pacing, lyricism or not (image-rich or sparse), choice of words, and such mechanical decisions go into making a unique narrative voice.  I define narrative voice as the style of the writer; character voice as the way the character presents herself on the page (and each character's voice will differ).  Not all agree with that--some believe the narrative voice is the character voice.  But if you read one author across many books, you'll notice a certain tone, a certain style, that makes it easy to tell a Stephen King novel from one written by Andre Dubus, right? To me that's the narrative voice.  It is what holds it all together.

So first step is to see how it feels in these books by your favorite writers. They probably have a narrative voice that you fall for.  You get engaged in that voice, not just the plot or the people, but in the way the story is written.  Why did that voice pull you in?  

That should teach you the second step:  falling for a narrative voice is totally subjective.  One agent might love this writer's narrative voice; another might not.  It has to do with what the agent loves to read, what he or she is attracted to personally, as well as what might sell well in today's marketplace.

The challenging part of querying is when you forget how subjective it all is.  When you take it personally, thinking that one agent's rejection means your narrative voice either sucks or is nonexistent.  You can't really bank on that from one rejection.

It's a long process, these days, querying.  I think it takes about a year on average (and of course there are those who get yesses in a week) and 40-90 agents to get one interested one.  At least that's the averages I've experienced and heard from others.  One reason is the sheer volume of queries out there (read above to remind yourself of those numbers).

Here are two articles on narrative voice for your research this week.  One has its own very lively voice (click here for the article) and the other is more informative (click here). 

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