Today, we are interviewing Emily Keyes of Foreword Literary. She’s been kind enough to answer some questions about the writer’s craft. Welcome, Emily!
Me: Sometimes, an agent/editor will reject an author’s manuscript because they feel that they didn’t connect with the author’s voice/it wasn’t strong enough. How do you define voice in fiction? And do you have any tips for a writer about how to make their voice stronger?
Emily: The voice isn’t the actual plot or structure of the story, but it is what makes the telling of it interesting, the reason the reader wants to keep reading. If you think about comedians telling an anecdote on stage as compared to someone else trying to retell the story, you’ll know what I mean. There is always something that is lost. That something is the voice.
In school we are taught mostly academic writing, and told to keep emotion out of it. I think that hinders a lot of people when they try to write creatively. They end up sounding like an encyclopedia entry about the plot, without meaning to. I would encourage writers to get caught up in their stories—make yourself laugh and cry. Don’t be removed from them. And maybe think about what you are bringing to the table, why no one else can tell this story.
Me: Another common reason for rejection is not connecting with the author’s characters. What makes a reader care about an author’s characters? How can a writer make their characters stronger?
Emily: A lot of times the voice and the character are very intimately tied, especially if you are writing from a first person point of view.
In general, I think readers don’t “connect” with characters when the author isn’t fully inhabiting them. When they do things to further the plot, but there isn’t emotion and thought behind their actions. They don’t feel real.
I would suggest doing character exercises like writing up character studies, imagining what they do in their spare time (when they’re not on the page), etc. It’s important that you know more about your character than you are telling the reader. You are just showing the tip of an iceberg.
Me: There’s a lot of talk about “high concept” fiction lately. Can you define it for us? Do you feel that it’s become more and more important for books to be high concept?
Emily: I would say that high concept means you can pitch a premise very succinctly—as with an elevator pitch. It makes it easier for the author to pitch it to me, and in turn for me to pitch to an editor, an editor to his or her team, the team to the reader, etc.
Agents definitely look for things that have a high concept or strong hook. (Aside: Which is not to say that those are the only things agents want. I think the stand-out YA book of this year was Eleanor & Park and that was not really high concept. It was much more character-driven, but I would still love to find something like it.) It’s just much easier to tell from the query letter if something has been done before from a high concept pitch. You know immediately if the premise interests you, or not.
Me: As an agent, you see a lot of manuscripts from beginning writers. If there was one area could tell a writer to focus on, to work toward improvement in, what would it be?
Emily: Ha, well that would depend on the writer. Everyone has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. In general I would tell writers to read more. You need to know your genre (what has been done before, as in the high concept question) but also you see other authors’ voices and characters and you learn through osmosis.
You can learn more about Emily here.