Today, we have literary agent Hannah Bowman of Liza Dawson Associates Literary Agency on the blog. She was kind enough to give us some wonderful advice on the craft of writing. Thank you, Hannah, for being here!
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?
Hannah: Voice is really the key to good writing. It’s the thing that makes you feel like the narrator (whether first-person or third-person) is a real person. Even with third-person narration, voice sets the tone of the story. It tells me immediately what kind of book I’m reading and how to react to it.
One of the most important things in developing voice, I think, is understanding deep point-of-view. Even with a third person narrator, each scene has a POV character. And whoever the POV character is determines how you tell the scene. It determines your word choice. It determines which details are noticed and remarked upon and which are ignored. It determines how you describe details. No two people will describe the same scene the same way, and the way your characters tell the story is the key to understanding their voice.
As an example, think of the Harry Potter books – even though Harry is not a first-person narrator, the reader’s experience of Hogwarts is Harry’s experience, and the reader experiences the magical feeling of the wizarding world opening up to Harry as he discovers new and previously incomprehensible things, which are described so they feel just as new and magical to us as they do to him.
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?
Hannah: I think characters and voice are closely related, so I suggest the same techniques as above. We don’t learn about the characters only by what they say and do and what we’re told about them, but also by what they show us by what they notice and the way they tell the story (again, even in third-person).
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?
Hannah: High concept just means a premise that can be expressed in a line and is instantly appealing. With a high-concept hook, I want to read it just because of the premise, not even knowing anything else about it.
I think the classic example of a high-concept pitch is for the movie Alien, which was pitched as “Jaws in space.”
Certainly as there’s more competition for people’s attention, high-concept premises are important because they’re instantly compelling. But not every book is high concept, and that’s okay! If your book appeals more on the basis of characters/plot development/beautiful writing than concept, there’s still space for that. In that case, you don’t gain anything by trying to come up with a high-concept pitch if there isn’t one. Instead, focus on an interesting or fresh element of the story (why do you love it? Is it a special character? A charming setting?) and make that your touchstone if people ask you what your book is about, rather than trying to recite a carefully-crafted logline to them.
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?
Hannah: A lot of beginning manuscripts read like very, very detailed synopses. There are a lot of events, dialogue, and descriptions, but not much real storytelling, writing that makes me feel like I’m there with the characters. Every line/description/event feels equally important, rather than the story lingering on the important parts and moving faster through the less important ones. (And as above, what counts as important/not important depends on the character whose POV you’re writing in!)
The easiest piece of advice I can give to fix this problem is: think of crafting a scene like cinematography in a movie. In a movie, you need a variety of shots – wide shots establishing setting, close-ups on characters, quick-cut action scenes – and you should be using different types of writing for each of those. Sometimes you want the reader to be seeing the whole scene, sometimes in a character’s head, sometimes with an over-the-shoulder shot as they talk to someone. You don’t want your writing to feel like a home movie shot with a single stationary camera – all the same events occur, but it’s harder for the viewer (reader) to distinguish them and tell what’s most important.
But at the same time, as you’re switching between these different “shots” in your scene, you have to think about how you’re moving between them. You don’t want your reader to get motion-sickness from too many quick changes between wide shots (like description of setting or action) and close-ups (like when you’re narrating a character’s thoughts). It’s important to zoom in or out gradually. It’s important that you not switch too fast from one side of the scene to something else that’s (visually or thematically) distant, or your reader will feel jarred as they’re imagining the scene. Of course, this is just a metaphor – you don’t really want to write your scene as though it’s being filmed by a camera – but I think it can help writers with the nitty-gritty sentence-level changes that are necessary to make the storytelling clear and make the voice come through.
Some more information about Ms. Bowman:
Hannah joined the agency in 2011. She has a B.A. from CornellUniversity in English and Mathematics. While a student, she spent four summers working in particle physics at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, before eventually deciding her true interest was books.
Hannah’s clients include:
-Pierce Brown (RED RISING trilogy, Del Rey, Jan. 2014)
-Rosamund Hodge (CRUEL BEAUTY, Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins, Jan. 2014)
-Brian Staveley (THE EMPEROR’S BLADES, Tor, Jan. 2014)
-Dianna Anderson (DAMAGED GOODS: NEW PERSPECTIVES ON CHRISTIAN PURITY, Jericho Books, Spring 2015)
In her free time, she plays the organ.
Hannah specializes in commercial fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, young adult fiction, women’s fiction, cozy mysteries, and romance. Hannah is also interested in nonfiction, particularly in the areas of mathematics, science and religion (especially history and sociology of Christianity).