Today, we’re lucky enough to have literary agent Beth Campbell of BookEnds, LLC on the blog. She’s got some great advice regarding the craft of writing, so read on!
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?
Beth: Voice is difficult to really sit down and define because it’s somewhat nebulous. I think people understand it best when looking at a story that is written in first person—then the “voice” is in the personality and quirks of the narrating character. When the story is in third person, there’s no character to provide the voice for you and the style and personality inherent in the writing itself provides the voice.
Most solid, polished writing falls flat because it looks the same as every other piece of solid, polished writing out there. Good voice is what sets excellent writing apart from merely good writing.
As for tips: I think that an author’s voice really shines when it feels unique, and the uniqueness is often in the details. If the author takes time to slow down and examine some of the smaller (but still significant!) details in her story or setting, that can give her room to develop a voice instead of having the narrative going from plot point to plot point to plot point. I would also caution authors not to try too hard. The best voices always sound natural and effortless. That doesn’t mean they are, of course, but if you’re trying too hard things will probably sound forced. A good voice should be close to your natural style, so embrace it.
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?
Beth: Relationships are absolutely vital in creating a sympathetic character. Some of the most unlikeable characters I’ve ever come across have been that way because of the way they interact with the people around them. If your character doesn’t have a meaningful connection with anyone, they are very difficult to empathize with. Give a character a little sister or dog or elderly relative that she adores, and people will get that.
From there, I’ve often found that motivation and dimension make remarkable characters really stand out. Too many heroes and heroines seem to do things for no reason—the real reason of course being that the writer needs them to do it in order to advance the plot. Excellent characters act (or don’t) because of their needs and desires, and plot follows naturally from there.
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?
Beth: High concept fiction is generally used to describe a story that can be easily pitched in a sentence or two. That’s it. One or two sentences, and the listener has a full picture of what the story is about.
As for whether or not it’s important for books to be high concept: I think it depends on the venue of your pitch. If you’re querying traditionally or pitching one-on-one to an agent at a conference, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the manuscript is high concept. On the other hand, I’d argue that high concept manuscripts have an advantage in twitter pitch contests and other various short pitch formats. I personally don’t think it really impacts your chances of being published 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?
Beth: I’m going to come full circle and say: voice. Any one—writer or not—can come up with an excellent idea, and most writers have a handle on grammar and syntax, but voice is really what sets people apart. Alternatively, I would urge authors to work on their dialogue. So much dialogue seems forced or unnatural, and that’s a total deal breaker for me—even if the narration is good.