Monday, May 23, 2011

Voice—It's not just for manuscripts anymore (actually, it never was)

by Sophie Perinot

Query letters (*sigh*). Most writers would rather gnaw off their own arm than write one. But, if you want to make a run at acquiring an agent and getting a traditional publishing deal, there is no escape—write one you must. There’s a lot of chatter out there in writer-land about “the rules” of querying. Don’t believe me? Peruse the archives for any of the dozens of excellent agent or author blogs, or head over to one of the on-line writing communities (AgentQuery Connect is my personal favorite) and count the number of threads/posts devoted to crafting, critiquing and editing query letters. But one of the most important elements of a successful query is often overlooked in those numerous and lengthy discussions—voice.

This is a major oversight. I would posit that snagging an agent with a good query is NOT merely about what you say but is equally about HOW you say it. For those of you who have seen “The King’s Speech” (and if you haven’t, forget reading my post and get yourself that DVD) think of the moment at Westminster Abbey when Geoffrey Rush (playing speech therapist Lionel Logue) asks Colin Firth’s George VI of England, “Why should I waste my time listening to you?’ The King’s answer. . . “Because I have a voice.” If you want agents to listen to you, to pay attention to the punchy mini-synopsis of your oh-so-clever plot that you spent a gazillion drafts perfecting, then you’d better let the voice that imbues your manuscript sing out from your query letter as well.

Why is voice the forgotten step-sister of the query letter discussion and, consequently, MIA in so many structurally sound query letters? I think there are a couple of reasons.

Voice is not easy to define. There is no nice little check-list of steps that I (or anyone) can give you to follow in order to make certain that your query letter has voice. But I think every writer can learn to recognize the presence or absence of voice. As Justice Stewart said (in his concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio) “I know it when I see it”—okay, okay Justice Stewart was talking about obscenity not voice, but substitute the word and the point is the same. You can spot voice even if you can’t define it. You just need a little practice. Next time you sit down to read query letter examples (you can always head to the threads full of queries posted for critique at various writers’ sites for this exercise) don’t fall into line-edit mode. Don’t look for the flaws in the hook; point out the missing comma in the second sentence; or immediately notice that the writer has mentioned too many characters by name. Read the entire letter beginning to end rapidly to get a “feel” for it. Does the letter set a mood? Does it have a distinctive tone? Is the author’s style of writing consistent from beginning to end? Does the query create a world that you are sucked into (even if it is only for three brief paragraphs)? If the letter does any of those things, then—ding-ding-ding we have a winner—the letter has voice.

Voice is very individual. Once you’ve learned to sort query letters into “voiced” and “voiceless” piles you can’t merely use the queries that have a clear voice as a template for your own. Rats. You need to go back to the roots of the story you are trying to pitch—your manuscript. What tone and style of writing do you use to tell your story? If you were writing a blurb for the back cover of your novel how would it read? DON’T over think this (yes, I can see your brow furrowing already from my desk in cyberspace)! Just grab your keyboard and pound out one or two draft cover blurbs. Do they have voice? If so, imo, you are well on your way to a great query. All you have to do is massage those blurbs to make sure the critical information (hook, mini-synopsis, closing paragraph w/stats) agents expect in every query are all there. Remember, however, this “voice” approach does not mean writing your query in the same POV or tense as your book. Queries need to be third person present tense. It does mean creating the same ambiance.

Nothing kills voice like committee. Read that again. This is the most heartbreaking of my points. You’ve learned to spot voice. You’ve gotten back in sync with the voice that drove your manuscript and you’ve drafted a query letter that you believe employs that same voice. But you can still blow it by editing the voice out—often with the help of others.

Now it is wonderful (truly) that we writers have so many on-line resources today. Besides asking our faithful critique partners to take a look at our draft query, we can post it and get dozens of opinions from fellow writers. We can then re-post a newer version of our query and get opinions all over again. And somewhere along the way, in trying to incorporate all those suggestions (yes, even the excellent ones) we can stamp out all the voice our poor little query letter ever had. If you can bear one more quote, as Lady Bracknell says in The Importance of Being Earnest, “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit. Touch it, and the bloom is gone.” Now this time you need to substitute “voice” for ignorance. When improving your letter (and I am NOT suggesting that you cannot learn from others, or that you cannot edit a letter in a way that is beneficial) take care that voice is not trampled under foot.

Don’t let other writers re-write your query for you in their own style (I am sure I am oft guilty of this in my query critiques and I take this opportunity to publicly offer a mea culpa for such behavior). Err on the side of voice. Be prepared to ignore people. If you feel that making your letter fit a format or satisfy a majority of those who commented will destroy the voice of the letter step slowly away from the precipice. Thank everyone politely and then stop checking that darn comments thread. And remember that every comment should be “gut” checked. Trust your gut. Your gut (and your brain) wrote your manuscript. That puppy is probably 80k words so your gut and your brain can manage 200-300 words worth of query. I guess the position I am ultimately taking is: maybe a little feedback is better than a lot when you are trying to develop and project your author-voice. I would never have wanted 10 or 20 (let alone 30 or 50) opinions on my query. I got four. If that is heresy so be it.

What do you think—is voice as crucial an element in your query as in your manuscript? Is it as important as a clear synopsis of the plot? More important? Can voice alone can generate requests? Do you have a useful test/method to share for identifying writing with voice?


Stephanie Diaz said...

Great post!

An easy way to notice voice is by comparing an academic report or research paper to any old book off the shelf. When it comes to queries, I think a strong tool to use along the way is to write the query in first person from the perspective of the main character. That won't work for a final draft, but in an earlier step I think it helps the reader notice the unique voice of the character, which is usually easier to compare to the voice of the overall novel. With a bit of word-working to fix tense and such, the voice may end up much stronger. I think a mix of voice and a clear plot is essential, but an incredibly poignant voice could garner responses on its own.

Darke Conteur said...

I must admit, I still don't understand voice, and I agree with not re-writing someone else query. Sometimes it's hard, especially when you want to show them where they went wrong, but you're doing them no favours by putting it in your style.

Good post!

Sophie Perinot said...

Great points Stephanie -- though I would argue that the best non-fiction (including academic non-fiction) should have voice as well (somebody needs to be hammering that point home in grad schools). I particularly like the idea of writing the first draft of the letter in the POV of your MC. Alternately you could draft it from the POV of your narrator (because in my genre at least there are a whole lot of books that are not 1st person).

Sophie Perinot said...

Darke -- I find the more voice a query draft has the less inclined I am to make any suggestions beyond the most basic (you need a comma here). I think a vast majority of queries that hit the threads don't have voice and so when I see one that does I find myself getting both excited (there is raw talent there -- you can practically reach out your hand and touch it) and anxious (I want to tell teh writer to take the letter down and go work on it alone in a dark room lest it be spoiled)

greenwoman said...

Oh yes, how many times have we seen queries on the agent blogs that break ALL the rules and the agent is salivating over them? Because they have such great VOICE.

I really like Stephanie's suggestion as a way to get the voice down, I may try that myself.

Great post!

Sophie Perinot said...

EXACTLY greenwoman! I think voice can make a query letter jump from the pile. And isn't that what every author wants?

Jemi Fraser said...

I think you're so right - voice in a query letter is a must. Just reading through Query Shark or the thread on AQC or any other place where queries are collected makes it very, very clear why voice is important. Nothing makes your letter stand out more quickly!

RSMellette said...

For anyone interested in Artist Cross Training, I wrote about Voice for filmmakers in my blog.

Here's an excerpt:

...many novelists might say, "Ah, voice, of course... What the hell is that, anyway?" If you are trapped in a desert in need of rescue, start a discussion about voice and a gaggle of authors will suddenly appear to offer their opinions on the subject. Why? Because agents and editor all say they are looking for authors with a "unique voice," and then leave it up to us to figure out what that means.

Sophie Perinot said...

RS I would venture to suggest that voice can be developed and nurtured but not taught and that there are as mnay voices as their are writers. Like anything that must be found through introspection and actual writing (or film making) people are going to get easily frustrated because lots of people have a "just tell me what to do" mindset.

Paul Dillon said...

Nothing kills voice like committee. Excellent point. I was just going to head off to to post my draft query. You just convinced me not to. :)

Sophie Perinot said...

Oh Paul, I wouldn't want to do that. I think we can get really helpful input from others. I am just suggesting people not be so intent on accomodating every critique and incorporating every comment. Too many writers are "pleasers" and when we please others first and reflexively we can lose ourselves in the process.

J. Lea Lopez said...

I absolutely struggle to incorporate voice in my queries. Could it be that my manuscript lacks voice as well? Yikes! I hope not! I like Stephanie's suggestion for the first draft exercise. I'll have to try that one.

RSMellette said...

@Dillon, you should absolutely post your query on I'm one of the voiciest writer's you'll ever find - or so my agent says - and their criticism help tremendously.

@Perinot, I agree that there are as many voices as there are writers. The only way to not have a voice is to not write - or scribble like I used to do in kindergarten. One could argue that "developed and nutured" and "taught" are all the same thing. :)

@Lopez, see above. I've you've written in a language any other human can understand, you have voice. It might be a droning, nasally, hard to stay awake listening to voice, but a voice nonetheless. (Somehow, I doubt that!)

And I don't know if it's a blog faupax to post one's own blog in the comments of another, but on the flip side, I've managed to get this blog mentioned on the Dances With Films program. :)

Sophie Perinot said...

RS -- When I say "V"oice I am not using the word in the most general, "anybody who writes or speaks by definition has one," sort of way. I perhaps should have been clearer, but I mean it in a narrower, distinctly positive sense -- a person who has a unique and COMPELLING way of writing or saying something. In other words, a person whose voice is one likely to find an audience.

I read things all the time that lack that sort of voice -- writing where there is nothing special about the way the story is told. And, on the flip side, you may remember someone over at AQConnect telling the story of hearing Roger Moore speak and finding that while he had a terrific way of saying things the actor had no real content to share.

Saying everyone has "V"oice (in the sense that I mean it for the purposes of this post) is like saying everyone who picks up a crayon is an artist. Yes, everyone can scribble. And everyone can work on their art but, as in other fields of endeavor, we are not all starting off from the same point and not everyone is going to have a voice that attracts an agent or audience.

Luce said...

"Err on the side of voice."

That, right there, is the key, and the True North of a great query. Thanks for this post, Sophie!

Cat Woods said...


Your post is spot on. I firmly believe that a query letter is the invitation to the party. If we have cowboys and chili dogs at the party, those need to show in the query. If, on the other hand, we are donning gowns and eating cavier, the invitation to this event better be embossed in silver on classy paper.

To do otherwise isn't staying true to the nature of our writing. And why invite someone to a gala when they would really prefer to be at a hoedown--or vice versa?

Anonymous said...

Cat makes a VERY important point -- the voice of your query and the voice in your manuscript need to be the same or at least compatible. On many occasions I’ve seen agent’s blog about the frustration of getting a manuscript that just doesn’t fulfill the potential of the query letter and in a couple of these posts I’ve seen comments like, “the letter and the manuscript seem to be written by two different people” (that’s not a real quote it’s an amalgamation – but you get the point). If your query is tense, raw and suspenseful and you’ve written a mystery in a cozy, Agatha-Christie-esque style you are not doing yourself a favor. DON’T BAIT AND SWITCH AN AGENT!

Sophie Perinot

Irene Vernardis said...

Hi :)

Great points. I agree that "voice" should be shown in the query. After all, that is the identity of an author in a broad aspect.

However, it should not be overdone in the case of the query. Whereas the manuscript must target the readers, the query targets persons to whom we want to sell our book and also ourselves as authors. Thus, a query should take into consideration business and sale aspects.

Thank you for the interesting post :)

Leslie Rose said...

I do believe that voice is where you make a connection with the reader, be it in a MS, synopsis, or query. Great point about editing out voice with too many cooks poking at your work.

Anonymous said...

Sophie Perinot said. . .
(blogger still hates me)

Irene -- I agree that it is imperative to remember that a query is a buisness letter. I think writers often get too casual and "chummy," especially in the closing pargraph.

Leslie -- thanks so much for your comment. I think (2 posts into my blogging adventure) I might be getting the hang of this :)

Matt Sinclair said...

I just have to say I loved your reference from The Importance of Being Earnest. I'd forgotten that line. The other points have been well hammered here. Speak up, oh voices of tomorrow's published authors!

Sophie Perinot said...

Matt, talk about a writer with voice. Wilde had it to spare :)

And I agree with you -- new voices need to overcome their fear of rejection and pipe up. That's one of the things I think AQConnect does particularly well, help those on the road to publication set shyness aside and shout out.

tamarapaulin said...

Great post! I do recommend AQConnect. Just remember to take it all with the "grain of salt".

I think the best queries make the story sound good, marketable, and all that jazz, PLUS they make the author sound like a fun, professional, entertaining person to do business with.

Sophie Perinot said...

"Just remember to take it all with the 'grain of salt'."

Amen Tamara! Your voice cannot survive (and you will have a tough time in this business as a whole) if you take every bit of advice you are given to heart. Don't assume everyone knows better because, especially about YOUR book and YOUR query, they don't.

Sophie Perinot said...

Great new post on voice supressed in manuscripts by critique from agent Kristin Nelson:

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