I know it when I see it. But I must admit I’m not sure I’ve discovered mine.
Maybe a writer takes a while to recognize their own voice? Either way, it’s the most elusive skill/trait that I’ve come across in my own development.
Which leads me to an article by David Farland. You can read it in full here if you want. His topic was dialog tags, and I found it to be incredibly balanced. Using adverbs tagged on to “said” is okay every once in a while. Changing “said” or “asked” for stronger verbs when appropriate is good too.
However, he also said he believed that following the hardline rule of only using “said” or “asked” and outlawing any adverbial modifiers could be responsible for squashing the voice of a generation of writers. In the end, our stories have become so whitewashed to fit a certain style that everyone sounds the same.
When agents are asked what makes a submission stand out, more often than not they say, “I’m looking for a unique voice”.
So, why do agents decline representation due to amateurism?
Trust me. I don’t want to see a bunch of “he chortled, she mumbled, or he gasped” in a book either. The excessive use of hokey dialogue tags drives me batty. But it would take both my fingers and toes to count the number of times a good writer has heard from an agent, “You used an adverb on page two – That’s telling. – You need to show better”.
The first agent I met with, after reading the opening pages, said I needed to work on showing not telling. Why? Because I used an adverb in one paragraph. I asked if that was it. The agent replied yes.
Guess what I did?
I removed every adverb from my book. And why wouldn’t I? If that was the only reason the agent could give for declining to see more of my work, isn’t it the smart thing to remove that one obstacle so it didn’t happen again?
That was three years ago. I’ve grown a bit in my writing, and I’ve come to understand there’s right and wrong times to use certain parts of speech. There’s a time to tell and a time show. But I’m still left wondering.
Are agents mentioning the “rule-breaking” because the writer’s voice doesn’t grab them? Are good stories that follow the “rules” missing their full potential because the “rules” are stifling their voice?
I don’t know the answer to either But I do have questions.
How does a writer cultivate their voice so it grabs an industry gatekeeper in such a way that they’re willing to work with the “rule-breaking” traits of that writer?
Or how does a writer develop their voice in a unique way while staying within the accepted norms of the craft?
Both can be done. I’ve seen it. I just want more of it in my own writing 🙂
What do you think?