Recently, after a writing workshop, I was having dinner with a long-time bestselling author, book editor, and literary agent. The question arose (as it often does in such contexts) of how to counsel new and early-career writers whose efforts appear low quality—and if you can tell the difference between writers who will eventually succeed in the market and those who will not.
Such questions always spark energetic debate. My old standby response is that it all depends on how well the writer can use critical feedback and improve over time. Others discuss the importance of reading. Unsurprisingly, the word “talent” is never far away from such discussions, but it’s rarely considered of utmost importance—just one factor among many.
The bestselling author then brought up that ineffable quality of voice: It’s either there in the writing or it’s not. And some writers haven’t developed or “found” their voice yet. While many structural and development issues can be fixed, no agent or editor can infuse a story with voice if it’s not there to begin with.
In the recent Glimmer Train bulletin, author Scott Gloden says that voice is comparable to how you dance on the page:
It was three years into writing short stories without much guidance that this role of voice finally unlocked for me. I was reading Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, and somewhere in the opening chapters, she uses the phrase “easy peasy.” Easy peasy. How could something so smart contain such a passingly goofy phrase? But in the context of her voice, it felt entirely natural, nothing lost. It was Selasi dancing out the story, and the rest of that excellent novel is steeped in this same energetic language.
Also in this month’s bulletin:
- Research for Fiction Writers by Susan Messer
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.