Craft, Story and Voice
One of the most common things I hear from writers lately is, “You’ve told us a lot about what makes you say no to a book. Now tell us what makes you say yes.” So yesterday I wrote that I love when I can sense the writing is authentic and true.
Today I want to take it further and identify three basic things that are immediately apparent to agents and editors when we read and evaluate your work, and they make the difference between yes and no.
. . . . .Story.
. . . . . . . . . . Voice.
Of course, the elements are intertwined, but it’s helpful to artificially separate them in order to understand why a book is either working—or not.
Craft refers to the mechanics of fiction: plot, characterization, dialogue, pacing, flow, scene-crafting, dramatic structure, point-of-view, etc. I think craft is pretty easy to teach and it’s easy to learn. It’s technique, the foundation upon which writers use their artistic skill to build their story. Knowing the mechanics of craft enables you to use it to create the effect you want.
Story refers to the page-turning factor: how compelling is your story, how unique or original, does it connect with the reader, is there that certain spark that makes it jump off the page? Is it sufficiently suspenseful or romantic (as appropriate)? Does it open with a scene that intrigues and makes the reader want to know more? Story comes from the imagination of the writer and is much more difficult to teach than craft (if it can be taught at all).
Voice is the expression of you on the page—your originality and the courage to express it. Voice is what you develop when you practice what we talked about yesterday—writing what you know. It’s the unfettered, non-derivative, unique conglomeration of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes, coming through in every word you write.
Without a doubt, whenever I read a new manuscript and fall in love with it, the deciding factor most of the time is the voice.
So how do you find your voice? You can’t learn it. You can’t copy it. Voice isn’t a matter of studying. You have to find it. And the way to do that is by writing, and experimenting, and seeing what kind of response you get from others, and writing some more. And some more.
Putting it All Together
I receive numerous projects that show strong technique, but no originality or heart. In a way, this is good because it shows that writers are paying attention to their craft. They’re taking the time and making the effort to learn to write, which is fantastic. But some of them lack a strong story, and others don’t have a compelling or unique voice. These writers just need to keep working on it.
I think some writers find craft easier, and others find story comes more naturally. A few writers have a strong voice right out of the box; most writers have to work for years to develop one.
When you read published books that don’t seem to “follow the rules” of craft that you’ve worked so hard to learn, instead of getting mad and throwing the book across the room, try to determine if maybe that book got published because of the story, rather than technical perfection. Ask yourself whether the author has a pleasing or compelling voice that makes you want to read, despite technical imperfection.
If your storytelling and/or the voice is powerful enough, readers will forgive an awful lot of flaws in technique… and so will agents and editors. On the other hand, all the perfect “craft” in the world can’t make an unimaginative book shine.
If editors and agents are looking at your samples and immediately criticizing your craft, be aware this means they aren’t able to see a fabulous story in there and they’re probably not compelled by your voice. Either it doesn’t exist to begin with, or it’s camouflaged by your lack of expertise in fiction technique.
So craft, story and voice all work together to create a winning work of fiction. Of the three, story and voice are my primary considerations when searching for new writers.
Q4U: Which is harder for you? Craft, story, or voice?