Narrative Voice: A great one will sell your book


01toniBy Toni Lopopolo, Literary Agent

What editors in publishing houses tell agents:

“I’m looking for well written, vivid, voice-driven books in adult, young adultand narrative non-fiction categories.” Sara Goodman, Editor

“What links the authors on my list are the quality of the writing, a distinct, compelling authorial voice, and a strong narrative.” Keith Kahla, Executive Editor

“I look for solid, voice-driven writing—something that makes the author stand out
 from the pack.”   Michael Homler, Editor

“Captivating voices and vividly-realized settings are what get my attention.”
Toni Kirkpatrick, Editor: Thomas Dunne Books

“What speaks to me most is a strong narrative voice with a commercial bent.”
Kelley Ragland:  Editorial Director, Minotaur Books

“As an editor I love nothing more that to find a phenomenal debut novel, everything from voice-driven contemporary to a high-concept idea with commercial series potential.”  Vicki Lame, Associate, Editor

“I love a strong narrative voice, vibrant, jump-off-the-page characters, smart, funny heroines, and of course, stories that make me cry.”   Holly Ingraham, Associate Editor

“Fiction or non-fiction, I’m looking for robust stories with strong characters and a distinctive voice. “  Brenda Copeland, Executive Editor

“In fiction, I find myself drawn to unique, fresh, engaging voices combined with brisk intelligent plotting.”  Anne Brewer, Associate Editor

“Voice is my first priority in Young Adult fiction.”  Kat Brzozowski, Associate Editor, St. Martin’s Press.

“I’m looking for all types of romance with a distinctive voice, including new adult and male/male; cozy mysteries with a strong hook; psychological and domestic suspense; thrillers, contemporary book club fiction; and upmarket horror.”
Peter Senftleben, Editor.

The above represents what I, a literary agent, hear over and over from editors in New York City’s Big 5 publishing houses. I hear this also from smaller established houses, and exclusive literary publishers.

Notice the same word mentioned in each of the above quotes? Voice is what we ‘hear’ when we read a novel, or a work of narrative non-fiction such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The strongest voice stays with us, becomes unforgettable.

‘Tomorrow is another day.’’  We remember Scarlett O’Hara’s strong voice in Margaret Mitchel’s Gone With The Wind. Maybe not so much Melanie’s, a softer, less forceful one. In Catcher In The Rye, J D Salinger’s character and narrator stayed with us; Yosserian in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. 

If you’re a fan of the Twilight Series, you remember Bella Swan’s voice; in Gillian Flynn’s mega-bestseller Gone Girl, the author uses two narrative voices: the husband’s and the wife’s. Which character tells us the truth? Which is the unreliable narrator? Which voice do you believe or distrust?

Readers who found Gone Girl a compelling read, brought back Flynn’s two earlier novels to today’s bestseller lists: Sharp Objects, and Dark Places, each with one female narrative voice. In Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer prizewinner, The Goldfinch, the narrator is Theo, but most readers, whether they loved the novel, hated the novel, or slogged through to the end, named the character of Boris as the strongest voice, therefore the most memorable character. In The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, a failure when Scribner published the novel in 1925,  Nick Carraway’s the narrator, yet the voice readers remember best is Gatsby himself. The narrator,  Carraway, becomes the camera lens through which the reader experiences an amazing character, the unforgettable, tragic figure of Jay Gatsby.

As literary agent, I find what’s lacking in 90% of the manuscripts writers ask me to represent, is a strong, unique voice. What I and most other agents see, are weak, too familiar (boring?) narrative voices that make us aware of the writing and not the story.

In literary agencies, in publishing houses, hired readers are instructed to stop reading a manuscript when the reader gets pulled out of the story, or distracted, bored, or loses interest, the reason why most manuscripts are not read to the end. The writer has not engaged the reader with a voice that compels that reader to keep turning the pages. The writer who has mastered his/her writing skills, will pull in the reader on the first page and not let go until the last.

Voice is what we remember. Voice stays with us. Voice becomes the personality of a book .

When I left my job as executive editor at St Martin’s Press, to open my  agency: Toni Lopopolo Literary Management in 1991, what I read from writers who asked for representation, I never got to see when I sat at my executive editor’s desk at St. Martin’s Press nor at Macmillan. Becoming an agent showed me that agents act as gatekeepers, the system that filters out the best manuscripts they can find to send to the publishing editors in New York and other major publisher cities.

I felt I had to an obligation to set writers on a better course.  I developed   workshops I called: The 10 Most Common Mistakes First Novelists Make. I continue to give intensive, interactive workshops, bootcamps, and master classes for novice writers of fiction and narrative nonfiction, in small groups  in person, and online through Skype and its competitor, We work from the writers’ own pages; we listen to Voice in the writing, read aloud by someone other than the author; we edit others’ and our own pages. We revise and read again when we meet. I work to help writers develop strong narratives with unique voices. I stress the importance of working on the development of a distinctive Voice by experimenting with, then choosing the best point of view: 1st, or 3rd intimate/limited for their characters. We learn to avoid author intrusion to keep the ‘camera lens’ inside the head of the main character who’s on stage.

We work on development of the writer’s control of the main character(s) Voice so that no character wanders out of character, never pulls the reader out of the story, the deal breaker in getting published. Writing well by mastering the skills needed, is work, a serious, time-consuming process. Key word: process.

Below is an interesting and informative article I found on Voice.

Strong Narrative Voice:  (from Magdalena Ball: The Three Essential Elements of Fiction Writing.)
The narrative voice is critical to any work of fiction, and it is probably one of the most overlooked areas of focus for new writers. Vague narrators, uncertain tense, and an unclear voice are all the result of poor narration. A great writer will have total control over his/her narrative, the voice that guides the reader through the story. As Noah Lukeman, the author of The First Five Pages, says: “Viewpoint and narration comprise a delicate, elaborate facade, in which one tiny break of inconsistency can be disastrous, the equivalent of striking a dissonant note in the midst of a harmonious musical performance. The easiest way to ensure you have a clear narrative voice is to write in the first person. This makes your narrator an obvious character, and thereby ensures that, as a writer, you will be thinking about that development.

However, first person isn’t appropriate for all fiction, and  has its limitations, since it ties the work to a single perspective. For third person narratives, the key point is to ensure that the narrator is actually defined as clearly as any other character, regardless of how visible or invisible you want that narrator to be. Any straying from the main narrative voice or mistake in consistency can be a disaster, unless your control and experience are extensive and vast.

A good narrative voice is generally consistent, and doesn’t switch from first (“I”), to second (“you”) to third (“he or she”) person, unless the author is doing it quite deliberately, and it takes great skill to pull off switching narration. In most cases, switching person will destroy a story. More subtle, but equally important is the need to keep the narrative viewpoint consistent. It can be hard work to develop a single viewpoint, and using multiple viewpoints can be complex, with the need for careful, well-crafted breaks between viewpoints and a really clear, plot-oriented reason for doing so. The reader must have a good sense of the narrative voice, including why that voice sees things the way it does, and whose perspective it is taking.
Some tricks to help develop the narrative voice include the following:
1. Read authors with exceptional narrative control. Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie, and Julian Barnes are among the very best authors for narrative control. Their novels tend to be fueled by great narrators and characterization, and reading work like theirs will help develop the writer’s ear for what works in narration.
2. Try re-writing a piece of your own work from a different viewpoint, and noting the effect. You may actually improve the piece, but if not, you will at least begin to understand the impact.
3. Try creating a profile of your narrator. Write out his/her “back story.” Put together a number of paragraphs on his/her life, motivations, and fears.
4. Take a paragraph from any great writer’s work. Try a classic like Dickens, Eliot, or Joyce, or some other well-respected novelist, and take note of the narrative voice. Now write out a paragraph on the narrator.  Describe his/her motivations, past, and the hints that the writing conveys on the narrator’s involvement in the overall story.

References for more information on narrative voice:

“Paradigm, Point of View, and Narrative Distance in Verbal and Visual Arts” by George P Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

A simple but useful guide to the different narrative voices, from Candace Schaefer:

A slide show by Sheila Booth of at QCC Mass — including a complete overview of the narrative voice:

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft Jane Burroway, Longman; 8th edition, 2010. ISBN

About Toni Lopopolo…

Ms. Lopopolo, former executive editor at Macmillan and St. Martin’s Press, literary agent since1991, editor, and writing instructor, uses a unique teaching method to help first-time novelists master the skills needed to successfully write book-length fiction. She aids nonfiction writers to produce compelling narrative nonfiction, using fiction techniques. The small group workshops Toni holds for writers of fiction and memoir, offered both in person and online, fill up fast. Fiction Bootcamp Intensives, which Toni teaches with nationally renowned book editor Shelly Lowenkopf, receive continual praise from former students.

Toni  held workshops at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA; De Sales University; Writer’s Room of Bucks County, PA; the Ventura County Writers’ Weekend; at the popular Tea With Toni seminars in Santa Barbara, Thousand Oaks, Camarillo; for the  Greater Los Angeles Writers Society conferences, and many other venues. Her most popular lecture is titled The Ten Most Common Mistakes First Novelists Make. Click here to download a quick summary of the ten mistakes.


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