Getting Your Attention

Literary agent Donald Maass and I spent a fair amount of time on the subject of voice in his interview. Don pointed out that a lot of things get lumped into that which we call a writer’s voice. Whatever it is, he concluded, when it comes to gaining an agent’s attention, it’s important. It’s more important than grabber, action-packed openings or unique settings. It can’t make up for a story with no conflict or unbelievable characters, but it can draw a reader in when little is actually happening.

The problem with voice, and the appeal of grabber openings and unique settings, is that the latter can, theoretically, be taught—or at least defined. The voice not so much so. There is no such thing as a good voice or a bad voice. If it works, it works. This is the point at which agents and editors begin to sound like models giving dating advice to men: If you want my attention, just be yourself.

But what if you they don’t like myself? Good question. But consider this: everyone in the world appreciates authenticity, and no one appreciates it more than the one being authentic. When you are speaking authentically, however briefly, you have shed the constraints of anyone’s requirements but your own. When you are speaking authentically, you are not trying to please an agent or editor, or your husband, or your parents, or your minister, or your professor; you aren’t trying to sound smart or clever or alluring or happy or sad or serious; when you are speaking authentically you are only trying to say as accurately as possible what it is you know to be true.

From this position you see that you are not speaking to gain a model’s attention or an agent or editor’s attention, you are speaking to gain your own attention. The first and greatest payoff of speaking authentically will always be relief—I said what I wanted to say and the world didn’t end. Next, and much later, might come dates with models or publishing contracts, but these will pale compared to the freedom of saying what you wanted to say.

The worst suffering in the world is the belief that we are not enough, that we must be someone else to succeed at anything. This thought is a kind of suicide. So Don Maass is right—voice is the most important tool in a writer’s toolbox. Without it, you aren’t even there.

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