At a writers’ conference in Myrtle Beach this past weekend, I did two “slush fests.” Writers brought transparencies of the first two pages of their novels to be projected in front of a room, read aloud, and critiqued by two agents. The first, which I did with Holly Root of the Waxman Literary Agency, focused on paranormal and urban fantasy. We worked at a deliberate pace and weighed the pros and cons of each first page. The second, which I did with Scott Eagan of the Greyhaus Agency, was about romance and women’s fiction. We did not work at a deliberate pace. We whipped through more than two dozen first pages and gave very quick critiques that offered a peek into how an agent is really reading as they move through their slush—how quickly decisions are made and for what reasons.
I hope both panels offered a lot of information to those brave souls who opened themselves up to criticism. The paranormal folks all seemed to walk out with smiles on their faces. The romance writers…well, no one poisoned my soup. It wasn’t pretty, but it was honest, and the feedback I got was positive. Everyone who came up to me said they felt they learned a lot. That said, I did notice that no one who thanked me for my honesty had actually had their material we had read aloud. On the plus side, no one cried! I try to be kind and supportive at conferences (I swear!), but I can’t say I haven’t made writers cry. But I only saw one writer in tears at this conference and felt a totally inappropriate sense of joy when I realized I hadn’t met her, so it couldn’t be my fault. Go team!
In any case, one of the things that kept coming up at the slush fests was that there are a lot of things we have our eye on--we’re looking at grammar, tone, and structure; keeping an eye out for clichés; and ultimately looking for that one element that grabs us and that cannot be taught: voice.
Teaching someone to have a distinct voice would be like teaching someone to have a personality. You can coach them on how to pull it out and make it resonate more distinctly, but you can’t actually create it for them. I want to find writers whose work is so distinctive that I could recognize a sentence of theirs out of context. It’s miraculous that anyone can convey enough personality in a handful of words that they make them completely their own. And isn’t that the wonder of great writing? I once got a bottle of scotch in the mail with a note attached but the sender’s name was nowhere to be found. But it only took a note card for me to recognize Phoebe Kitanidis by her style. [Side note: Phoebe is the author of the absurdly fantastic YA debut WHISPER which comes out next year.]
I was able to snag a copy of one of my favorite memoirs last night. It’s a little tough to find, but Diana Vreeland’s D.V. is the ultimate triumph of voice over content. The woman ran Vogue, operated the costume institute at the Met, and traveled the world. Her memoir is less than 200 pages and she takes up the first pages talking about back plasters. I couldn’t care less about half of what she writes about, but damned if I didn’t eat this book up. She’s irreverent, hyperbolic, bitchy, and pithy. She’s one of a kind, and even when she makes you hate her, you can’t help but being transfixed. It takes some serious nerve to open a memoir with, “I loathe nostalgia.” Oh, realllllly. Well, then, we should have a great time going through your past together. “Nostalgia—imagine! I don’t believe in anything before penicillin.”
Vreeland is the crazy aunt prattling on at Thanksgiving dinner. She might not have anything to tell you, but damned if she’ll stop talking. Her whole book reads like it was written in a single go. And I mean that in the best of all possible ways.
“We both knew there weren’t any marble staircases west of the Mississippi in those days—let alone in Elsa’s father’s house. But that was Elsa—she was just putting on the ritz, keeping things up. Why say you were born in a hovel? Who wants to hear that?” The exaggeration and tone (and her response to her friend’s lies) tell you so much more about this woman that anything she actually says. And while that’s tricky to pull off in nonfiction (since you have to be all honest and everything), it’s hugely admirable in fiction.
If how you’re telling the reader something says more than what you’re telling the reader? Heaven. Because then you aren’t just a writer; you’re an artist. Or in the case of Vreeland, a nutball (not that these terms are by any means mutually exclusive).
I’d love recommendations from anyone who can think of writers with particularly strong voices. I’m always looking for more books to add to my reading list. Call me Sisyphus.