Thursday, October 29, 2009

Jim McCarthy on having a voice

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.


  1. Camus said, "No, it requires revolt." I guess we're all looking for a little revolution. You did a great job at the SCWW of putting on the face of Sisyphus during the sessions. Sorry for that. But according to the myth, isn't the struggle supposed to be enough?

  2. The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem is one of the books I've read in recent years that comes immediately to mind when someone says "voice".

    "Like a match struck in a darkened room:

    Two white girls in flannel nightgowns and red vinyl roller skates with white laces, tracing tentative circles on a cracked blue slate sidewalk at seven o'clock on an evening in July."

    This is the style of voice I love to read, but could never write.

  3. i adored this post.

    ...and I'm sending vodka. No note.

  4. That memoir sounds fabulous. And Amazon has it. Score.

    A couple of authors with very distinctive voices come to mind:

    Carl Hiaasen- anything he's written works, but Stormy Weather is one of my favorites. So wonderfully kitschy.

    Lisa See- particularly her family's memoir On Gold Mountain. Breathtaking.

    Maxine Hong Kingston- I first read her memoir A Woman Warrior in high school. It's been with me since, and I reread it every couple of years.

    Eoin Colfer- Artemis Fowl. 'Nuff said.

    Holly Black- No one else could have written her Modern Faerie Tale trilogy (Tithe, Valiant, Ironside).

    Daniel Handler- The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, or as Lemony Snickett- everything he writes is so uniquely his.

    You didn't ask for poetry, but Seamus Heaney fits the bill.

    Sarah Cross- her debut Dull Boy was rockin'.

    And then there's Lisa McMann and Carrie Ryan, whose books you probably and definitely have read. But they qualify, too.

    And also--alright. I could go on forever, so I'm going to quit. Happy reading!

  5. You are so dead-on with this post. Secret Life of Bees is one novel that strikes me as having a great voice.

    I was at that SCWW conference and in the romance/women's fiction slushfest. I didn't submit pages, but agreed that a strong voice was what was missing from several.

    Loved talking with you there. You'll be hearing from me, as soon as I'm certain my voice is damn straight.

  6. I just cracked open "Cheerful Money" and already, I am thoroughly entertained. Not only does it let you peek into an elite world from by-gone days, but it's replete with eccentric character fully rendered life by the author.

  7. I've been burning through Adriana Trigiani's books lately (Very Valentine; Lucia, Lucia; Big Stone Gap trilogy; etc.). Her voice has been rattling around in my head for weeks, it's so distinct.

  8. I just read "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak. He has an incredible and unique voice that filled me with envy. I dreaded the approach of the last page.

  9. Wow ... what a great critique idea! Wish I'd been there. You can learn so much from those two most important pages .... I may be strange but I'm all for knowledgeable critique!

  10. Thanks for all the recommendations, everyone! Tere, I totally agree with The Fortress of Solitude. Great stuff. And Craven, The Book Thief has been hanging out in my to-be-read pile for months. I really need to move it to the smaller must-read pile! And M, thanks for mentioning two agency clients--thrilled that you enjoy their work!


  11. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale. All about the voice and crafting and so well done. Both writers draw a unique main character (both boys, one a teen and one a child) whose lack of understanding creates both sympathy and empathy--which was surely the point.