An amazing voice is the number one “must-have” on every agent and editors list. So what is this odd and illusive thing known as voice? How do you find it? What does it sound like? Why is it so gosh darn important? Scholastic editor Jennifer Rees (The Hunger Games, Purge) spoke on this exact subject at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference. The following is her two cents on why you’ve got to have a knock-out voice and how to develop it.
The Importance of Voice…
- Voice is the most powerful and prized possession in a writer’s tool box.
- Voice is that amazing thing that taps you on the shoulder (the character) and asks you to come with them on a journey.
- Great voice is not reserved for fiction alone. It can also be in non-fiction.
What is Voice?
- When writing you are concerned about: What is the story? How do you tell it? What are you conveying? How do you maintain audience interest? Voice is what makes all of these things POWERFUL!
- Voice is what the author has in common with all of their books. Rees sees a good voice as a sign that the author will be able to write other great books too.
- Your voice is you. It is a reflection of you. And you must write the story that only you can write.
- You have a unique view of the world. Who is in your world and what do they have to say about it?
- Voice is the writer’s presence on the page. (About writing with voice by Tom Ramano)
- Voice is not concrete or tangible and yet it is the most important part of the book.
- Voice is the hook that gets us interested from page one. It determines the audience and points back to the author.
- Complete this sentence: When I was young in the…
- The way in which you complete that sentence tells us about your voice. Everyone will complete it differently.
Voice and Character:
- Voice is often talked about in the creation of your character. What is it the character notices? What is it that your character leaves out?
- Characters need flaws. But what is their surprise? What will keep them on their toes?
- In the book Purge it speaks to a specific topic (bulimia), it’s edgy, and the tension is high. There’s a lot going on in the book. But the surprise of the book is the humor. It’s a grim topic with a funny spin.
- A voice will change depending upon the audience for a comment. For example if you quit your job. The way you tell this story will be different if you are talking to your best friend or talking to a future employer.
- Character and voice are so interconnected! If the voice doesn’t work – is it fixable? It can point to a thin character. It might me a character that you (the writer) are not connecting with and thus the reader is not connecting with as well.
- The voice of the narrator is not necessarily the voice of the book. There is more to it.
What I Learned As a Bookseller about Voice…
- Rees spent years watching how customers would buy a book. Everyone will open the first page and decided if they will buy the book or not. That is the big ticket! This is stronger than the photos or back flap. It’s about the voice they see on the first page.
Common Pit-Falls in Voice:
- Teen Speak – don’t go overboard with your jargon. Jargon often has little or nothing to do with voice. Voice is only believable if the character would actually say it.
- Uneven Voice – When you are not sure how to say something. The voice seems to wobble. Strong voice plunges forward despite knowing where one is going, or how to say it.
- Describing everything – use of excessive language and detail bout almost everything is a problem. Choose what is interesting about the specific place.
- Lack of Voice in your Query – you want to infuse your query and synopsis with personality! Otherwise it is boring.
On Developing Your Voice:
- Be fearless with language. Write about what you are emotionally moved by!
- Say the rude-truth. Don’t be afraid.
- The choice between first and third person are a personal preference, and reflects the type of story you are telling. First person tends to be easier to start with when you begin writing.
- When you find your voice! Send it to me! (Rees)
Specific Books Discussed in Rees’ Presentation:
- Clementine by Sara Pennypacker
- Wish I Might and Sunny Holiday by Coleen Murtagh Paratore
- When I was Young In the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant
- The Hunger Games by Susanne Collins
- Purge by Sarah Darer Littman
- Finally by Wendy Mass
- Owen and Mzee by Craig Hatkoff
About Jennifer Rees and What She Looks for in a Submission:
- Voice is the #1 thing that Rees responds to in book submissions.
- Hook me on the first page with an unstoppable voice!
- The voice of Katniss (The Hunger Games) was so powerful that Rees missed 3 subways and a bus while reading the submission.
- Rees will read a submission until she gets bored and then stop.
- She loves the work of Anne Lamott
- Beware of “voice copies.” She gets a lot of these in her submissions. These are books that are copying the voice of another book on her list. This happened with the book Clementine. (Clementine is also one of her favorite books – ever!)
- Rees has readers who go through her submissions.
- She is looking for literary books! If you have one, send it to her!
- The new book Purge by Sarah Derra Litman is one she is really excited about.
- Rees does not work on series books.
- If you want to query her you can send your submission to 557 Broadway, NY NY 10012. Write SCBWILA10 on it and mention that you were at her session. Just sent a query letter! If she requests the book then send a cover letter with the manuscript and include a SASE.
- DO NOT CALL HER!
- If you are an author/illustrator she likes to see a book dummy.
- Feel free to send a SASE Postcard if you would like to know she got your submission.
- Great non-fiction book that she likes is Chasing Lincolns Killer
- Looking for: out of the box fantasy, and middle grade boy books.
The Difference Between Scholastic and Scholastic Press:
- Scholastic publishes books like Harry Potter, Clifford, 39 Clues, The Magic School Bus. I didn’t work on any of those!
- Scholastic press is the literary side of Scholastic. We publish things like: The Invention of Hugo Caberet, Rules, Drum Girls Dang Pies, and Mt. Anderson.
- Out of the Dust was a book that really influenced Rees and Scholastic Press published it (before she was there.)
Books Jennifer Rees has Edited:
- Picture Books: Chicken and Cat by Sara Varon, Swim! Swim! By Lerch, Winter’s Tail: How One Little Dolphin Learned to Swim Again by Craig Hatkoff, and Jibberwillies at Night by Rachel Vail.
- Middle Grade: Sunny Holiday and Sweet and Sunny by Coleen Murtagh Paratore, Forget Me Not and Wish I Might by Coleen Murtagh Paratore, 11 Birthdays and Finally by Wendy Mass, Elvis and Olive by Stephanie Watson, and Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson.
- Young Adult: Sellout by Ebony Joy Wilkins, Purge and Life After by Sarah Darer Littman, After Ever After by Jordan Sonnenblick, Everlasting by Angie Frazier, Forever Crumb by Philip Reeve, and The Hunger Games trilogy by Susanne Collins.
Learn More about Rees at:
- Jennifer Rees also participated in the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference Editors Panel. Read detailed notes from that presentation here: From My House to Your House – Four Editors Discuss Why They Choose Your Book.
Jennifer Rees got her start in children’s books as a children’s bookseller in Ohio. Since then, she’s found great joy in working as an editor at Scholastic Press, where she acquires and edits fiction and nonfiction picture books, middle grade, and young adult novels. A sampling of projects she’s edited include The Hunger Games Series, Winter’s Tail, 11 Birthdays, Purge, and Girls and Dangerous Pie.