The “It” Factor

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My wife and I are addicted to “The Voice.” I’ve been a Blake Shelton fan forever, and I love the blind audition portion of the show, when the judges have to make their initial decisions based on a singer’s voice, not their look, age or size. As an old fay guy, I find this appealing. Of course, every subsequent round they watch the performance so things like appearance and stage presence do count, but they count in real life, too. Every once in a while, along will come a performer that just has “it.” You know what I’m talking about, they’re going to be a star. “It” is almost indefinable, but it’s that little spark, that something that separates that singer from the herd. Maybe they look different but have the chops to back it up. Maybe they’re just so damn charming onstage and off that you can’t help but adore them (Jake Worthington leaps to mind). I can’t always put my finger on it, but every once in a while a talent will come across that makes you say “that person is going to make it.” 

The same thing happens in writing. At Concarolinas a couple of weeks ago (obligatory blurb about how awesome it was to see everyone) I sat in on a panel about what editors are tired of seeing. It was Ed Schubert, Emily Lavin Leverett (my co-editor on the Big Bad series) and me. After the perennial gripes about submission guidelines and don’t kill puppies, I finally said the thing I’ve been saying on panels for a little while now. It’s not what people want to hear, but it’s the truth. I thought it was important enough for the panel, and I think it’s important enough to say again here, and I’ll probably say it at some point next month at ConGregate. 

It’s all about voice. I’ll be honest with you, you can send me a story on the back of a cocktail napkin that’s a thousand words too long and about cliched characters that I’m tired of reading about and can usually tell their stories with my eyes closed, and if your voice is amazing, I’ll publish it. You can rewrite your laundry list in narrative fiction form, and if you have an amazing voice, it will sell. The biggest thing I see missing from manuscripts I look over for friends and critique groups is voice – there’s just no “there” there. 

When explaining voice to my wife the other day, I said that voice is the dialogue that tells me Joss Whedon wrote this movie even if I didn’t know it already. Voice is what tells me that’s Carls Santana playing guitar behind Michelle Branch’s vocals. Voice is what takes a piece and makes it stand out in the middle of a crowd of beige wearing pink polka dots and dance the friggin’ macarena. 

It’s all about voice. If you think your stuff sounds like somebody else, then it does. So go find your own voice. If you think your work feels lifeless and flat, then it probably does. So go find your voice. If you keep getting notes about “punch up this part here,” then your voice is weak. Perfect it. 

Stephen King says you have to write a million shitty words to get to the good ones. Malcolm Gladwell (who if you haven’t read every book the man has ever written then you are almost hopelessly behind the cultural decision-makers of our time) says it takes ten thousand hours of practice to get good at something. It takes years to find your voice. Years of writing. Not taking classes, not thinking about writing, not editing, not revising, but writing. You need to spend years vomiting all over the internet or the page or the bathroom walls or whatever, but you need to find your voice. Or voices, because Jim Butcher proved to me that a writer can have more than one. 

So go find your voice. I found mine by blogging for years before I ever tried fiction. I just puked it up onto the interwebs and threw it out there for the world to see. Your mileage may vary as far as that goes. But you must find and cultivate your voice, and then you must trumpet it from the mountaintops. Otherwise you’re just going to get lost in the crowd. 

Here are some folks I love right now for their narrative voice, none of whom are here on this site regularly (not that the MW regulars don’t have great voice, but I expect you to be familiar with their work and this is intended to broaden your horizons a little). 

Chuck Wendig

Chuck Palahniuk 

Mira Grant

Alex Bledsoe

Warren Ellis

Tonia Brown

S. H. Roddey

Kate Locke

This isn’t intended as an exhaustive list, this is just some folks who I find to have voice for days. Wendig, in particular, is chock-full of voice. His style and voice aren’t for everyone, but that’s the best thing – a polarizing voice is by its nature unique, and that’s always better than a homogenized, edited bloodless novel with all the voice, and life, taken out of it. 

So go read something, and before you send out the next thing – look at it for voice. Does it stand out from the crowd? If not, keep writing. You’ll get there. 

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10 comments to The “It” Factor

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Oiy. Just oiy. (which, by the way, I wish I knew how to spell properly)

    I feel like I don’t have the oomph for voice. On the other hand, one of my major goals for my writing is, for lack of a more appropriate word, trustworthiness. I want the reader not to stumble over the writing, not to worry that they’re missing portions of what I’m trying to convey or that a particular passage isn’t necessary-for or an-interesting-part-of the story. I want them to be *in* the story, to talk back to the characters (my husband did this once, and it’s still the best writing complement I’ve ever received :-D). So, that’s my “voice” goal for the moment; who knows yet if it’s sufficient.

  • This entry stings like a worn-out metaphor that I can’t bring myself to type. But in a good way, like some other metaphor about character being built in a fire.

    I’m currently watching the show ‘Chuck.’ I know it’s been around for years, but I’m a little behind as far as pop-culture is concerned. The thing that really impresses me about the show is that it works with a cast of basic, stock characters that we’ve all seen a thousand times. I root for them and between episodes I sit around wondering if they will be happy in their relationships or succeed at their goals. With the right writing it doesn’t matter how recycled a plot is.

  • I just bought Tonia Brown’s “Railroad” last weekend! :)

  • I love it when I find an author whose voice ‘sings’ to me. I am able to slide into their world instantly and completely!

  • kmzone

    I had to take a few years off from writing, which was sad bc my short stories and poems started to get published in 2010. I have finally gotten situated enough to get back on the wagon and have been wondering about starting a blog again. This is a fantastic post to come back to, and inspiring also. Thanks to you John!

  • Olga Godim

    John, you say “if your voice is amazing, I’ll publish it.” That statement has two components. One – a writer has a voice. Two – you as an editor like that voice. If a writer has a voice but you don’t like it, no matter how good a story is or how original the characters are, it doesn’t work. There should be a very personal, very subjective fit between an editor/publisher and a writer. Otherwise, no publication.
    I encountered such a situation with one of my novels. One editor hated it, to the point that the publisher terminated my contract. Another editor from another publisher loved it, so it was published.
    I would recommend to the writers not only to work tirelessly to find their voices (it goes without saying) but also to look for an editor/publisher who resonates with their voices.

  • As a writer of suspense novels, I strive to make my voice disappear. I don’t want the reader to be conscious of me feeding them words. I just want the meal to go down smoothly. Having just finished The Goldfinch, I can say Donna Tartt achieved that for me as a reader. Rarely did I have to stop to think about the meaning of a word, although I did have to use Google to translate the Dutch into English. So voice can be a negative if it interferes with the story, or am I wrong?

  • Razziecat

    This is one of those things that I don’t think about too much, because it can’t be faked. You kind of have to let it develop. My voice changes depending on whether I’m writing space opera or fantasy. I’ve no idea if I’ve ever reached a million words (although if feels like it), but things are starting to gel in a way they didn’t before. I’ve been transcribing an old story from longhand into the computer, and the difference between then and now is very obvious, not just in writing quality but in the voice as well. It will need to be mostly re-written if I want to make anything out of it. I’ll have to check out the authors you mentioned (already know Jim Butcher, who is totally amazing!)

  • quillet

    I definitely find that voice is really important for me as a reader. If a writer has “it,” I’ll stay with her/him and forgive a lot. Not everything, but a lot. It’s very subjective, though. Voices I think are fantastic, other people sometimes find meh, and vice versa.

    Speaking of which, I agree with you that Chuck Wendig has a fantastic voice. He’s definitely NSFW, but he plays with language with Shakespearean glee. (No, I don’t mean he says thee and thou a lot. I mean he’s really inventive. 😉 ) Anyway, I think he’s awesome with extra awesomesauce, so I’ll definitely have to check out the other names on that list!

    As a writer, though, I’m wondering how to have “it.” I’m pretty sure it has to do with being authentic, truly yourself, writing with passion and not with artifice or pretension…words, words, words, play with your words…and somehow doing all this without getting in the way of the story… Is that sort of it? “It?”

  • Just saw the perfect example of voice: Dr. Seuss.
    Man reinvented children’s literature with his voice. Not everyone’s voice is that powerful, but entire genres have been invented with voice. Urban Fantasy exists thanks to people with strong voices.