What do the Best Literary Agents with the Top Literary Agencies mean when they pass on a book and cite the “voice” as one of the reasons, or the main reason, for the rejection? It can happen to both fiction and nonfiction authors, though “voice rejections” are more prevalent for fiction writers. That’s because what makes a good or desirable voice in fiction is more subjective than it is for nonfiction. Unless you’re writing memoir, since a good memoir should read like a novel. But, if you’re writing any other type of nonfiction book, such as a self-help book or a cookbook, agents are less likely to complain about your voice.
How to Interpret Literary Agent Comments and Rejections about Not Connecting Enough with Your “Voice”
What do agents mean when they complain about not being drawn in enough by your voice? And what, if anything, can you do about such comments to increase your Odds of Getting a Literary Agent?
Here are some examples:
- “While your story is interesting and well-written, unfortunately, I didn’t connect with the voice as strongly as I had hoped.”
- “I was really drawn into the premise of your story by the opening hook. However, the narrative voice wasn’t pulling me in as much as I expected, and I must unfortunately pass on this project.”
- “I took a quick look and, while I see the potential with the plot, I’m afraid I wasn’t as drawn in enough by the voice.”
What do those literary agent rejections due to the “voice” actually mean, and how should you interpret similar comments if you receive them?
I’ve seen a lot of successful people in the publishing industry write about this topic, but not in a way that’s comprehensive (in large part because it’s a slippery subject that’s hard to pin down in clear terms).
So, I thought I’d take a shot at it.
I won’t say this article is definitive, but it’s certainly more so than any other I’ve seen.
What is “Voice” in Writing? — Literary Agent Rejections
The first thing to consider when you get a voice comment is that the literary agent providing the comment probably isn’t referring to your content; and, if you’re writing fiction or memoir, they’re probably not referring to your story premise or plot.
They’re probably talking about your “style.”
Based on my experience…
They might be referring to one or two different things.
So, if you get a voice comment, ask yourself if you believe the agent is referring to voice of the author or the voice of one or more of the characters, usually the main character (the latter only applies to fiction and memoir).
The Voice of the Author — Literary Agents Not Connecting
Option number one is that the agent isn’t in love with one or more of the following: how you’ve constructed your sentences, including their length and/or length variation; your vocabulary; how your sentences, paragraphs, and pacing feel and flow together; the sense of place you create; how light or serious everything is; your overall storytelling style; your worldbuilding; how “commercial” or “literary” the writing is; the age appropriateness of your book for the target market; whether you convey things uniquely or not (some care about this more than others); how you use humor, if you use humor; your tone as a narrator; how you think and what you believe as a human being, as perceived by the agent after reading your pages; etc.
And, if you’re writing nonfiction (including memoir), ask yourself if you’re likable, credible, believable, and relatable enough as an author. It’s not a personality contest, exactly, but the “personality” of an author can have a big impact on reader reactions. Not every writer or book needs to be or do all the above, but those are some of the reasons that agents are sometimes drawn to some authors and books, and shy away from others.
When agents say it’s subjective, they mean it.
The Voice of s Character(s) — Literary Agents Not Connecting
Option number two applies mostly to fiction authors, and, sometimes, to memoir authors, and it’s when the agent isn’t in love with one or more of the important characters in your book. For example, ask yourself if your main character(s) as likable, believable, relatable, and as complex as they could or “should” be. This is typically an easier fix than the previously mentioned “voice of the author” issues. That’s because it just requires you to tweak, add, or remove some things related to what a character is saying, thinking, and/or doing. If your novel is written in first person, you’ll likely have more editing to do, however, because the voice of your character(s) will be more prevalent.
In Conclusion — Literary Agents and “Voice”
Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, do your best to make the voice in your manuscript consistent. Don’t jump to conclusions when an agent makes a vague voice comment like those I posted at the beginning of this article. And, if an agent cites “voice” as a reason for passing on your project, there’s no harm in asking them politely if they’re willing and/or able to share one or two particulars about what, exactly, they mean, because the word voice can mean many things to many people.
Lastly, remember it’s impossible to please everyone. Every author I’ve helped to get a literary agent and/or book deal from a traditional publisher during my career as a literary agent, and (now) as an author coach (there have been hundreds) has gotten lots of rejections. Every author who makes it must go deal with it. So, just because an agent isn’t “feeling it” enough to go all the way with you doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with your voice.
It might just mean you need to keep querying.
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