Saturday, August 28, 2010

Agents and dragons

Re-read that title again just to make sure you read it correctly, and not "agents are dragons" because that would be very, very wrong. More on dragons in a moment. A word on agents first.

Since I'm not at the querying stage, I have no personal experience with agents yet, though I am regularly terrified by the QueryShark and Slushpile Hell. But then I am also encouraged by the friendliness and helpfulness of agents - see this very interesting dialogue that occurred between four agents that accept YA/MG (Mary Kole, Anica Rissi, Joanna Volpe, Suzie Townsend) on WriteOnCon's live industry panel. They talked about "writing voice" and if I appear to be slightly obsessed about voice (or my lack thereof) it's only because agents appear to be obsessed with it too.

This obsession has led me to studying every book of fiction I pick up now, and trying to pick out the distinctive voice. In some novels (e.g. Diary of Wimpy Kid, or anything by Rick Riordan) you don't pick out the voice - it pretty much assaults you. In other books it's much more subtle and makes me feel like I'm on a treasure hunt.

So here's where the dragons come in. Yeah, I'm a sucker for dragons. About every fifth book I pick up has something to do with dragons. Right now I'm analyzing the Dragon of Trelian (upper MG), by Michelle Knudsen, for voice and any other writerly bits of craft I can glean.

Here's yet another book that alternates between two first person Point-of-Views, like Shiver and the Red Pyramid and several others I've read lately. Switching first person is apparently more acceptable these days, though you always see reviews from people who say this confused them because it was hard to tell as a new chapter begins who's POV you're in. If you are going to tackle two first person POVs you need two distinct voices to distinguish the characters. Perhaps more so than in third person where the more frequent use of names helps the reader distinguish the POV.

Here you've got Princess Meg and mage's apprentice Calen, both fourteen years old. It took me a while to find distinct examples of their voices. Maybe I'm too focused on the plot when I read it the first time- I could tell they had a different voice but I couldn't pinpoint the difference. Had to skim back through to find actual examples of it.

Just for fun, I've underlined parts of the following snippets that I think are distinctive voice. Do you agree, disagree?

Snippet #1
Something in his face must have reflected his thoughts. Meg stopped walking, her eyes wide and concerned. “Well, what? What is it, Calen?"
He shook his head. “I don’t really know.”
She poked a finger at him angrily. “Don’t do that,” she said. “You do too know, and you’re going to tell me.” She poked him again, harder. “Right now.”
Calen rubbed his chest. Did she always have to be so violent?
Meg, who is bossy and brash, uses short sentences often punctuated by aggressive motions.

Snippet #2
Calen backed away from the chair and resigned himself to leaning against a wall instead.
After a while, Serek looked up.
“What have I taught you about divination?” he asked.
“That it’s difficult, dangerous, not always reliable, and that I’ll learn more about it when and if you feel I’m old enough to handle it,” Calen said. “Why?”
Serek’s lips twitched slightly into what might have been a smirk. “I suppose I’ve just decided you’re old enough. Come here.”
Calen, who is analytical and careful, tends to string together several thoughts into long sentences.
Snippet #3
“What exactly are you doing?” Serek’s deep voice spoke suddenly from the doorway behind him.
“I am looking for that stupid – uh, for Lyrimon,” Calen said. “I know he’s in here. I can feel him watching me.”
One corner of Serek’s mouth turned up slightly. “Oh, he’s watching you, all right.” He jerked his chin toward the window. Calen whipped his head around to look. Lyrimon was sunning himself idly on the stone wall that ran through the yard. He was watching, though. Even from this distance, Calen could see the evil glint in the gyrcat’s eyes.
“How do you do that?” Calen asked plaintively.
“Do what?”
“Find him like that. You always know where he is. You can see him even when he’s practically invisible. Why won’t you teach me how to do it?”
“Now, what fun would that be?” Serek strode forward into the room.
Serek, Calen's master mage, is utterly devoid of emotion, except for the occasional sarcastic remark, and is characterized by abrupt, purposeful movements. (His gyrcat, though it never says a word, is such a distinct character he almost has a "voice" too). Highly recommend this book for many reasons, but Serek is a big one - I think he has potential to be one of the great fantasy mages, just a step below Gandalf and Dumbledore.

After a while I started to see distinct examples of the author's voice, too - in the descriptive parts.

Snippet #4
Calen was perched on the edge of a table. The chair across from the mage was occupied by Lyrimon, and Calen was too tired to fight him for it. As they talked, Calen fished black olives out of a jar and ate them. He had never cared much for olives, but he was so famished that he would have eaten almost anything at this point, and all Serek seemed to have on hand was jar after jar of olives. Perhaps, once he’d finished the current jar, he’d try some of the green ones.

At this point, if you are still reading yet another one of my idiotically long posts (will I NEVER learn?), you may be wondering where in the world the dragon is in this book.

I wondered the same thing. The dragon doesn't have a big role, most likely because he doesn't speak at all, though he is unique enough to be very pleasing. He shows up in odd spots just often enough to keep you wondering about him.

Another snippet that isn't so much about voice, as world-building and beautiful description. The mages in this story are marked on their faces (I kind of envisioned them like the marks/tattoos on the Romulans' faces in the 2009 Star Trek movie. Oops, just revealed that I'm a trekkie).  The marks end up being crucial to the story's plot, which was kind of cool:
“May I ask – is an appointment such as this one, an honor like this – is it recorded in your marks? Forgive me, but I’ve never understood the full scope of what a mage’s marks include.”

That was an interesting question. Meg had wondered about the same thing herself. Calen’s face was barely marked, just a few lines and small shapes under his left eye, but Serek had delicate black lines spiraling across both sides of his face, with tiny symbols and dots of color worked into the design at various points.
Serek shook his head. ‘No.” For the first time, Meg thought she detected the barest touch of emotion in his voice. “No, the marks are given for years of study, fields of expertise, and accomplishments of that nature, Sen Eva. A mage may serve many masters in his lifetime, but it is the work and the study of magic that defines his life and purpose. Those are the things that set him apart from others, and the reason why no mage may go unmarked, as they show what he is capable of.”
And because I've already violated the rule of short posts beyond repair, and because I loved this book, one last snippet full of voice:

Calen had never been to a wedding before. Of course, he guessed that even if he had, it wouldn’t have been anything like this one. At first it had all seemed rather boring. There was a lot of watching the members of the different families standing around repeating things back and forth to each other, and about a hundred different people got up to read long passages from various books, and then there were songs, and then possibly some other part he missed because he dozed off, but then finally people were shouting and cheering and he woke in time to watch Prince Ryant lean forward to kiss Princess Maerlie in full view of every living person that had been crowded into the enormous grand hall. Calen wondered if the Prince was nervous. He’d certainly be nervous if he had to kiss a girl in front of an audience! Well, he’d probably be nervous about kissing a girl in any event, he supposed. But the audience would make it even worse.
So, if you've managed to make it through this monstrosity of a post, what book have you read lately with a strong voice - and was it a particular character with a distinct voice, or was it the author's overall voice that was more apparent?


  1. You know, I'll have to think on this. It's been a whirlwind week and I am just now figuring out if I am coming or going:) Thanks for sharing!

  2. I have SO much work to do with four narrators. Yikes. The need for consistency, and what I need to craft it, is a little overwhelming. Margo, your blogs are so carefully planned, always informative and beautiful.

  3. Great post. Very informative and thoughtful. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Chapter headings might work too to assist the reader perhaps? I'm currently reading One Day by David Nicholls. There are two very powerful mc's here both with distinct voices and cleverly done mainly through dialogue.

    Also I'm reminded of Agatha Christie. She's able to weave so many characters into plot twists - she is ever omnipresent and the characters are there to fit the plot and yet she pulls her narrative off with such panache because the central crime is intriguing and fiendish enough.

    Yay for dragons!! :-)

    Take care

  5. Very thorough analysis. So thorough it needs re-reading.

  6. Scott Westerfield did an excellent job of voice in Leviathan - the 2 main characters are very distinct!

  7. Great analysis. At the beginning I was thinking, okay how do you read for voice in a story. You gave some good examples which helped explain. I'll probably have to reread it a couple times. Now you've gotten me thinking about rereading some stories and analyzing them. I tend to get wrapped up in the stories. Maybe I should start thinking about the why's.

  8. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan is an excellent study on voice and POV. The two characters have the same name but there is never any doubt which one you are reading.

  9. Kathy - thanks for the complement! - but my posts usually aren't very well planned. I just ramble on about whatever I'm learning in the writing world. I'm glad it appears well-planned to you!

    Old Kitty - I haven't heard of David Nicholls - will have to check it out. I devoured Agatha Christies when I was in high school, but I should revisit them again!

    Jemi - Leviathan is on my TBR list. Perhaps I'll bump it up!

    Robin - it's easy to get wrapped up in the stories while reading. I finally started dog-earring pages as I read (gasp! horrors! descretion of books!) and then going back and re-reading the parts that jumped out at me. Kind a funny, but QueryTracker just posted on this topic today, including the dog-earring thing!

    Elizabeth - I've heard alot about Will Grayson, too in regards to voice. Adding it to my TBR list. Those four agents listed a dozen books in their dialogue that I added, too. Perhaps I will develop voice by osmosis! - just kidding - I need to read less and write more.

  10. Um, MOCKINGJAY!!! Suzanne Collins is incredible. And Katniss' voice is loud and clear as is Suzanne's. Sigh.

  11. Love the analysis, Margo. And what do you mean about you lacking voice? I love your voice(s) in your book.

    I love the voices (ouch, talk about repitition) in PERFECT CHEMISTRY. It, too, is a dual pov (1st person) between a guy and a girl. The voices are very distinctive.

    In both SHIVER and PERFECT CHEMISTRY, every time the pov changes, the character's name is a heading at the top of the scene. If the authors' hadn't done that, I would be clueless for a while who's pov it's in because they are all in first person. I don't think it's necessary if the book is in third person.

  12. Definitely Red Pyramid had strong voice, but also Dark Life (I just finished reading - it came out in May). I think you are right that agents are looking for STRONG voice, but I don't think you always have to have a voice that beats you over the head. However, it must be distinctive. Not at all helpful, I know! :)

  13. This was fantastic Margo!!! I was just about to relate this topic to Shiver & Linger by Maggie Stiefvater, I didn't feel the difference between POV's, don't get me wrong, I loved the novels and thought they were great.

    However just like Stina without the names at the beginning of each change, I would have been utterly clueless as to who was talking!

  14. Lisa - I am starting Mockingjay tonight!YAY! Long, sad story about why it's taken me so long to get it. Amazon and I are no longer friends.

    Stina - just added Perfect Chemistry to my TBR list, too. Wow it sounds like a sizziler!

    Susan - agree - you can't have a voice that beats you over the head. Riordan's characters have strong voice but it's not overdone - which is why he's a bestseller! Just read your post on Dark Life. Sounds like yummy scifi. By the way, Red Pyramid had awesome chapter titles, but by writing the POV's vertically!!! instead of horiztonally, I was annoyed to no end. I cannot read vertically!

    Jen - bet you could tell which chapters were Isabel's though! She and Cole had stronger voices than Grace & Sam. Still, with no less than four POVs, I'd have been lost in Linger without the names at the beginning of the chapters.

  15. Excellent snippets!

    But I agree--voice is so important, especially in kid lit. It can carry a book with a poor plot, I think, better than a good plot can carry a book with flat characters.

    I think a book with really strong voice was PARNORMALCY by Kiersten White. It just jumped out at me. She did an amazing job with it.

  16. As an ex-journalist I've spent a lot of my career removing voice because I wasn't supposed to show any bias. It's tricky to get back into the habit now I'm trying to write some fiction.

    If you're a dragon lover you might like these:
    Eldritch loves visitors!

  17. I loved the voice in The Sky is Everywhere. The MC seemed mature for her age, but I never doubted that she was a teenager.

    In first person voice pops out at me more, while in third person I catch it through gestures and dialogue.

  18. E. Berg has a strong voice in her women's fiction. I love her style and could probably pick it out anywhere:)

  19. I personally love it when you give us examples of what you think works. This was so helpful, especially when you describe what you think works.

    And I'm so glad to find another dragon book! My daughter will love it in a couple years.

    Have a great night!



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