Craft, Story, and Voice

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Writers often ask me what makes a project stand out to an agent—what makes us immediately want to say “yes” to representation? Today I want to identify three elements that are immediately apparent when we read and evaluate your work, and they make the difference between yes and no.

 

Craft.
. . . . .Story.
. . . . . . . . . . Voice.

Of course, the elements are intertwined, but it’s helpful to artificially separate them in order to understand why a book is either working—or not.

Craft refers to the mechanics of writing: plot, characterization, dialogue, pacing, flow, scene-crafting, dramatic structure, point-of-view, etc. I think craft is pretty easy to teach and it’s easy to learn. It’s technique, the foundation upon which writers use their artistic skill to build their story. Knowing the mechanics of craft enables you to use it to create the effect you want.

Story refers to the page-turning factor: how compelling is your story, how unique or original, does it connect with the reader, is there a certain spark that makes it jump off the page? Is it sufficiently suspenseful or romantic (as appropriate)? Does it open with a scene that intrigues and makes the reader want to know more? Story comes from the imagination of the writer and is much more difficult to teach than craft (if it can be taught at all).

Voice is the expression of you on the page—your originality and the courage to express it. Voice is what you develop when you practice what we talked about yesterday—writing what you know. It’s the unfettered, non-derivative, unique conglomeration of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes, coming through in every word you write.

Without a doubt, whenever I read a new manuscript and fall in love with it, the deciding factor most of the time is the voice. This is true even in non-fiction.

So how do you find your voice? You can’t learn it. You can’t copy it. Voice isn’t a matter of studying. You have to find it. And the way to do that is by writing, and experimenting, and seeing what kind of response you get from others, and writing some more. And some more.

Putting it All Together

I receive numerous projects that show strong technique, but no originality or heart. In a way, this is good because it shows that writers are paying attention to their craft. They’re taking the time and making the effort to learn to write, which is fantastic. But some of them lack a strong story, and others don’t have a compelling or unique voice. These writers just need to keep working on it.

I think some writers find craft easier, and others find story comes more naturally. A few writers have a strong voice right out of the box; most writers have to work for years to develop one.

When you read published books that don’t seem to “follow the rules” of craft that you’ve worked so hard to learn, instead of getting mad and throwing the book across the room, try to determine if maybe that book got published because of the story, rather than technical perfection. Ask yourself whether the author has a pleasing or compelling voice that makes you want to read, despite technical imperfection.

If your storytelling and/or the voice is powerful enough, readers will forgive an awful lot of flaws in technique… and so will agents and editors. On the other hand, all the perfect “craft” in the world can’t make an unimaginative book shine.

If editors and agents are looking at your samples and immediately criticizing your craft, be aware this means they aren’t able to see a fabulous story in there and they’re probably not compelled by your voice. Either it doesn’t exist to begin with, or it’s camouflaged by your lack of expertise in fiction technique.

So craft, story and voice all work together to create a winning work of fiction. Of the three, story and voice are my primary considerations when searching for new writers.

Q4U: Which is harder for you? Craft, story, or voice?

47 Responses

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  1. Excellent three elements. At first craft was the biggest challenge, because I didn’t know it. But as you said, it’s easily taught and learned.

    The story has always been easy – I’ve got piles of them waiting to get out. I hope to live long enough to get them all on paper.

    Voice is now the most difficult, but I find the more I write the more natural the writing is. As you wrote, “[i]t’s the unfettered, non-derivative, unique conglomeration of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes, coming through in every word you write.”

    It’s YOU, not you trying to be something or someone else.

    • Dutch665 says:

      I’ve read a lot of books that do not have full mastery of the craft portion of writing, but the authors are very successful writers with good story and voice. I think Rachel’s comments are right on.

  2. Tiffani says:

    This was a wonderful post. Regarding voice, I find myself naturally writing my stories in first person. I do not feel naturally in a third person point of view. However, I have been told that agents and editors very much appreciate that third person perspective. I like to dig deep into a character’s mind and look out at the world through their eyes. It is what often draws me deeper into a story. I wrote my first novel this way and did not have any complaints from this perspective, but that was several years ago and I am being told now that third person is the only way to write a novel. It is a historical romance set in WWII.

    • Hi Tiffani!

      I understand your preference with the first person POV. I feel it is my natural writing voice too. I would be interested to know if agents do prefer third person.

      It’s also neat that you have written a WWII historical romance…because so have I! That’s so cool. Is it your first completed manuscript? It is mine.

      • Tiffani says:

        Morgan,

        I have found an a like mind:) No, this is not my first manuscript. I think it is my fourth. I published a novel in 2007, Budapest, through my own small press, and it was featured at the NY Book Festival and a couple of other places. I wrote it, mostly, just to prove to myself that I could. But now I am seeking publication from another publisher. This is the first book in a series. How far are you into your manuscript? Are you done and do you have plans for more?:)

        God bless,

        Tiffani

      • Tiffani says:

        Forgive my horrible grammar! I was using my iPad. It does what it wants.

  3. Bonnie Doran says:

    Thanks for the post, Rachelle! Of the three, story is the hardest for me. So many elements get intertwined. If I eliminate a POV character, that will change scenes, dialogue, subplot, and a host of other things. Bottom line, though, is will it improve the story? I intend to find out.

  4. Jenn Pineo says:

    I’ve always viewed craft through the eyes of a reader. It helps to constantly think, “If I was reading this, would I want to know more about this character.”

    Story just comes to me. It helps having a good sounding board of friends. I’m known to often say “What if…..” when talking about my story line. Getting their reactions help me gage what will work and won’t. I think being an avid reader, has helped greatly with story.

    For me, voice isn’t so much my voice as the voice of my character. The more time I spend with my character (ie. thinking about them, doing character development and working on story), the louder I can hear their voice. I start to write when their voice gets so loud that I cannot ignore it.

    For me, the hardest part is grammer. The “semi-colon versus comma” type of things. I get so lost in the other parts that I forget to place a comma where it goes. I’ve had several agents praise my story, characters and ability to generate emotions. I just need an editor. I’ve even been told to re-submit to them once it’s been edited. It’s encouraging but also intimidating. Where does are girl in nowhere Oklahoma start looking to find an editor? How do you know who to trust? What’s the process?

    Maybe that would be a good blog for you. I would think most first-time authors, know very few people in the business. I would love to hear an agents input on the investment of paying for an editor.

    Thank you,

    Jenn Pineo

    • I HIGHLY recommend Christina Berry. She took my first 15 pages and after a kick in the pants, which I needed, taught me ALOT. Go to http://www.christinaberry.net and check things out.

      Oklahoma, you say? I just spent some time there, in Oklahoma City/Bethany. I miss Braum’s!! And Hobby Lobby. But not the heat. OY! It was brutal!

      • Oh Braum’s! The thing I miss most about Oklahoma. Although it’s a good thing that I don’t have one near me. Health-wise and weight-wise I’m better off living 900 miles away from the nearest Braum’s. And Dairy Queen? Sorry, no comparison!

    • Iola says:

      Rachelle has a list of editors on her pages, many of whom are US published authors. There is also a list on http://evenbeforepublishing.com/editors.html (an Australian Christian publisher). Some authors thank their editors in the credits, but I don’t know how many of these are publishing company employees vs. freelance fiction editors.

      Most freelance editors work via email – you send them the Word file, they respond using Track Changes, so physical location is pretty irrelevant.

      I would recommend you use a specialist fiction editor (not a non-fiction editor), and someone with experience in Christian fiction.

  5. Jeanne T says:

    I like how you describe these three elements of fiction writing. 🙂 Of the three, I think voice is the one I’m still developing. I’ve gone to some wonderful writing retreats which have taught me a lot about craft and story. Now, to write, write, write and develop that voice. 🙂

  6. Dale Rogers says:

    Rachelle, thank you for separating the components of a novel and helping us to understand each one.
    Technique is definitely my strongest, since my mother taught high school English for ten years, which means she taught me to work on grammar, sentence structure, etc. Story is probably the hardest for me, since I’ve been on my own with that, and it’s not that easy to teach.

  7. Sarah Thomas says:

    My biggest challenge was thinking that craft would be as instinctive as story or voice. Um. It’s not. I’ve never been much of an instruction reader (ask my husband!), but there are instances when learning HOW to do something is well worth the investment. Plus, learning craft allows story and voice to just shine!

  8. Great post, and timely, too. Lately I’ve had a few rejections from partial requests from agents, one in particular saying she thought my story was fresh and had a unique perspective, but that she “didn’t connect with the voice” the way she’d hoped. I’ve heard this a few times, despite really (I think) improving the voice and being more comfortable with it after the last few rewrites/revisions. I thought I’d come a long way in this department, but not sure whether to take these agents’ statements as *they* don’t like the voice, or the voice is just nowhere near good enough for anyone. The last one said to keep querying, so I don’t know if this is taste or all-around bad news. But I love how you boiled down the 3 things that make agents say yes! Great to know.

  9. For me, I would have to say craft has been the toughest row to hoe. I spent a good part of the early summer devouring craft books and re-writing my POV to be more market/agent/reader friendly.
    It’s amazing what toiling over each and every page can do for one’s word count and POV. And it can ratchet up the “What loser wrote this?” factor, which is only slightly less groan inducing than “in which country did you lern to spel?”
    I’m fairly certain my voice is good, since I’ve been told over and over that it’s good.

    My story is quite far from Amish time travellers who slay vampires in the sparkley forests of planet Whatever.
    I didn’t choose my story, it seems to have chosen me. It’s not something I’ve ever encountered in fiction, let alone in non-fiction. I think it will do well, once it gets past the gate keepers.
    😉

    • A story that has chosen you, like a wand from Harry Potter, sounds like a good sign to me. At the same time, you have put a good deal of time into research and you have a passion for what you are writing. Those should help make your story sparkle.

      • Thanks Christine!
        I LOVED doing the research, it was so much fun.
        I’ve gone back and added little tiny details to the MS. Like the kinds of blankets woven by the hero’s late wife. I mentioned “chief blankets” when he’s talking about the kinds of things she wove. And Babbitt’s in Flagstaff, which was a huge mercantile in the era of the story. Once I get home and have access to my photos, I’m going to add a blurb about barbed wire. I know those details aren’t critical to the story itself, but it adds a layer to the storyworld that wasn’t there before.

      • Very cool! And those details, though not essential to the story, will be important to those who are familiar with them and will reinforce your story’s authenticity.

    • Jeanne T says:

      I love that thought too, about your story choosing you. It sounds like a great one–especially since it doesn’t take place on a planet with sparkly forests. 🙂 Love hearing your enthusiasm after your trip. 🙂

  10. Lynne Hartke says:

    I am emailing this link to several of my writer’s friends. Excellent blog with great advice. As a new writer, I am working on everything! I started a blog to work on voice. I’m taking writing classes to learn craft. I’ve started a novel to work on story.

  11. Story seems to be the hardest part for me–at least, coming up with an original hook. I’m newer to fiction writing, so I’ve been devouring craft books the last year, and those have helped a lot. Blogging has definitely helped me to find my voice, so I think I’m pretty good on that.

    I’m planning to attend ACFW and the My Book Therapy Storycrafters Retreat this fall to focus specifically on plot and structure of story.

  12. Roger Floyd says:

    Story has always been the hardest for me. I’ve learned the craft, and voice seemed to come along with the craft after years of writing and practice. But coming up with a good story has always been difficult. Especially the endings; those are the hardest. I’m in awe of those who have stories just lying around waiting to be told, I wish I did. Thanks for the utilitarian post.

  13. kandie says:

    Great post. Still learning my voice and always developing the craft. Stories…pour out of me, it’s putting all those elements together into a final product that keeps me humble! LOL

  14. Tonya says:

    Right now, I feel like it’s story and craft for me that I need to work on.

  15. Thank you, Rachelle, for being specific about what elements will sell a story to an agent. I think that there is a parallel here with music. A person can learn how to play an instrument with technical perfection, but that person is playing notes, not necessarily playing music. Someone else may make a technical mistake here and there, but if her playing moves the listeners’ souls, they won’t care about the mistakes, if they even notice them.

    I think craft is the hardest for me, even though I have a degree in writing. People tell me that they love my stories and usually my narrative voice. I struggle with pacing and with feeling confident about what scenes to eliminate and with outling the story arc.

  16. I love this… craft, story, voice. I’ll take those as my marching orders!

    I have a question about how the CBA works: is there a place for a powerful or compelling mission?

    In other words, is craft, story, and voice enough for most Christian publishers? Will they pass on excellent craft, story, and voice if there is little or no redeeming purpose, or little contribution to a Christian worldview? I guess I’m wondering how much Christian publishers (and other professionals) lean into the Great Commission as their core. Will a compelling call to mission or contribution to the Christian worldview overcome deficiencies in craft, story, and voice?

    Thanks for the insights.

    • Larry says:

      Rachelle says she sometimes makes blog topics from questions blog posters leave, and this seems like one which deserves that sorta more in-depth response.

      Though as much as I may contribute by replying, I shall:

      From what I gather, the CBA has some pretty strict rules regarding content. So, for example, if your fiction has great craft, story, and voice, yet has characters with verbose vulgarity, or are realistically depicted in their Fallen state (including detailed or even implied choices / behavior resulting from or leading to such a state), then you might want to find another market for your work.

      (Though this obviously leaves implied, “Then what is the purpose of a Christian literary culture which merely preaches to the choir?”, like I said prior, there are some questions which need a much, much more in-depth reply, as they are also part of the changes we are seeing as a result of factors such as the e-reader revolution, etc.)

      Though I think Rachelle has a recent post regarding content in the CBA, and where some others offered good insight as well. If I find it, I’ll try to post a link.

    • Iola says:

      “Will a compelling call to mission or contribution to the Christian worldview overcome deficiencies in craft, story, and voice?”

      I’m not Rachelle, but my thought is that the answer to your question is “no”.

      Not because mission is not important, but because many authors with excellent craft, interesting stories and distinct voices are already writing books with a redeeming purpose. There is so much competition for publication that a story will have to meet a high minimum standard in terms of craft, story and voice before the mission aspect becomes the deciding factor.

  17. Michelle Lim says:

    Fabulous advice, Rachelle! I’m still learning the balance of it all and maintaining my voice at the same time. I love how you said that an uncompelling story will draw the eye to the craft technique flaws. Helpful thought.

  18. Josh C. says:

    Craft for me, definitely. I tend to wander in narrative parts and go off on tangents. Get preachy, even. I have a buddy that used to review books for a local periodical who has read most of my stuff, and the stories almost always come back to me with great swaths of them marked over in red ink with notes like “Who made you God? Get off Horeb and tell the story already!” He says there’s nothing “technically wrong” with my writing, but no one’s going to want to read great big, undigestible chunks of my pontifications. I bog them down with “reflections on morality, life and death, that kind of thing.” I used that exact verbiage in defense of a big section he told me to cut entirely. Yeah, it didn’t convince him, either.

  19. Keli Gwyn says:

    Voice is the most elusive element for me. I can study craft and story-telling techniques, but voice isn’t something that can be taught.

    I like to say that I didn’t find my voice; it found me. I did my part by learning craft, working on story, and pouring words on the page. In the process my voice emerged. Had I gone in search of it, I might have missed it, because it wasn’t what I was expecting. Gotta love a nice surprise like that. =)

  20. Larry says:

    “….all the perfect “craft” in the world can’t make an unimaginative book shine.”

    Then why do they get published? 🙂

    I don’t mean to be contrite….there are many books where I’ll go, “Hmmm, this is an interesting idea,” but beyond it being a fun thought-experiment / idea, it simply does not hold up for several hundred pages. (And that is even disregarding the often dull nature of the prose itself).

    (This is all probably sounding a bit snobby, but I’m sure WE ALL have had experiences with books like that.)

    Since the topic was on objective criteria of ability, (bad prose is bad prose, junk stories are junk stories….not that we can’t get enjoyment out of them, but ususally we do recognize they are objectively not up to quality by calling such things “guilty pleasures”), I was wondering how agents, writers, and readers balance that with subjective matters of taste.

    For example, John Cheever is objectively a great writer, but there are those who choose not to read him, agents who turned him down, and writers who do not write like him. So I am wondering, what does this balance say about our industry and ourselves?

    (And yes, I’m quite aware of the irony considering what I wrote in response to an earlier post on the finer points of in-depth Q&A 🙂 )

    • Jeanne Berry says:

      I agree. In my recent reading list, I finished Stephen King’s “11/22/63” in four days (849 pages) because it hit all three points dead on: excellent crafting, riveting story, easy-to-read voice.

      Then I read two paperback “theme” mysteries, both parts of series. The first I found quite entertaining and will be reading further.

      The second? It’s the debut in a new series by an author who has several series under her belt, which surprises me. I keep getting tripped up. By the sentence structure. Which tends to be truncated like this. Who doesn’t seem to know what commas are for. Or how to link sentences. Or how to make FULL sentences.

      In my head, I’m editing and rewriting sentences to make them flow better, which does nothing for the flow of the story. I spent a long evening researching the author, saying to myself “I’ll bet she doesn’t have a degree in English Lit or Writing!!!”

      Not that a degree is necessary to a successful writing career, but the lousy sentence structure had me wondering, “Who gave this person a book deal? (I can write better than that)” and “Why am I so picky about the sentence structure in my budding novels?”

  21. Wonderful post today!

    Craft – I have learned a lot (and applied a lot) over the years so I feel good about this aspect.

    Story – I think this is the tough one for me, NOT because I don’t have stories. I have them coming out my ears…. In fact, the other day, while taking a walk in the nearby woods, a sudden rainfall caught me by surprise. I scrambled for shelter beneath the branches of a…. See? There I go again.
    No, it’s not the STORIES, but the story that gets me. Things just get away from me and keeping the story line heading in one direction and keeping all the loose ends roped in, those things are probably my most trying challenges.

    Voice – Maybe this one, too. I tend to make my characters all sound a little too much like me…..

    Sigh. Back to the editing room with me!

  22. Voice, voice, voice. I love a book with a great voice, and whenever I read one, I set about to find what else the author has written. Whether I particularly like the story or not, I’ll read another one just for the voice. (Anita Shreve comes to mind. Her stories are far from uplifting, but what a great voice.) And then I whine that I wish I could write like that…

    But what I really mean is I want my voice to shine through in my writing the way theirs does. I’m reading Les Edgerton’s Finding Your Voice right now and trying to practice what he preaches in my writing.

  23. Darby Kern says:

    All three are tough for me, but story is probably the hardest for me to finesse. Craft-wise I tend to break rules already as part of my voice… I don’t know if that’s good or bad. Story is where I spend the most time agonizing and second guessing myself.

  24. Reba says:

    Rachelle, craft is harder for me. I guess the biggest reason is that it is not a creative part that come naturally to me like Story and Voice seem to do. Story and Voice; I have fun with.
    Thanks for the post, I really enjoyed it.

  25. Aimee Duffy says:

    I think story is hardest for me. Maybe because each time I write a new one, I have this drive to make it more compelling than the last. I find the voice bit easy, it feels natural now and Harlequin and my current ed loves it, and the craft, its just the stories I need to work on, or maybe I’m just in competition with myself-always striving to be better. That can’t be a bad thing though 🙂

  26. Really enjoyed this post today, Rachelle! It is extremely insightful. Thanks!

    Craft: I definitely need to work on it, but the problem is that I still have not discovered the rest of my flaws. I did realize through a great edit on my first manuscript that I tend to mix up verb tenses in my writing. It was just unreal how mixed up they were when she pointed them out. I am now in the process of correcting all of it and keeping it in mind as I continue to write. 😀

    Story: The story comes pretty easy for me. I already have thirteen books in various stages of planning. That excites me and scares me at the same time because I am still working on my debut novel’s proposal. I plan to continue on this journey whether I’m published or not though. 😀

    Voice: I am a journalist and have had many people comment on my weekly newspaper columns that my writing makes them feel like they are wherever I’m writing about.

    So hopefully I’m on good track with my “voice.” At the same time though, I tend to lean to writing in first person POV, so I’m concerned with making sure 1) every character doesn’t sound the same and 2) every character doesn’t not sound like mini-versions of myself. 😀

    Thanks for continuing to teach us to refine our writing skills!

  27. Sue Harrison says:

    Voice comes easily for me and the rhythm of words, but that’s probably because when I was in high school and had an until-2-am babysitting job, I used to dissect classic novels phrase by phrase to unravel their secrets of voice and imagery.

    I had very good teachers in high school and college who taught me craft.

    I still have trouble with story. I have a tendency to allow my characters to highjack the plot, and there I am on the side of the road trying to thumb a ride so I can catch up with them… “Hey you guys, you’re messing up my story!”

  28. Whether we are an indie author or we long to be a successful traditionally published author, we have a choice of what kind of writer we long to be. There is no shame in admitting we don’t care to win the Pulitzer. Yet, even those writers who want to write pulp fiction will find greater success if they develop a voice that readers love and can’t wait to buy more of. Voice is important for ALL writers. Yes, even the NF authors.