What I Learned at the Backspace Writers Conference, Part 2: Voice and Subjectivity

Whoa, okay, so a whole work week has passed and I haven’t given you much to take home. So let’s talk about a some big ones!


Repeatedly throughout the conference, agents talked about the importance of voice. Many people are starting to say that having a unique voice is what defines this generation of literature and authors, so consider yourself a part of history! Decades from now, the voice you write with today might stand out as an example of “classic traits of early 21st century literature.”

So what is voice? Well, you just kind of know it when you see it. Loosely defined, “voice” in creative writing is two things:

  • the author’s own style or quality that makes his/her writing unique, and somewhat conveys his/her attitude and personality
  • the characteristics of the narrator’s speech and thought patterns


My most recent favorite example of a unique and powerful voice is in the YA Chaos Walking trilogy (The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, Monsters of Men) by Patrick Ness. The main character and primary narrator, Todd Hewitt, has such an incredibly distinct and engaging voice as a 14-year-old living in a new world, introducing us to Noise and Spackle and talking animals… but none of it is cheap. None of it is caricature–it’s real, and immediate, and distinct. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend that you do.

What I learned at the conference was that fresh, original, distinct voices are what will ultimately hook an agent (and your readers) on your book. Many times people have said “start your book with a gripping first line and never let go!” meaning, start with action. That’s something I’ve struggled with, maybe because I studied media and film in college where storytelling happens a bit differently. But I like the film approach: first you show the city, then you show the street, then you see the kids playing on the lawn, then you see the faces of your characters. That’s what draws me into a story, more than any flashing knife or shocking dialogue. And that kind of approach, in literature, requires a solid, captivating voice. A voice lasts throughout the entire story–a shocking first sentence will never be more than the first sentence. And in all likelihood, the first sentence will change before your book is published anyway.

That’s just my opinion of course, which leads me to…


This is huge. How you write, and how you read, are very personal processes. 

It’s important to keep in mind that the tastes of editors and agents are as varied as the tastes of all the readers out there. Just because they’re in The Business doesn’t mean they love all/only bestsellers, and in fact some of their favorite books may not be very well known. Some of them love fantasy, other’s can’t stand to read another query with the words “demons” or “magic” in the body (as I was told specifically). Many of them say “NO MORE VAMPIRES,” but then the one person I spoke with at the conference who was writing a vampire story got a full manuscript request from a top ranking agency.

I hope I don’t have to tell you all that you’ve got to research the agents before you query, at least find out what kind of books they like to read, or books they have recently sold. But even within the same genre, the tastes of the agents will vary.

For example: like I said above, a lot of people will tell you to begin a book with action, or some kind of shocking first sentence that yanks the reader into your book. As far as agents are concerned? Yes, a lot of them are looking for the strong pull of the first sentence that makes you go “wait, what? Tell me more!”

But the thing about that first sentence is that you have to deliver. If you begin a chapter with “The squirrels attack the second I step off the school bus,” you have to make the next few paragraphs equally as interesting, but also not totally confusing. So a lot of agents prefer to read manuscripts that draw you in and keep you there, rather than manuscripts that toss you in and shove you forward.

It’s up to you how you choose to begin, but keep in mind that ultimately it’s the quality of every single paragraph in your story that matters, not just that first hook that reels them in. If you reel them in just to toss them out, the hook is pointless. So don’t fret too long and hard over the first sentence. (ProTip: If you are struggling with it, try using your second sentence, or second paragraph, as your beginning. Sometimes you just take a minute to warm up!) 

So, you never know. Definitely do your research before querying but don’t get down on yourself if you get a lot of “not a good fit” rejections, because it’s probably true. And you want an agent that is a good fit.

More to come next week!


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