Over the years I have been on many panels at writers' conferences around the country. Invariably, one courageous writer at each conference asks the question on every attendee’s mind: what is the most important quality that an agent or publisher looks for in a manuscript?
Sometimes the book professionals on the panel respond in unison; at other times, we take turns; but the answer is always the same: ‘Voice’.
The presence (or absence) of a fresh and powerful narrative voice determines which manuscripts are winners (whether fiction or non-fiction), and which manuscripts don't stand a chance.
For literary agents and book publishers, the search for a remarkably unique and personality-rich ‘voice’ is endless and timeless.
An effective (and affecting) narrative voice is rare, but when it is present, everyone recognizes it at once. Publishers compete in heated auctions into the night for these resonant new voices, sometimes offering advances as high as the stars.
When a powerful voice is in command in fiction or non-fiction, the narration lifts all things into a higher dimension
'Voice' is present when the story or non-fiction narrative reveals a fresh perspective on the world as we know it--inspiring readers to see the ordinary in new and thrilling ways.
In fiction, some emerging writers are tempted to conflate their own narrative 'voice' with their protagonist's voice. However, although the two are connected, and, at times, even inseparable, they are not the same. A powerful author's 'voice' in fiction, is manifest in the descriptive prose, and in the storyline itself, as well as, in the protagonist's point-of-view.
No amount of manuscript 'cutting' or 'revising' will help a writer discover his or her most resonant writing voice, especially if he or she has no idea that it’s missing.
The truth is as simple as it is hard to take. Thousands and thousands of manuscripts have been rejected, and thousands and thousands of manuscripts are destined to join them, for one reason, and one reason, only:
“There is no there, there.”
A manuscript is fundamentally (and forever) flawed if it lacks 'voice'…that powerful and fresh narrative insight and energy that distinguishes a winning author, from a massive community of struggling writers.
The attributes of a book that is successfully published by a Big 5 New York company are the same attributes that determine the ultimate success of a self-published book.
So whether you are seeking literary representation, or planning to self-publish, it is essential to have a former mainstream book acquisitions editor do an overall marketing and editorial assessment of your material to determine the book's real potential to sell thousands of copies---whether it is shipped from a major publisher's warehouse; or from your third party Amazon seller account.
Unlike freelance developmental editors with no book acquisitions background, a former Big 5 book acquisitions editor can give a writer a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no' with regard to the overall quality of the writing and the strength of the narrative 'voice'.
It makes no sense to have a freelance editor do an overall line-by-line and page-by-page 'developmental edit' to help you make your manuscript much better and stronger, if the much better and stronger manuscript is still unpublishable. Most of the time, freelance editors give writers euphemistic feedback on their manuscripts---e.g., the narrative would be much more dramatic if you cut this storyline; or developed these characters; or corrected these grammatical and linguistic mistakes---making it seem that if the writers made these revisions throughout the manuscripts, their books would sell.
The truth is that most freelance editorial professionals are loathe to tell writers the truth because the truth will be utterly devastating; and, devastated writers of unviable manuscripts are not looking to have those manuscripts edited.
In contrast, a publishing professional with a big 5 acquisitions background, will see a black and white reality when doing an overall marketing and editorial assessment of a manuscript, and the answer as to whether or not a manuscript is publishable come down to two questions:
Is the descriptive prose precise and visually rich? And, is the narrative voice fresh, smart, and disarming?
It’s that simple, and that uncompromising.
But, take heart. If your manuscript does not get a thumbs-up, all is not lost. Leave it behind in the ever-growing stack of unsuccessful books with limp writing and feeble voices---and welcome to an exciting new world of truth and honesty, where new manuscripts have real—not imagined—chances to be winners.
How successful is this new visionary world? I have coached many authors who have met notable success in the publishing world, after starting over with new, radically revised manuscripts. One novelist received a sizable contract from Viking; another author's memoir was published by a small independent press and garnered glowing reviews and national awards; a third writer went on to self-publish a series of 'Girl Power/Young Women in Business' books that have become Amazon bestsellers, the most recent, rising to #6 in 'women/business' books (as an ebook and as a trade paperback); and the list continues...