Ask Me Anything: Voice

I've recently gotten two questions about MG voice.

Here they are.
I've been told by agents who've looked at a couple of my MG manuscripts such things as: "it was a little too ... juvenile" and the "character sounded a little younger than her age." If it's a middle grade novel, how do you as an agent determine if a MS has struck a balance between not sounding too young and not sounding like what it is: written by an adult? I know that's a tough, subjective "voice" question, but I'm hoping you can shed a little light based on your experience.
This may be a tough question to answer, but when it comes to an MG voice, have you ever read manuscripts that are TOO young-sounding or juvenile for your tastes or for the intended audience? If so, what are some things in the ms that made you decide that?
This is a tough question to answer. Because it really revolves around voice.

To address the questions, I will first say that if you're getting similar feedback from multiple sources, it's probably an issue.

That out of the way, an agent determines whether the voice works in a MG ms (not too young, not like it's written by an adult) by being well-read in the genre. Most readers who are wide read can start reading something and know immediately whether the voice feels authentic or not. Unfortunately something that feels too young feels inauthentic.

I have absolutely read manuscripts--and turned them down--where the voice has been the turn off. I've read manuscripts with a boy protagonist that don't feel like a boy. I've read MG manuscripts that have felt too young.

MG voice is tricky. I think it's one of the hardest voices to "nail" but there are some important factors that go into it.

Who is your intended audience?

Think realistically about what readers are going to pick up your book. So leave out books like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. Your voice is going to be different if you're writing something for readers of Of Ice and Giants by Shelby Bach than it is if you're writing Wiley and Grampa's Creature Features by Kirk Scroggs. They're different audiences.

What POV are you using?

There's also a huge voice difference between a book like When Audrey Met Alice by Rebecca Behrens and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente. As an author you need to think about the POV you're using and why you're writing the story that way.

Diction, Syntax, and All Things Writing

Another thing to consider is your word choice and sentence structure. Are you avoiding "big words" because you're worried kids won't know them? Do you have too much onomatopoeia or exclamation points which can make your writing seem immature?

My recommendation is to read, read, read. And write, write, write. The more informed you are and the more you practice, the easier it will be to nail your voice.

Some New Leaf reading recommendations with great voice (in addition to the ones mentioned above):
Nightingale's Nest by Nikki Loftin
A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
Sway by Amber McRee Turner
Chained by Lynne Kelly
Seven Tales of Trinket by Shelley Moore Thomas

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Bob Conklin said...

My "problem" is a little different. I enjoy the POV of a younger protagonist, but my intended audience is "adult," although I can imagine MG readers taking an interest. I just read all 7 HP books (to keep up with my 5th-grade son, who's burned through them not twice but thrice), and found myself enjoying them as an adult, which I happen to be ;-) I've also been experimenting with pseudo-memoirs, which let you reflect on childhood incidents with the language of an adult looking back. Anyway, thanks for the post!

Unknown said...

Hi Bob, this isn't a problem, I don't think. There are a number of great books that are adult but with child protagonists.