Make Editors Go Ga-Ga: Martha Mihalick On Voice

Originally Published: Oct. 2011

by Emily Goodman

Martha Mihalick, editor at Greenwillow, opened the Metro NY Tuesday Professional Lecture Series on September 13 with a sold-out talk entitled, “Voice: What is it, and why does it make editors go ga-ga?”

“Your voice is your instrument,” said Mihalick, noting that dictionary definitions of ‘voice’ also call it “a wish, choice, right of expression, or influential power.”

Citing the common idea that “there are only 7 or 10 or 12 stories in the world that are told over and over,” she explained, “the voice of the writer is what makes them different from each other. Your voice,” she concluded, “is how you connect with your readers.”

Mihalick said voice is made up of three elements: language, structure, and imagery or themes, and she illustrated each with examples from books she has worked on at Greenwillow, ranging from picture books to MG and YA novels.

She invited audience members to describe their impressions of the book and its characters based on the voice used in an excerpt. The audience concluded that Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes conveys an energetic, opinionated kid through its use of dialogue, rather long sentences, and “big words,” while My Heart Is Like a Zoo by Michael Hall uses shorter, quieter, simpler sentences and “old-fashioned” words to give a comfortable, cosy feeling suitable for a bedtime story.

Comparing the openings of three novels, Mihalick pointed out that one focused on character, one on setting, and the third on the situation the main character is in. But in all three cases, she said, “a sense of confidence in the voice makes me trust it” and want to keep reading.

Mihalick described staying up all night to finish reading one manuscript and making an offer on it the next day, thanks to its convincing and unusual voice. She said, “I read until I’m not interested any more. Usually I know on the first page if I love something and by the end of the first chapter if it’s a strong book and I want to keep going.”

“Find the tone of voice that makes you unique,” Mihalick advised. “Write what you have an opinion about. Editors respond to something that feels fresh, so don’t imitate. Listen to what your own voice sounds like.” Then maybe you too can drive editors ga-ga.

Emily Goodman’s picture book Plant Secrets is the Nebraska Farm Bureau’s Agriculture Book of the Year for 2009. Follow Emily on Facebook!

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