Friday Speak Out!: Which Dude has the 'Strongest Female Voice?'

Friday, November 11, 2016

By K. Alan Leitch

The community here at WOW, who could be forgiven if they chose to exclude me, have instead been the most supportive I have found toward my fledgling efforts as a writer. The problem I have fitting in, you see--here, and in most contemporary writing groups--is that I am from the very gender that may have caused the need for this organization. That's right: I am a man.

Before you resent the many unfair advantages my gender admittedly brings me, however, take five minutes to browse through the wish-lists of any random sampling of agents. If you parsed them for the most common phrase that occurs, I would place a bet on that phrase being what agents describe as, 'Strong Female Voices.' As a die-hard fan of Die Hard, I think you can understand how the expectation to write these might intimidate me.

So... what's a boy to do?

Setting aside for a moment the many interpretations of what constitutes 'Voice,' I'd like, instead, to consider what distinguishes female voice from male. Is it sensitivity? Empathy? Uncertainty? Surely not, as these are all stereotypes, and as such imply weakness rather than strength. Is the answer, then, to invert these: to conjure female voices that are distant, or have trouble expressing feelings? I think anyone, of any gender, would have to agree that is not 'strength,' either.

After raising so many questions, I can't help but shrug at the agents, and ask them what it is that they think makes a female voice strong. The agents, sadly, generally answer this question with a form-letter rejection. I'm not sure they know the answer.

I do know that I have more work to do than simply featuring female protagonists and narrators. My voice has been male for so long--longer than I care to admit--that the narrator of Labels is likely to whine too much about some sniffles while she copes with her glimpses of wrongdoings in the gazes of others; the protagonist of Death Imitates Art risks being too focused on her painting to notice the murders going on around her; and Olivia of Olympus might just be a little bit too harshly critical of the bumbling Greek gods she is trying to defeat. Perhaps a female voice needs to rise above these typical areas of male weakness... perhaps it needs to be stronger in every way than the male voices around it.

Or, perhaps, every voice is just a voice, carrying with it all the persistence and frailty endemic to this species that women share with men.

Maybe 'Strong Female Voices' are simply those that seem the most... human.

* * *
K. Alan Leitch is an unpublished novelist in search of an agent, and the author of award-winning short fiction. You can check in on his writing, along with more of his whingeings and ramblings, at .
Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


KAlan said...

I welcome comments: this is a problem I need to work on solving, so am hoping for some advice.

Vanessa G. said...

Interesting post. Perhaps agents mean "female voice" literally? Maybe they're looking for a female writer with a strong voice.

Instead of trying to imitate a female voice, use your authentic male voice. There are male writers with a female audience (think Nicholas Sparks).

KAlan said...

Vanessa, you are probably right in some cases (maybe even most) but I have seen requests for 'strong female voices,' and examples of fiction that agents think have achieved this. Sometimes, those examples include male authors... so, for those agents, I am at square one.

You are correct, though, that none of us should force imitations of inauthentic voices. Having said that, I am narrowing my market considerably if I cannot appeal to this very common request.

Margo Dill said...

In children's writing, agents are always looking for books that appeal to boys. So I share your struggle in that I have never been a boy. I think you are both on to something though that you have to be authentic and real whatever you decide to do.

Angela Mackintosh said...

This post makes me think, Keith! I know voice, at its basic level, is the author's perspective on the world--their personality and style. There are certain authors where you could randomly read a couple of paragraphs and know who they Chuck Palahniuk, for example. There are bloggers on The Muffin that I can drop in on a sentence and know immediately that Cathy wrote it or Margo or Renee. We all have a distinct voice. Even if you're writing fiction, there are pieces of your personality that slip through and become the voice of the character. I think when agents are looking for strong female voices, they are looking for authority. A writer that is in control and compels you to read because the voice is so interesting--one that drives you through the story but also becomes invisible to the story itself. And I agree, authenticity is a big part of this because that makes your voice unique, your story original, and your prose something that no one can duplicate.

KAlan said...

Thanks, Angela. I'm curious about breaking this down; you are referring to an author's voice, and perhaps that is what the agents mean. (If so, then Vanessa may be right that those agents are looking for female authors; 'strong female voice' may be code for 'male authors need not apply). However, when written well, each character should have a distinct voice. Mostly, I have been assuming that these agents are seeking a strong female narrative voice.

Margo's experience with agents seeking children's books that apppeal to boys raises a challenge for female authors that I hadn't considered. It also strikes me as a more direct, honest request, though: "This is our target audience; please write for them." When bio after bio after bio asks me for a 'strong female voice,' I feel that I need to at least be sure of what that means: if it means 'female author,' then I will start passing them by.

KAlan said...

Thinking further... I wonder to what extent a good narrator takes on a separate persona from the author's? Might make for a post over on my blog.

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