Archive for December, 2014

Voice: The Literary Game Changer

Dec 12 2014 Published by under Writing

As a freelance book editor, I’ve spent countless hours with manuscripts of every ilk—from fairly tidy OCR files of out-of-print bestsellers to piles of interview transcriptions loosely tacked together by chapter numbers—and I approach them all with a dual mind-set. On one hand, I’m scrutinizing as an editor, looking for things that are incomplete, incorrect, inconsistent, or confusing. On the other, I’m functioning as a fresh-eyed beta reader for the author, approaching the story just as a bookstore browser would.

As I’m editing, my analytical mind is constantly checking in with this beta reader, asking questions like, “Am I bored yet? If so, why, and at what point did I start to lose interest? If not, why not? Am I eager to keep reading?” This line of questioning is partly self-serving—as a writer myself, I’m always looking to learn from other writers—and partly professional. After all, I can’t articulate what a writer needs to do to improve his book if I can’t answer the ultimate question: “Why is this not working?”

What makes a novel or memoir “work” may seem like some kind of muse-gifted ethereal je ne sais quoi, something you either have or you don’t, but I think the answer is much simpler (at least in naming if not in execution): The difference between a story that’s spellbinding and one that falls flat is voice.

So what is voice?

In memoir, it’s the difference between reportage (first this happened, and then this happened, and then he said this…) and storytelling, which uses fictive techniques like character and dialogue and plot. In other words, it’s the difference between reading a police report and talking to an eyewitness while standing at a crime scene. To illustrate my point, go read the Wikipedia entries for Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, and then read a few chapters of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Or curl up with a cup of tea and the CDC statement on the Ebola pandemic and then check out Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone.

As I used to tell my freshman composition students, in order to be rhetorically effective, your essay needs to have the pathos (emotion), as well as the ethos (authority) and logos (facts). Along with this sacred literary trinity, there also must be a distinct and compelling narrator. The narrator doesn’t have to be a character but it does need to have a presence in the story. That’s why I call the sum of all these elements voice—when they’re working together, the reader should hear the narrative in her head, should forget the fact that she’s seeing rather than hearing the tale.

All this holds true for successful fiction, as well, but because the fiction writer doesn’t have the drama or authority inherent in facts to bolster her story, she needs a little something extra, which I think of as “perspective” or “worldview.” A manuscript can have an imaginative plot and a slew of  characters, but  if the reader begins thinking, Why should I care about this? What does it have to do with me? and perhaps most importantly, Why are you (emphasis intentional) telling me this? the book is pretty much sunk. In the absence of factual authority, or the draw of true crime or a deadly pandemic, the fiction writer has to evoke empathy and offer a fresh perspective on some aspect of humanity. In this case, I think voice is the difference between a crime scene account from an eyewitness and one from the primary suspect. A bystander is going to give us a good account, but the accused can offer so much more depth, on so many more levels.

While some writers definitely “come into” their voice more easily than other writers do, making the process look maddeningly effortless, the good news is that finding and developing your voice is as much a matter of craft as it is art. By reading (and reading and reading and more reading), absorbing, questioning, and analyzing, you can learn the elements of successful voice and begin to apply them to your own work.

When you think about voice in a piece of your own work, I suggest asking yourself these questions:

  • Who is telling this story and why? What perspective do they offer on the story’s themes?
  • Are both internal (character/emotional) and external (plot/action) drama present in the story? If not, how can I rework the story to include the element that’s missing?
  • Is the reader just told what the characters do, or is any introspection offered? In other words, does the reader know what the characters think and feel about what’s going on in the story?

When I visit local universities and talk with young writers, I often get asked what’s the “biggest mistake” I see writers make. I think this is it. Regardless of whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, voice is truly the game changer. Problems of plot or character development can be fixed, but if there’s no voice driving the story, it’s difficult for a reader to invest in it mentally or emotionally.

Literature illuminates what it means to be human in a way I think no other art form can. And so in literature, just like in life, who’s speaking and the way in which they’re delivering their message is often just as important as what’s being said.



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The Uninvited Guest

Dec 05 2014 Published by under Who I am

To some, the life of a freelancer might sound like the Sunday-morning version of glamorous: sleeping in, enjoying leisurely meals, only accepting the projects I want to, working in sweatpants, shower be damned.

In truth, the above description constitutes Opposite Day for me. I’m up by 6 a.m. at the latest, I eat and shower quickly as I get the kids ready for their day, I typically work from 9–4 (plus after the kids go to bed and on weekend nights until all hours), I try to say “no” to clients as little as humanly possible (hence the aforementioned schedule), and the sweatpants are a matter of survival rather than sloth (my basement office is freezing in the winter).

But I still love being my own boss—for the ability to spend one Friday morning a month reading to my son’s class, to take the day off when my daughter has a fever or the nanny calls in sick, to know that the only limits to my ability or income are the limits I set for myself—not someone else’s determination of my skill level or their perception of my value as an employee.

It’s not glamorous by any stretch, but I can’t imagine anything more empowering.

However, there is one major drawback to working for myself, which was illuminated for me by a dream I had a few weeks ago in which I crashed a staff meeting at Simon & Schuster.

In order to communicate how bizarre this dream was, you must know that (1) I’ve never visited the offices of Simon & Schuster (couldn’t even tell you the address), (2) I know no one who works there, (3) I have no idea what a staff meeting there is like, so the entire scene was fabricated by my subconscious.

So Dream Simon & Schuster looked suspiciously like the Library Hotel in NYC but with a lot of exposed brick. In my dream, I knew I was crashing and I was simultaneously terrified of being recognized as Does Not Belong Here and also hoping to be identified as Obviously One of Us. I somehow found my way through a maze of conference rooms and into The Big Staff Meeting, which was filled to capacity with not just editors, designers, sales people, and marketing & publicity folks (like the title-design, cover-design, and publishing-board meetings of my WD days) but also agents, critics, and writers.

At first I was a wallflower, just anxiously taking in the scene, but then for some reason we were broken into small groups and I started talking to the people at my table about the projects I was working on now . . .

My two-year-old daughter yelled for me the way she does every morning (“Hellooooo? Is anybody there? Helllooooo?”) and I bolted awake, feeling thrilled by my book nerd’s lit’rary fantasy . . . and also kinda sad. There was no great gathering of My People, no convo with kindred souls. And it hit me: sometimes I really, really miss being part of a team.

Tonight I spent an hour on the phone with a memoirist, just talking about his life, the possibilities for the manuscript he just completed, and how I might be of service to him. When we hung up, I got that post-Dream S & S rush, with none of the letdown, because I was reminded that this is my favorite part of my job.

Catching embarrassing mistakes and polishing prose is a lot of fun for me. But this . . . this profoundly human element, the connection of shared understanding, the collaboration to create art, the common goal of bringing something unique and wonderful to the world, this is why making books is different from making widgets, why the market can only commodify these creations so much before missing the whole damn point.

Author + Editor (+ Agent—can’t forget you guys <high five>). Strategizing, crafting, perfecting. My idea of a dream team.

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