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The Elusive Voice


Over the past few months, I’ve been working on revisions. While incorporating feedback from various sources on my own work, I’ve also critiqued pages for others from a wide range of genres. The elusive voice, the unique filter that makes a work our own, strikes me as both the most difficult thing to revise personally and to address for writing partners.

I love the drafting stage of writing because of the freedom it allows. The words flow unhindered because they can be tightened later. My voice as a writer is born during this stage. In the next phase, through learning and experience, I sculpt the story and the sentences. We have these rules drilled into us: use more active verbs, cut all the adverbs, stay within the restrictions of your point of view, and don’t pull the audience out of the narrative. These stick out in my mind because not only have I heard them in crits, I’ve used them with other people. But sometimes. Sometimes we need to break the rules to develop our voice.

Let’s take a look at the opening lines of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately. 

Gaiman breaks every one of those rules. If I were giving comments on his first page in a blog contest, I could say:

Don’t open with passive voice. You could cut this first line to say, A hand in the darkness held a knife. Look, you even cut words that way! You could cut not immediately, too. Watch out for those adverbs! And four adjectives in the second sentence–try to cut that down to only the most important one. In that third sentence, you address the audience. You could change it to say who specifically would not know they’d been cut. I also don’t really get a sense of character in your first paragraph. Who is this book about?

I felt guilty writing the above paragraph, even in jest, because Gaiman’s opening line and chapter are my absolute favorites. (Not just my favorites of Gaiman’s, but my all time favorites.) Who cares if that first sentence is passive? The rhythm and the image set the perfect eerie tone for the rest of the book. Chills ran down my back the moment I read them for the first time, and I was hooked. And in the end, isn’t that all that really matters? Being able to hook the reader?

I know we have the rules for a reason. I try to be ruthless with the passive voice and the adverbs. But sometimes we just have to trust our own voice as writers to tell the story in our own way, focusing more on our connection with the reader than on murdering all the darlings.

Music for today: Here Comes Your Man by the Pixies.

Revising a novel can be overwhelming. It requires a different frame of mind than drafting, and it can take so many different paths. I’ve always used story-boarding for revisions, meaning I have a large white board with a chapter grid and tons of sticky notes. But I feel like I’ve gained so many different perspectives since the last time I chipped away at a first draft.

1. This post by Susan Dennard is fabulous. She explains her technique for addressing plot, character, setting, and pacing in a really manageable way.

2. Back in 2011, Donald Maass tweeted 58 prompts for writing a breakout novel. I’ve been looking back over these as I tackle character revisions.

3. At the SCBWI conference last August, G.P. Putnam’s Sons editor Ari Lewin talked to me about manuscript real estate. This was a new concept to me. Basically, she encouraged me to look at a chapter and ask, “Why did I spend three paragraphs, or two pages, etc. on this event or description, but only one paragraph or one page on another?” When I look at my story board now, I can already see where I’ve spent the most words. This concept is helping me to evaluate whether those are the areas I want to emphasize, or if they need to be cut.

4. I’d heard of other writers outlining and color coding their favorite books to use as a road map for their own manuscripts. (I’m not talking about plagiarizing here; I’m talking about taking a successful novel and trying to find out what techniques made it work. For instance, looking at how many scenes took place over a certain period of time. Or how many lines of internal monologue were included per page of action.)  I’d never done anything like it until I watched season 6 of Dexter.

The story was so exceptionally well told that, in true English major style, I wrote out a diagram of the themes, internal and external conflicts, the ticking clock for pacing, and an episode by episode story arch. This story couldn’t be more different from my WIP, but I’m learning from the way the elements worked together. The themes were touched on in each episode (book translation=chapter). The over-arching external conflict is hinted at in the beginning, but grows to be the focus about 1/4 into the story. Lesser but connected plot threads are introduced in the early episodes and resolved before the half-way point. And the ticking clock is introduced around that same time, increasing the pace up to the climax.

These aren’t one-size-fits-all formats, but by understanding how other effective storytellers work, then maybe I can improve those same elements in my own writing.

Music for today: Stand By Me, the John Lennon version