The Holy Grail of Voice – Part 4

As many of you knew, our last excerpt yesterday was written by Anne Rice. The sensuous prose and the description of New Orleans usually leads people to the right answer. It’s from her book Exit to Eden, which was published under the pseudonym Anne Rampling. The book is a wonderful erotic romance.

III. Finding Your Own Voice

Here’s where I get to do my Merlin bit. My first clue for you is another exercise.

First a little preamble. If you think about music, different artists do cover versions of individual songs. The lyrics are the same. The tune is the same. But the sound of the resulting song can be very different. The cover version that a musician or singer or band does of any given song will be in that musician’s style, which is very similar to an author’s voice. The cover version will sound like that band or artist, even though the song itself could be something far from that artist’s usual material.

Exercise C is an attempt to come at that in terms of writing. It’s a take-home assignment. Ideally, you will do this in your critique group, or even in your land chapter. Each of you will write the same scene. Put a word cap on it, maybe 1000 words, and choose a story idea. My favourite assignment – since we are romance writers! – is that you write a first kiss. So, in our example, Mike is sweet on his younger sister’s best friend Josie, except it would be kind of like hitting on his sister to ask her out. And they’re friends. He doesn’t want to mess that up. Josie, on the other hand, has been crazy for Mike since she was five years old. No other guy holds a candle to him. Each of you will write their first kiss.

Then, you’ll print out enough copies to everyone in your crit group to have one. Leave off your names and any identifying marks. Format them all in standard ms format, double spaced in Courier 12 point. You each take your bundle, read the scenes, and try to determine who wrote which one. The point is not to guess, but to base your decision on a specific element of voice as shown in the passage.

Here are a couple of extra questions you can think about, ones that will be easier as you will know the author:

6. What is the worldview or attitude of the author?

7. What, if anything, is distinctive about the voice in this work? Does it consistently sound the same, or are there bits and pieces that don’t seem to match?

8. Does the tone of the excerpt echo the way the author expresses herself (or himself) verbally?

There’s some interesting stuff here. First of all, we reveal ourselves in our voices. Not just where we’re from but a whole lot more than that. Because you will personally know the authors in question, you’ll likely be able to make some matches based on “inside information”.

Secondly, we might not trust our voices. Critique groups and contest results can have a tendency to soften an author’s voice and round the corners, to make the resulting work sound more bland. Authors who are trying to hold back on their voices – or who are afraid to let loose – will write passages that are choppy. The voice will be strong and clear in one sentence, then obliterated in the next. A run of safe metaphors and adjectives will suddenly interrupted by a radical (and much more interesting) comparison. This is different from using voice for emphasis as it’s unconsciously done. Generally, the strong voice will pop up in the wrong places, drawing attention to passages that are less important.

Finally, there’s that last question about the written passage sounding like the author’s verbal expression. Now, spoken voice and written voice are not the same, but there are certainly links between them. If there’s a huge difference between the author’s verbal expression and his or her written one, it’s possible that the author in question is holding her or his voice in check.

Here’s one last excerpt, followed by one last Merlin-esque hint about voice:

“The surgery hurt far more than he’d expected.

But then, how could he have prepared for an experience so new? He’d known nothing of pain.

Until the first cut.

A line of fire ripped across his back and he screamed. It was the first audible sound he’d ever made.

Feathers were falling, surrounding him with a curtain of drifting white. It took him a moment to realize that they were his own feathers. They had lost their familiar luminescence. They looked alien.

He was becoming alien himself. The idea horrified him, until the surgeon sealed the wound. Heat seared across his back, following the line of the incision. Wetness spilled onto his cheeks and he tasted the salt of his tears.

Another first.

His bellow made the floor vibrate. The smell of burned flesh was new, as well, and sickening.

He reminded himself that he had volunteered.”

Now, here’s an interesting thing – of all the excerpts, this was the easiest one for me to read aloud. Why would that be?

Exactly. I wrote it. Passages in your voice will be easier for you to read out loud. You will instinctively know the rhythm of these passages, and where the pauses are. Whenever you are uncertain about a passage and the strength of your voice in it, just read it aloud.

There’s a second thing to note about this passage – my voice is used here for emphasis, just as voice was used in the Anne Rice and Alice Hoffman excerpts. This scene is a very strong expression of my voice. It’s the hook of the book. It’s the first paragraph of the first page of a first book in a new trilogy, and a world that is vastly different from my previous work. Because that scene is so very critical, both in setting the tone of the work and in orienting the reader, it shows the strongest expression of my voice. Use your voice to emphasize the most important elements of your plot.

That excerpt is from my book Fallen, published under the name Claire Delacroix. It’s the first book in my trilogy called “The Prometheus Project”, which is an urban fantasy romance series set in a very gritty post-nuclear pre-Apocalyptic future, and which features fallen angel heroes. The first book starts with the first hero sacrificing his wings.

Last but not least, let’s talk about Exercise D. It’s also a take-home assignment, but it’s one you get to do it alone. It’s very Merlin-y. You might even want to close your eyes for this one.

Think about the book you’re working on. There is a sentence or a paragraph or even a whole scene that you love dearly in that manuscript. You may love it more than your own children. You love it because it’s perfect. It says exactly what you wanted to say, clearly, concisely and distinctively. It’s the bit that you would die to see cut from the book. How many of you know the sentence that I mean? How many of you can write it out verbatim, right here and right now?

Congratulations. You’ve just caught a glimpse of your Grail.

Chances are very good that you love this bit because it’s in your voice. It’s you. It’s yours. No one else could have written it just so. It resonates for you, and makes a little tingle somewhere deep inside of you. It probably stands out because it’s the only bit in your manuscript that’s clearly in your voice.

So, you have a couple of things you need to do with that bit.

1/ figure out what is distinctive about it. What makes it clearly yours? That’s the million dollar question. Once you figure that out, then you’ll have a good idea what your voice sounds like and what elements comprise it. Your chances then of glimpsing it again, even of evoking it deliberately, will be much better.

2/ assess its position in the work. Is your voice being used for emphasis? Is it part of a critical plot development, or is it just buried in a shopping list? If it’s in a list, chances are good that it will get cut by an editor because it’s drawing attention to what isn’t important. Take it out yourself, because it’s less painful that way.

I hope this has helped, to give you a glimpse of your own voice or at least a few hints as to where to start looking for it. The bonus with the quest that you’re embarking upon is that, unlike the knights hunting the Grail, every one of us can capture the prize. All of you can find your voice, if you’re persistent and seek it diligently enough.

Good luck with your quest!

The Holy Grail of Voice – Part 3

Yesterday, we closed with a passage and you were challenged to identify which of the three writers whose voices we heard yesterday had written that passage. It was pretty easy and most of you were correct that it was written by Tom Robbins. It was from his book, Skinny Legs and All.

Now we move on to Exercise B. Again, I’m choosing authors from outside the romance section because they may not be familiar to you, so you may listen more closely to their voices. I would call all of these authors fabulists or magical realists, which means they’re all writing commercial fiction in which the world we know is embued with fantasy elements. It’s alive in a magical or mythic way.

Here’s the first one:

“And the only sound in the empty snow-covered valley was my own breathing and the rattling shriek of my dying mare who lay yards away from me.

I’m not sure I had my reason. I’m not sure the things that went through my mind were thoughts. I wanted to drop down in the snow, and yet I was walking away from the dead wolves towards the dying horse.

As I came close to her, she lifted her neck, straining to rise up on her front legs, and gave one of those shrill trumpeting pleas again. The sound bounced off the mountains. It seemed to reach heaven. And I stood staring at her, staring at her dark broken body against the whiteness of the snow, the dead hindquarters and the struggling forelegs, the nose lifted skyward, ears pressed back, and the huge innocent eyes rolling up into her head as the rattling cry came out of her. She was like an insect half mashed into a floor, but she was no insect.

She was my struggling, suffering mare. She tried to lift herself again.

I took my rifle from the saddle. I loaded it. And as she lay tossing her head, trying vainly to lift herself once more with that shrill trumpeting, I shot her through the heart.”

As previously, take a moment to record your impressions before you read mine.

I find this a potent scene, emotionally charged. The language is sensuous and lush. The tone is a bit dark.

This was written by Anne Rice, excerpted from her book The Vampire Lestat.

Here’s another author with a different and distinctive voice:

“My father lost me to The Beast at cards.

There’s a special madness strikes travellers from the North when they reach the lovely land where the lemon trees grow. We come from countries of cold weather; at home, we are at war with nature but here, ah! you think you’ve come to the blessed plot where the lion lies down with the lamb. Everything flowers; no harsh wind stirs the voluptuous air. The sun spills fruit for you. And the deathly, sensual lethargy of the sweet South infects the starved brain; it gasps :’Luxury! more luxury!’ But then the snow comes, you cannot escape it, it followed us from Russia as if it ran behind our carriage, and in this dark, bitter city has caught up with us at last, flocking against the windowpanes to mock my father’s expectations of perpetual pleasure as the veins in his forehead stand out and throb, his hands shake as he deals the Devil’s picture books.”

One more time, record your own impressions before reading mine.

There are longer sentences in this passage and the tone is more literary. It is also sensual and dark. This author wrote a number of revisionist fairy tales with a feminist flavour.

It’s from a short story called “The Tiger’s Bride” in Angela Carter’s anthology The Bloody Chamber.

You probably noticed that both of these last two passages were in first person POV. To me, in both cases, the author’s voice was ascendant, but that’s not always the case. It depends on the strength of the POV character’s voice – both of these books were published before deep POV was so fashionable in fiction and you can see that in the prose.

But here’s another variable for you to consider, one that is of particular importance now that deep POV is fashionable. Voice is not always expressed at a consistent level. Think about this – if you have a strong voice and you stand in the corner and yell, it’s not going to take long for people to get tired of listening to you. In a  sense, I believe this is what happened to Chick-Lit. The voice was so strong and so distinctive in that sub-genre that readers hit a tolerance level. They could only read so many books in that voice before they moved on. The actual number of books might vary from reader to reader, but there was an exhaustion factor.

So, let’s look at voice as a tool and one you can use in varying quantities for emphasis.

In this next excerpt something interesting happens halfway through. Something changes with the voice. I want you to listen and see if you can tell me what it is:

“The aunts don’t bother to answer; they have very little tolerance for dim-witted humor, and they’re not interested in making polite conversation. They stand on the corner near the bus station and whistle for a taxi; as soon as one pulls over, they tell the driver exactly where to go — along the Turnpike for seven miles, past the mall and the shopping centers, past the Chinese restaurant and the deli and the ice cream shop where Antonia has worked this summer. The aunts smell like lavender and sulfur, a disquieting mixture, and maybe that’s the reason the taxi driver holds the door open for them when they arrive at Sally’s house, even though they didn’t bother to tip him. The aunts don’t believe in tips, and they never have. They believe in earning your worth and doing the job right. And when you come right down to it, that’s what they’re here for.

Sally offered to pick them up at the bus station, but the aunts would have none of that. They can get around just fine on their own. They prefer to come to a place slowly, and that’s what they’re doing now. The lawns are wet, and the air is motionless and thick, the way it always is before a storm. A haze hangs over the houses and the chimney tops. The aunts stand in Sally’s driveway, between the Honda and Jimmy’s Oldsmobile, their black suitcases set down beside them. They close their eyes, to get a sense of this place. In the poplar trees, the sparrows watch with interest. The spiders stop spinning their webs. The rain will begin after midnight, on this the aunts agree. It will fall in sheets, like rivers of glass. It will fall until the whole world seems silver and turned upside down. You can feel such things when you have rheumatism, or when you’ve lived as long as the aunts have.”

Again, make your notes before reading mine.

First, the voice itself is light, charming. I think of this author’s metaphors as “domestic”, for lack of a better word. It’s accessible and entertaining as well. But did you hear it change?

In the first part of the excerpt, even though it’s not dialogue, the author has let the voice of the aunts dominate the passage. (They really only have one voice, even though there are two of them.) “The aunts don’t believe in tips, and they never have.” The cadence is more clipped, you can hear an elderly person speaking exactly like this.

Then, as soon as the aunts arrive at Sally’s house, the voice changes. The author’s voice then dominates. “The lawns are wet, and the air is motionless and thick, the way it always is before a storm.” It’s slower, more leisurely, more evocative. The rhythm is different, although the excerpt is all of a piece.

In terms of craft, this is a perfect example of using voice for emphasis. The aunts have been summoned to solve a problem, essentially to resolve the plot. This is the big finish. While they are in transit, the author lets their voice claim the passage. It’s also a way of getting double work out of the travelling passage – logistics always make for boring prose. Charged with the aunts’ voice, that paragraph does double duty – it shows the character of the aunts right before they play a key role. Once they arrive, once the big moment is upon us, their voice is subverted to that of the author.

This use of voice is a signal from the author to the reader that it’s time to sit up and pay attention. The dominance of the author’s voice emphasizes the passage from that point onward, because what happens is important. We recognize this intuitively and it’s possible that the author even chose to do it intuitively. But you can do it on purpose, because it works.

The excerpt was from Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic.

Now here’s the test excerpt written by one of these three female authors. See if you can recognize who wrote it. It has a similar break to the Alice Hoffman excerpt, so don’t give up until you’ve read the last paragraph.

“We stopped on the way back for some wine and a load of delicacies — caviar and crackers, apples, sour cream, smoked oysters. I bought some cinnamon and butter and bread, lots of French yogurt, a cold bottle of Dom Perignon (the best they had, $50) and a package of liquor store wine glasses.

When we got to the room, I ordered an ice bucket, turned off the air conditioner again, and latched the shutters the way I had the first time.

It was just getting dusk, vivid, sweet New Orleans dusk with the sky blood red and the pink oleander glowing in the tangle of the garden. The heat lingered in the air the way it never does on the coast. There was a velvety feel to the warmth and the room was full of dusty shadows.”

Did you hear the change? What was happening there? We had a shopping list, a bunch of details that the reader apparently needs to know but that aren’t the main point of the scene. This author did not put that passage to work by charging it with the character’s voice. It’s info you need, delivered short and sweet. The subsequent seduction is what’s important, so once the characters are back in their room, the author’s voice takes over. “Listen up! Here comes the good stuff.”

So, here’s a craft secret about voice. Voice should not be consistent throughout the entire manuscript as discussed. But your voice should be strongest at the most critical points of the plot. In fact, the strong use of the author’s voice signals a turning point.

Again, we’ll do this part of the workshop in the comments. Tell me who you think wrote this last passage and why. The options are:

• Anne Rice

• Angela Carter

• Alice Hoffman

The Holy Grail of Voice – Part 2

II. Recognizing “Voice” When You See or Hear It.

The best way to hear voice is to start listening to it and for it. We’re going to listen to the voices of some authors today and you’re going to respond to what you hear. There are no right or wrong answers. You just need to listen and then we’ll talk about each excerpt. I’ve given you a handout with a couple of questions for you to think about as you’re listening to the excerpts:

1. What is the tone of the excerpt? Choose an adjective – or six – remembering that there are no right or wrong answers.

2. What kind of language does the author use? Listen to his or her specific choice of words and choose an adjective to describe it.

3. Does the author use modifiers, like adjectives and adverbs, and if so, do they have anything in common?

4. Does the author use metaphors and analogies, and if so, how would you characterize them?

5. What kind of person do you think this author is? Can you tell where the author is from or what his or her educational background is? What else?

Now, you won’t have answers to all of these questions for every excerpt, because voices are individual, but that should get you started.

This is Exercise A. We’re going to step out of the romance section for these first three readings, because it will give greater contrast between voices. These are all commercial authors but they were published in the main list from the outset, almost certainly because of their strong voices. (It might help you to read these excerpts aloud, or have someone read them to you – as I read them to the workshop participants.)

Here’s the first excerpt:

“By a curious coincidence, “none at all” is exactly how much suspicion the ape-descendent Arthur Dent had that one of his closest friends was not descended from an ape, but was in fact from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and not from Guildford as he usually claimed.

Arthur Dent had never, ever suspected this.

This friend of his had first arrived on the planet Earth some fifteen Earth years previously, and he had worked hard to blend himself into Earth society — with, it must be said, some success. For instance, he had spent those fifteen years pretending to be an out-of-work actor, which was plausible enough.

He had made one careless blunder though, because he had skimped a bit on his preparatory research. The information he had gathered had led him to choose the name “Ford Prefect” as being nicely inconspicuous.”

What are your impressions? What is the tone of the excerpt? Think about the use of language in the excerpt, too. Make some notes before you read on.

For me, this is a humourous passage from a light book. It’s not hard to believe that it was derived from a radio series. It’s quite entertaining.

This first excerpt was from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

Now the next excerpt is totally different:

“It was impossible to see her approach without a shudder of distaste. She was a grotesque parody of a woman, so fat that her feet and hands and head protruded absurdly from the huge slab of her body like tiny disproportionate afterthoughts. Dirty blonde hair clung damp and thin to her scalp, black patches of sweat spread beneath her armpits. Clearly, walking was painful. She shuffled forward on the insides of her feet, legs forced apart by the thrust of one gigantic thigh against another, balance precarious. And with every movement, however small, the fabric of her dress strained ominously as the weight of her flesh shifted. She had, it seemed, no redeeming features. Even her eyes, a deep blue, were all but lost in the ugly folds of pitted white lard.

Strange that after so long she was still an object of curiosity. People who saw her every day watched her progress down that corridor as if for the first time. What was it that fascinated them? The sheer size of a woman who stood five feet eleven and weighed over twenty-six stones? Her reputation? Disgust? There were no smiles. Most watched impassively as she passed, fearful perhaps of attracting her attention. She had carved her mother and sister into little pieces and rearranged the bits in a bloody abstract on her kitchen floor. Few who saw her could forget it. In view of the horrific nature of the crime and the fear that her huge brooding figure had instilled in everyone who had sat in the courtroom, she had been sentenced to life with a recommendation that she serve a minimum of twenty-five years. What made her unusual, apart from the crime itself, was that she had pleaded guilty and refused to offer a defence.”

Again, make some notes, and think about what you’ve heard. What kind of a book do you think this is? Can you guess the genre?

This is a grim and realistic passage for me. It’s not a huge surprise that it takes place in a jail. It’s the beginning of a mystery novel, by a British author, one who I find very compelling.

It’s from The Sculptress by Minette Walters.

The third excerpt is different again:

“The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.

Slavic peoples get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets.

The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip…
The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies.

The beet was Rasputin’s favorite vegetable. You could see it in his eyes.”

Make some notes and reactions before you read on.

I love the distinctive metaphors this author uses and the mix of unexpected humour. The prose is more dense, but the books always make me smile, probably because the writing is clever and irreverent.

That excerpt was from Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins.

Now, we can see how distinct those voices are. One of these three authors also wrote the following passage. Keeping in mind what we’ve discussed so far, see if you can figure out which one by recognizing his or her voice. Don’t guess:

“It was a bright, defrosted, pussy-willow day at the onset of spring, and the newlyweds were driving cross-country in a large roast turkey.

The turkey lay upon its back, as roast turkeys will; submissive, agreeable, volunteering its breast to the carving blade, its roly-poly legs cocked in a stiff but jaunty position, as if it might summon the gumption to spring forward onto its feet, but of course, it had no feet, which made the suggestion seem both empty and ridiculous, and only added to the turkey’s aura of goofy vulnerability.

Despite its feetlessness, however, its pathetic podalic privation, this roast turkey — or jumbo facsimile thereof — was moving down the highway at sixty-five miles an hour, travelling faster, farther on its back than many aspiring actresses.”

In the comments today, tell me which of these three authors you think wrote this fourth passage, then tell me why. Was it:

• Douglas Adams

• Minette Walters, or

• Tom Robbins


The Holy Grail of Voice – Part 1

This is the workshop I taught at New Jersey RWA’s conference. It’s 45 minutes long, so I’ll break it into smaller posts. Here we go!

The Holy Grail of “Voice”

by Deborah Cooke

As authors, we hear a lot about “voice”. You’ve probably been to a few sessions here where the editors and agents have said that they’re looking for “new voices”, maybe even “fresh new voices”. “Voice” is what is supposed to distinguish an author destined for stardom from everyone else. What is frustrating to many authors is that most of these industry professionals can’t or won’t define “voice” in clear terms. Like “scope” and “fresh”, they say that they know “voice” when they see it on the page.

So, what is “voice”? How do you know whether you have a strong “voice”? And perhaps most importantly, if you don’t have a strong “voice”, where do you find one?

The title of this workshop may have given you a clue that I don’t have an easy answer for these questions. I chose the title for a reason, and not just because I’m a medievalist with a fondness for adventure stories. This would be an analogy. You probably know the story of the quest of the Holy Grail – a group of knights gathered at the castle of King Arthur agree to go out and seek the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail in these vernacular tales – which are the medieval equivalent of “bestsellers” – is either a vessel of plenty or it is the chalice in which Joseph of Arimathea captured the blood of Jesus while he was dying on the cross, or it’s both. These knights set out on their quest, either individually or in groups. They think it will be pretty straight-forward, like a treasure hunt. They end up on spiritual missions, usually trying to prove themselves worthy of finding the Grail. The Grail is  elusive and mysterious, there are fantastical beings to be defeated and tests of valour, a lot of Christian and pagan elements mix it up along the way, and in the end, only one knight gets the prize. Depending which version of the story you read, a different knight will find the Grail.

So, my analogy here is between writers seeking their voices and those knights riding off to seek the Grail. There’s no map for either adventure and the quest will vary enormously from one writer to another, just as it varied from one knight to another. There also is a subjectivity to all of this – one writer may be told by one editor that she has an unmarketable or weak voice, while another editor might declare the same voice to be the freshest one she’s heard in years. Because this is a personal journey and because the markers are subjective, I can’t tell you exactly how to find your voice. The analogy holds because Merlin and the other advisors to the Round Table in the medieval stories couldn’t tell the knights how to find the Holy Grail either. Like Merlin, I can give you some idea as to what voice is, how to recognize it when you see it, and give you some ideas of where to start looking for yours. So, sharpen your sword and put on your best armour, say a prayer and off we’ll go.

I. Defining “Voice”.

Voice is a distinctive tone to a work. It’s what makes the work different from other similar works, and it is peculiar to fiction. This is both simple and complicated. Think of the way you recognize the voice or the laughter of a friend – you can often do this on the telephone in a word or two. It’s not just accent or pitch that makes a voice distinct. It can be a typical choice of words, or a characteristic way of describing things. Just as it’s hard to pinpoint the exact combination of elements that let you recognize the sound of someone’s voice, it’s difficult to precisely define the elements of a writer’s voice.

But we’ll try anyway.

Here are several typical components of voice, from broadest overview to narrowest scope:

a/ the overall tone of the author’s work. This might vary from work to work, but there will be common elements throughout all of the author’s work. Some authors are always funny or irreverent, while others have voices that are more evocative and romantic.

b/ the theme or themes that the author favors. Again, there may be variations, but a thorough study will show patterns. If you were at RWA National last summer, you will have heard Jayne Ann Krentz’s keynote and her point that you should know your core story. We’re talking about the same thing.

c/ the kinds of characters that author chooses. When we look at the romance genre, we can do some broad stroke work here. Susan Elizabeth Philips often has heroes who are sports figures. That’s unusual in our genre, and it’s part of her voice. Philippa Gregory tells the stories of specific noblewomen, usually of the British court. There are authors who write about proactive heroines or bookish heroines or flighty heroines who learn better. Within every author’s work, there are patterns.

d/ the specific way the author uses language to express him or herself. This can include whether the prose is lush or spare. Regional expressions can be part of voice. Southern voices have been very popular in the main list in recent years, for example. The amount of description, the amount of dialogue, and the balance between the two can be part of voice. The amount of action, the amount and the spiciness of sex scenes, the overall pacing, all fall under this umbrella as does the author’s vocabulary, or the choice of common vs. unusual words. Some authors like sentence fragments, some write sentences so long that they defy belief. This is all part of the author’s voice, of what makes his or her work distinctive.

If this is all feeling a bit slippery, don’t worry. Those are all vague qualities and I’m going to complicate the formula a bit more. Some authors have strong voices, some don’t. It’s more typical of literary fiction authors to exhibit clear voice. This is simply one of the realities of the literary fiction market – literary fiction is in many ways about language and the author’s dexterity with language. It makes sense that voice would play a big role in making a literary fiction author publishable. I could argue that literary fiction tends to be more about voice, and less about characterization and plot. This is in contrast to commercial fiction, which tends to be more about action and plot than voice.

There is another continuum as well. In all genres, single title works tend to exhibit the work of authors with stronger voices. Of all genres, I believe that romance is the latest to the game of promoting authors by voice, and I know that romance authors have been discouraged from cultivating strong voices in the past. Probably the weakest expression of voice in fiction has traditionally been in category romance. That’s changing, even in series. I invited Brenda Chin from Harlequin Blaze to a panel discussion about a year ago, and she said she can tell in one paragraph which of her authors wrote that paragraph, because her authors have such strong voices. That’s a big change.

Why would that change? As publishers become increasingly interested in building “author brands” in the marketplace, voice becomes a bigger variable. If you’ve taken branding workshops, you’ll find that there’s a lot of overlap between what they say about branding and what I’ll say about voice. If the author has a strong voice, the theory is that not only is there something to brand, but that readers will continue to buy works by the author because they like the voice. We, as readers, respond to a writer’s voice in the same way that we respond to individuals. We like certain storytellers. We trust certain storytellers. The thing is that all of us know a strong voice when we hear it or read it. What’s really interesting is that we assume that our response to the author’s voice will be the same as our response to the author herself.

Another reason that voice may be more clear in some genres is technical. An author’s voice is stronger in expositional passages. This makes sense, when you think about it, because in descriptive passages, the author’s voice isn’t competing with the voices of the characters. Because we write deep POV in romance, the characters’ voices are given more room for expression. Because we write a lot of action and dialogue, there is less space for the author’s voice to be heard.

You can still discern the author’s voice in dialogue, but you have to read more of his or her work for the voice to be clear. It’ll be easier when the book is written in third person, or without a strong voice from the POV character. In any given work, there can be a number of competing voices: there will be the author’s voice, the voice of the narrator or pov character, and the voices of the other characters. At any given point in that work, one of those voices may overwhelm the others, or they may all sing in harmony.

Is that squishy enough? Good, then my work here is begun.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about recognizing voice when you hear it.

Off to NJ RWA’s “Put Your Heart in a Book” Conference

It’s going to be quiet on the blog this week. I’m off to the New Jersey RWA chapter’s annual conference, with a few stops on the way. I’ll be teaching a workshop on Saturday – “The Holy Grail of Voice” – and there will be a booksigning open to the public on Saturday afternoon. I hope to meet some of you there!

Either way, have a great week. I know the conference is going to be wonderful – it always is.


So, I’ve been thinking – which usually means trouble. Or at least an analogy. (You’ve been warned!)

I signed up for a workshop online this past month and – although I’ve been quite the delinquent and inattentive student, given everything else going on around here. Deadlines can be distracting like that – I’ve been pondering what little I have read of the presentation. The workshop is The Warrior Writer, and it’s being taught by Bob Mayer. In his introduction, he notes “A key thing to remember as a writer is: pretty much the only power you have in the publishing business is the power to say NO.”

There’s truth in that statement. As authors. we are inclined to say YES, to take what we can get – no matter what it is or who offers it. That takes the power of the decision effectively out of our hands. Allowing ourselves to say NO means figuring out what the heck it is that we want — and not being afraid to tell people what it is.

You have to be careful with saying NO. Some people think that NO means NO, which isn’t unreasonable – when talking to those people, saying NO can end the conversation. For good. Some people, in contrast, think that NO means MAYBE, that it’s a negotiating stance. It’s important to know which kind of person you’re talking to, before you say NO. Alternatively, you can only say NO when you actually mean NO.

But that’s basic business sense. My point today is something else.

You see, I do think that authors have another power in publishing. It comes from the writing in the first place, but it tags along with us to the business of publishing.

That’s the power to choose.

In a way, you could say that’s similar and it is – we can choose whether or not to accept what we’re offered.

But we can also choose between ideas. That’s powerful stuff.

We can choose between tones for our fiction – light or dark? Funny or scary?

We can choose to write long or short, to be poetic or terse, to be descriptive or not.

We can choose the safe road or the risky one, the book of our heart or the sure-bet. (Are there any sure-bets in publishing anymore? Were there ever?)

We can choose which agents we query – and if we’ve done our homework in researching those agents, it becomes less problematic if we just say YES when one of our pre-selected candidates shows an interest.

Similarly, we can choose which editors see our work, which houses, and this will shape our options if those people are interested in our work.

We can choose to engage with our editor, agent, publicist. We can ask questions, make suggestions, share ideas.

All of these choices can affect our publishing destiny.

My favourite is the opportunity to choose between ideas. I have buckets of ideas, as do many writers. I have so many ideas that I could never turn them all into books – I’d have to find a way to write a book every two hours! That means I have to choose between them at fairly regular intervals. That also means that the majority of my ideas will never be developed into books. I find that hard sometimes, because I love them all. I prefer to turn the question around – it’s not that I’m abandoning some of my ideas. I’m choosing the best one to develop right now.

I might be right. I might be wrong. That’s part of the risk in choosing between ideas. (Remember Spiderman? “With great power comes great responsibility.” 🙂 ) Markets are constantly on the move, and authors play as guessing game as to where the market will be, once the book is completed and published. At best, that’s a year out. More likely, it’ll be two or three years (if we’re talking about traditional print publishing). Many things can happen in two or three years.

But I love choosing, playing with ideas, listing their strengths and weaknesses, guessing where that story will take me. I like being an active protagonist in my own publishing career. If I have access to expertise, I will usually ask for input – an editor can be a good source for information in predicting the market’s direction. If you’re in an established publishing relationship,  such discussions can give the relationship an even stronger footing – an editor or agent who has contributed to the choice of ideas, will often feel more of a commitment to that idea. That can help the idea ultimately find a home, too.

The trick to being happy with the act of chosing is simple: once I’ve chosen, I love writing the book, no matter which idea led to it. I don’t worry about those other ideas, the ones that didn’t make the cut, because by the time I need to choose again, I’ll have buckets of new ideas. I put everything into the idea I’ve chosen, because its success will determine my options at some point down the road.

So, what do you think? Do you actively choose your path in writing or publishing or reading?

Implications from Production

Yesterday, I talked about the production cycle for a print book. Because we’re reviewing how to schedule your time, today we’ll talk about some implications from that production cycle – and its demands upon writers.

Bear in mind that the chance to review the manuscript at each phase is a good, good thing. You just need to ensure that you have the time to do it. When you sell work on proposal, you must provide delivery dates to the publishing house for the books. You need to make those dates, which means your obligations to the house – and the time you will require to fulfil them – have to be factored into your calculation. The time required to do some of those steps are reasonably easy to anticipate; others less so. Either way, there’s a squish factor to add into your schedule.

Let’s break it down and see if we can quantify our squish factor, or at least narrow it down.

1/ Revisions

The biggest variable is with revisions. As an author, you can’t entirely plan for them. They might be huge, or they might not be. They might be minor, or they might be insidious and time consuming. It might not be clear to you what the editor means, or what exactly you need to do to address her concerns, which means you have another variable of Think Time and problem-solving. You might not agree with her, which means more discussion and Think Time.

Generally speaking, it is easier to anticipate revisions after you have an established relationship with a given editor. You will have a sense of what kinds of things are issues for her, and you will have developed a working relationship. You will have improved your communications with her, and you will both have a better understanding of what is intended and whether or not the book fulfils that expectation.

So, I would allocate a more generous window for revisions on a new book in a new series with a new editor. And I would decrease that window with each subsequent book, say by 25%. How exactly would that play out?

Example – you have a new deal with a new editor on a new series, and the book(s) sold on proposal. The first book is due January 1. On your calendar, in which you are plotting out the writing and delivery of book two, make a line on February 15. This is likely when you will hear back from the editor on the Delivery & Acceptance of the manuscript. If there are revisions, you will get them at this point in time. Allocate the time until March 15 for revisions. This gives you a window to make those changes. You might not need that time, as there might not be revisions, but then you can deliver book #2 early and be a hero. Even if there are revisions and you’ve blocked off this time, you’ll deliver book #2 on time, and still be a hero. If the revisions come a couple of weeks earlier or later, you’ll still have the time allocated and be able to gracefully manage them.

Continuing with the plan, if the second book is due September 1, again, block off a period beginning October 15 for revisions. It stands to reason that you’ll nail whatever big issues shook out on book #1 and that changes on book #2 will be smaller. Block off until November 7 for revisions. Again, you can deliver early if there are none.

If you sold a multiple book deal based on the first manuscript being complete, then use this projection for the subsequent books on the deal, which will have been sold on proposal. Chances are good that you’ll need to do the revisions on the first book to make the sale in the first place, so that will give you a better sense of how much time you’ll want to allocate.

When/if you come back to the table for a new deal, you will have a much better idea of how involved the revision process is with this series and this editor, and can adjust your scheduled deliveries as a result. Although authors do set their own deadlines, the main thing is that you need to meet them.

It is always always always better to deliver early than late.

2/ Copy Edit and Line Edit

Reviewing the line and copy edit is a case of reading through the manuscript with care. It’s a good idea to read the line edit a couple of times, to make sure you don’t miss anything. I also like to use post-it notes (yes, any excuse for office supplies) on a physical manuscript that has been copyedited. This flags areas that need more review, or items I need to look up.

It takes me a maximum of two days to review a physical line edit. Even if it seems clean after the first day of working on it, I leave it overnight in case I think of something else, or a better way to clarify something. I’ve been known to do them on the weekend to avoid breaking my work schedule on a current project.

Working with a digital copy edit is a little different. You can make digital notes or comments on the manuscript as you go, but I find it easy to overlook them. (And yes, I’m sure there are virtual post-it note applications, too.) I generally keep notes on a pad of paper, with page numbers, so I can look things up. For me, a digital copy edit takes longer – I need to step away from the computer screen after a couple of hours to give my eyeballs a break. I allow three days for a digital copy edit, or the weekend plus one weekday if I’m on deadline.

3/ Page Proofs

Page proofs should be comparatively quick. If you think about it, by this point in time, the potential errors in the text should be getting smaller in scope. You should be down to typos and minor issues. The continuity issues are always the evasive ones, and I’m convinced that there are gremlins busily creating new typos until the book is actually printed (there’s always one that makes it through the process!) but I typically read page proofs in one or two days.

It helps that they’re still physical pages. The eyeballs appreciate that!

There are some writers who like to have someone else look at either the copy edit or the page proofs. I know one author, for example, who is married to an English teacher. He reads her page proofs for her, because he’s better at spotting typos than she is. I’m enough of a control freak that even if I did that, I’d read them myself too. If a strategy like that is your choice, you’ll need to allocate time effectively.

4/ Summary

So, that’s an idea of how to deal with the obligations of the production cycle.

Bear in mind, as well, that we’re not addressing the thousands of other things authors do – besides writing. You will need to read your contract. You may need to ask questions about its clauses, to ensure that you understand it. You will need to write synopses for books sold on proposal – it’s typical that you only write the synopsis for the first one and a mere sketch for the subsequent ones. At some point in time, you’ll have to flesh out the sketch. You will be asked for input on cover art. You may be asked to weigh in on cover copy. You may seek out review quotes from other authors. You will have your own promotion to decide upon, arrange and do. Be sure to leave some buffer time for those issues and concerns.

But, maybe you have a better idea of how to calculate your projected delivery dates, as a result of this breakdown. The thing is, though, that there’s a big assumption buried in my overview – I’m assuming that you know how to revise effectively. That’s the only way you’ll be able to do whatever needs doing – even if it means rewriting the entire book manuscript – in the four weeks allotted to that task.

And many, many authors have trouble revising, or at least revising effectively. Let’s talk next week about strategies for making revisions. I have some other posts queued up, so we’ll have this discussion on Wednesday.

The Production Cycle

I’ve probably talked about this before, but I have page proofs to read this week, so that makes me think about it again.

One of the things that I try to get aspiring authors to do when I teach workshops is to figure out how many books they can comfortably write per year. This is a useful thing to know, because it can help that author make informed decisions. You have to be reasonably prolific to write for two houses, for example, or to write category. In both of those cases, frequent publication is a big part of success. Authors who write more slowly might do better writing longer books, single title books, mainstream books or in genres other than romance – which is probably the most geared to frequent publication of all the genres.

But there’s a big squish factor in that calculation, one that is hard to grasp for aspiring writers. That variable is the time commitment required from the author to aid in the production process of the sold book. Authors sell a book manuscript to a publishing house, but that manuscript has to make its way through the production cycle to become a book. Along the way, the author’s input and involvement is expected. It’s hard for authors who have never gone through this production cycle to anticipate how long it will take to do each step, which makes it hard for them to add enough buffer into their own expectations of how many books they can write per year.

So, let’s look at the production cycle of a print book and get a better idea of what the author needs to do at each step of the process.

1/ Revisions

Once upon a time, revisions only occurred when there were major changes to be made to the book manuscript. If the editor thought the hero was unsympathetic, for example, on a delivered book, and that hero needed a personality transplant, a revision would be requested. Smaller items, like clarifying the timeline or how characters got from point A at the end of chapter 3 to point B at the beginning of chapter 4 (usually resolved with a single sentence) were left for the next stage of the production cycle, the line edit. As print publishing has moved to digital delivery, though, it has become increasingly common to make ALL changes, even teeny ones, before the book manuscript is transmitted to Production.

This means that revisions used to happen once in a while. Now they happen every time. There’s always something small to tweak or clarify.

In terms of timeline, it’s typical to hear back from an editor 4 to 6 weeks after delivery of the manuscript. At this point, the book will already be on the schedule, so there will be deadlines from Production to be met in order to ensure that there are printed books in the stores on time. Deadlines from Production trump everything. For a major revision, the author will be allowed about a month to deliver a revised manuscript. If the author can’t do the revision in that time – which might involve rewriting the entire book – the publication slot will likely be pushed out into the future. Minor revisions will be given a week or two. Generally, the book manuscript will be transmitted to Production about 11 months before the on sale date.

2/ Copy Edit and Line Edit

These are two separate processes, which are viewed by the author at the same time, when both have been completed. A freelance copy editor is hired by the house to read the ms for continuity, grammar, house style, etc. etc. The line edit is done by the acquiring editor, and is more focussed on broader issues – does this book adhere to reader expectations for this sub-genre, for example. In reality, both editors mark anything they see as a problem.

Once upon a time, the copy edit was returned to the author in physical form – it was the printed manuscript that the author had originally delivered (or a photocopy of it) marked up in red pencil by the copy editor and regular pencil by the acquiring editor. The author must review the edits, answer queries, clarify as requested or STET changes to which he or she does not agree, then return the copyedited manuscript to the house.

Once again, there are deadlines provided by the Production department. It is typical for the copy edit to turn up 6 or 8 weeks after the author delivers the revised manuscript. It will be expected back in Production in about two weeks. When a physical manuscript was involved, the transit time between house and author often came out of the author’s two week review period. Couriers got lots of business out of this process.

Now, many houses work digitally, so the copyedited manuscript is transmitted to the author by email in a great whonking attachment. It must be reviewed by the author and returned to the house, usually with a similar two week window.

Some houses send the worksheet done by the freelance copy editor. I really prefer to see this, as it cites the reference sources used by the copy editor (which dictionary, for example, as well as NYT or Chicago Book of Style). The copy editor makes a list of the first mention of all characters, often referring to previous books in the series, citing spelling of their name and some pertinent detail(s). There’s also a vocabulary list, which includes spellings favoured by the author (when there’s a choice) and the spelling of words manufactured by the author. (Like dragonfire, or angelfire, in my respective cases.) And it lists style choices, like the fact that the role of each member of the Pyr is always capped (the Smith, the Wyvern), that Pyr and Slayer are set in italics, that Pyr is both singular and plural, but that Slayers is in italics with a roman “s”.  Any errors found in the style sheets and marked up can be repaired globally in Production (we love “search and replace”!) and will be carried forward to the style sheets for subsequent books.

The author is not the only one reviewing the manuscript at each of these phases. It is also read inhouse – changes from both copy editor and author are reviewed by the acquiring editor, and the manuscript is read for clarity in Production, as well.

3/ Page Proofs

About 6 – 8 weeks after the copy edit has been returned to the house, the manuscript will turn up again on author’s doorstep, as first pass page proofs. (Some writers call this the Boomerang Effect. Each time an author sends the book back to the house, in 6 – 8 weeks, it boings right back again!) These pages look like the finished book’s pages.

Once upon a time, these proofs were from typesetting – now they are from digital conversions of the files to the final format. The author must read the page proofs for typographical errors, again in time to meet a deadline from the Production department. It’s also the last chance for catching continuity errors. Page proofs remain physical proofs – at many houses, the author is required only to send back those pages with corrections. Some people fax them, depending upon how “clean” the proofs are.

Things like lost page breaks or scene breaks become apparent in the page proofs. With my angel series, for example, we have a lot of font changes – the information that appears from databanks or in newspaper articles is set in a different font than the rest of the book, and starts on a new page. Inconsistencies in this become clear in the page proofs and can be corrected then. Things like dedications and acknowledgements can be added at this point. Since every single page of the printed book is included, the copyright registration can be checked, as well as the front matter – these are the pages before the book starts and often include review quotes or excerpts. The end matter – the pages after the end of the book – is not usually included. End matter is often advertising for the author’s own books or similar books from the house. Maybe it’s not included because people are still deciding upon it.

The Production department also reads the page proofs simultaneously, and reads them again after the author’s changes have been integrated into the text.

When there are Advanced Reading Copies made for the book, they are always made from the first pass page proofs. So, an author will often receive ARC’s – if there are to be any – while he or she is reading page proofs, or just after he or she has sent them back to the house. This means that if no one will tell you for sure whether there will be ARC’s – they might not know – by one month after you read page proofs, you will know for sure. You’ll either have them or not, and that will be that.

4/ Finished Books

The next time the author sees the book, it will be a finished product. These will likely be the author’s complementary copies, the quantity of which has been stipulated in the contract. Some houses ship comps in advance of publication date. Some ship them on publication date. Some editors are sweeties and send an early copy to the author so the author can see it sooner. Sometimes the first time an author sees his or her own book is displayed in the bookstore.

5/ Implications

So, what does this mean, in terms of the author’s time? More importantly, what does it mean in terms of the author budgeting that time, in making commitments for deliveries in advance? Is there any way to get a grip on the squish factor?

This post is getting quite long, so let’s have a look at those questions tomorrow.

Thanks to ORWA!

A big THANK YOU is due to all the writers at Ottawa RWA. I had a wonderful time teaching at that chapter this past Sunday – plus we had some great conversations at lunch and dinner. Thank you all for your hospitality and your attention, and for the invitation in the first place. It was a fabulous day.

Here’s hoping I cross paths with some of you again soon – maybe at National in Nashville (or probably at Pearson on the way to Nashville).