One of my favorite columnists, Teryl Zarnow, has been stripped of her voice. Her newspaper column was filled with her ruminations of the everyday stuff of being married and being a parent. How many times I nodded and mumbled out a,”you’re so right, sistah.”
The paper, in their search to cut costs, cut Teryl’s column and relegated her to the online paper. People must have complained because Teryl was given a reprieve and brought back to the paper. Yay. Well….no. They brought her back, but took away all the elements that made her her. The funny stories about visiting her daughter in NY are replaced with the economics of graffiti – articles that any intern could belt out.
The paper had removed the very essence of this talented woman’s unique writing – her ability to analyze the mundane of family life into the special. The thoughtful. I feel badly for Teryl because her articles lack zing. Sadly, I don’t read her anymore.
And that’s the importance of voice.
Oh dahling, I love what you’re wearing!
I think of voice as literary fashion. For example, there’s this one lady that I often see around town. She has a wonderful wardrobe and jewelery, and her hair and makeup are perfectly done. Doesn’t matter if she’s at the grocery store or at the post office. She. Looks. Fabulous. If she wore jeans and tennies like the rest of us, chances are I wouldn’t recognize her because she blends in with the rest of us slobs. She’s bland. She has no voice.
Try looking at your writing the same way. Is your writing style distinguishable and unique? Are the wearing snappy shoes and a fabulous necklace?
When I think of Thad Rutkowski’s writing, I know I’ll always see something darkly humorous in a minimalist style. He’s known for it. On the other hand, Ludmilla Bollow’s voice is lyrical and given to beautiful literary prose that makes my heart ache. Chip Jacobs voice is descriptive and ironically witty, and always makes me laugh quite unexpectedly – whether it’s his wonderful book or his newspaper articles. I could pick up any of these authors’ works and recognize it from a mile away.
The trick is to make your writing memorable by being your own personal shopper. Make sure that you pick complementary shoes and handbags, and don’t you dare think about mixing stripes and polkadots.
I don’t want my editor to take away my voice
I hear this at conferences a lot. Let me just say that this is a non-issue. Unlike short-sighted newspapers, editors buy books based on the story and how strong the writer’s voice comes through. It makes no sense to come in and destroy it. Anyone can write a flavorless work that contains characters and plot. But it’s HOW the author writes it is what makes it memorable. For example, I can say the same thing with or without voice:
I was so angry at Joe.
I was so angry at Joe that had someone offered me tar and feathers, Joe would be the punk version of Sasquatch.
Now imagine an entire book written in both voices – which one sounds like it would be a better read? One sentence has flavor and sets a tone, and the other just sits there like a wet booger. That’s voice. And thar be no way we want to interfere with that.
So how does the editor influence voice?
First off, we don’t. Editors are like the group of friends you bring to Macy’s. We sit in our comfy chairs and critique your fashion choices through the many chapters of your literary dressing room.
“Dahling, that dress makes your butt look fabulous, but you need flesh out your main character more.”
“I love that belt with those shoes, but I think you have this scene in the wrong POV.”
“Lose the jacket, it hides your arms, and while you’re at it, add some good transitional sentences between your paragraphs.”
“Try on that necklace, and also think about moving that scene to an earlier part of the book.”
Our job is bring out the very best elements of your designer words.
And that’s my bag-of-angry at my local newspaper. Teryl knew how to dress herself with amazing taste and quality, but they decided she looked better in clothes from the Salvation Army. You don’t bring a pea-shooter to a war, and you don’t waste a talented writer on parking meter violations. Sheesh, no wonder papers aren’t doing well.