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Author Topic: Voice
extrinsic
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What's the deal with voice? Why is voice hard to comprehend as a creative writing concept? Yet voice is a leading demand from the marketplace, and craft, which is its own challenge and parallel to and enhancing voice, and mechanical style, which rounds up the top three qualities the marketplace expects from products for performance reading and comprehension ease and, of course, entertainment value, which is the metric by which a literary product’s potential performance is measured, be entertainment value emotional, intellectual, spiritual, inspirational, recreational, or even physical stimulation.

Voice sticks in my mind as problematic because voice encompasses many expectable as well as creative aspects. I've expended much effort trying to appreciate voice's many qualities: the attitude of a central persona toward a topic or subject of a dramatic action, subjective or objective attitude, author, implied author, narrator, or viewpoint character attitude; the several voices of a narrative, there being of necessity an author's voice, the voice of an implied author mediating between author and characters, a narrator no matter how involved and present, and character voices. That's two first-tier arenas for voice. A third is the emotional context of any given voice at any given time, which is similar to attitude but includes mood and tenor.

One of the easier yet troublesome approaches I found to voice came about from investigating narrative distance. A similar term, conflated with narrative distance, is discussed in John Gardner's The Craft of Fiction. He labels the concept "psychic distance," which is how I first came to know the concept during a writing workshop years ago. They are similar concepts; however, recognizing their differences was illuminating.

Narrative distance is the degree of separation between a narrator's voice and a character's voice. Psychic distance is the degree of access a narrator or implied author has to a character's perceptions and thoughts, though ideally a narrator is not perceived as standing at a lectern orating a narrative, standing in the way of experiencing the moving portrait of a dramatic action.

Close distance regardless estranges a narrator's voice in favor of a character's voice: the character's perceptions, reactions to causal stimuli, and thoughts responding to causal perceptions and stimuli. Readers anymore favor close distance, the closer, to a point, the better. Too close might feel creepy or broach taboo topics. Too distant, readers feel alienated from the immediate persons, times, places, situations, and events of an unfolding dramatic action.

Readers find difficulty engaging in a narrative's participation mystique when the narrator is present and cold and aloof as if speaking from a platform on high removed from the action, remotely observing, reporting, and commenting on, not participating in the action, the way traditional creative writing was pre -- I don't know -- mid Nineteenth century, although standout narratives span the literary opus back to the beginnings.

The issue I see readers today have with narrator voices is their tendency to intrude on and disrupt the action. The number one issue, that of an unsettled narrator's voice breaking the participation mystique spell, thus reminding readers of the artficiality of a narrative's constructed reality, thus challenging willing suspension of disbelief.

A narrative voice is unsettled when it awkwardly switches back and forth from narrator, or implied author in the case of first-person narratives, to character with little or no reason. The narrator gives a voiceover, summarizing or explaining the action, diegesis and exigesis respectively. Narrator voice opens narrative distance, period, which can be artfully deployed, but the setup and transition between voices are challenging to accomplish and may lose readers regardless. Unless, and these are the challenges of a narrator voice; the narrator is who readers most closely associate with and who has the strongest attitude toward a topic or subject of the action and the narrator's identity is artfully, clearly, and fully developed.

The main qualities readers want from voice that I see from investigating, reading, dissecting, and thinking processes, and no small quantity of insightful instruction and direction: attitude; close standing to persons, times, places, situations, and events; close access to a central character's thoughts and reactions to dramatic stimuli; and a voice settled into a central viewpoint perspective. The closer in person, time, place, situation, and event and more central a voice is to the action, the more impact a voice will have for readers, the more likely a literary product will perform in the current marketplace.

[ May 22, 2012, 05:21 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Robert Nowall
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Seems like you said it all...well, with me, most times, it seems like the narrator voice shouldn't be intrusive, but sometimes, it seems better if the narrator is somebody who's telling the story to someone, even if I don't define who and why...or is that person who's telling it me-to-the-reader?

Then there's the difference between third-person and first-person...first-person is obviously the main character, but is the main character telling-it-as-it-goes, or telliing-it-after-it's-all-over?

(I say this in theory...my own execution is somewhat clumsy, of course.)

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MattLeo
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Hmm. I don't think this kind of analytic approach is all that helpful in the matter of voice.

I once critiqued a few chapters of an urban fantasy about vampires. My first reaction was, "Ugh, another one of these stupid things." But it wasn't. The author was interested in the question of whether freedom is what people really want, and poses the question of whether it is moral to exploit people if they are content to be exploited. Consequently this MS was rarity: a truly creepy vampire story.

There are many highly intelligent and motivated people who are desperate to become authors. And a few of them may become so on the strength of compositional perfection or mastery of technique. But of the manuscripts I've critiqued, the best written ones aren't necessarily the most interesting. It's the MSs where the author has something to say that stand out; where the writer's not simply drawing inspiration from the same pop-culture wells as everyone else.

Of course it helps if the manuscript is well-written. And of course narration needs to be in an appropriate style. The detached, ironic, absurdist style of Hitchiker's Guide wouldn't work for Ender's Game, but it fits its own subject matter perfectly. HHTG isn't just burlesque; Douglas Adams has some very unflattering things to say about the narcissism and incompetence of people who lead our society, and the complacency of those who follow them. In a very sly way, HHTG is moving. Take away the caustic attitude it would lose its voice. Close the narrative distance and it would become obnoxiously strident

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extrinsic
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Robert Nowall, I think you have the voice of a raconteur type storyteller who tells tales around campfires.

MattLeo, to each their own approach. Analytical works for me as an editor commenting on strengths and shortcomings. And analytical has worked magic on my writing shortcomings. Voice being a major stumbler. Offered for like minded writers struggling with voice, a trying struggle for writers.

I read and enjoyed both Ender's Game and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxay, as well as Adams' Dirk Gently, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, and others. Adams masterfully manages multiple central viewpoints and personas, including narrator voice that closes narrative distance from attitude and other features, one of comic irony. Narrator identity is strong in Adams' writing.

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MattLeo
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extrinsic -- I overstated the case when I said that an analytic approach is not all that helpful in developing a voice. What you are talking about here may well be exactly what some writers need.

I'm not against an analytic approach to critique as anyone who's received a critique from me knows. And I *certainly* endorse the idea that managing narrative distance cannily and unobtrusively is critical. One of my most common critique notations is that a piece of narration inadvertently jars the reader out of the POV character's head (particularly what I call "state of mind" words like "saw", "realized" or "understood").

What I'm suggesting is that you can't count on a distinctive voice emerging simply by getting these things right. I think it's only half the equation. This can be demonstrated by asking a simple question: can you think of a writer with an interesting voice who has nothing interesting to say?

Conversely, I've read numerous manuscripts with nothing to say that manage to say it very skillfully.

So let me suggest what might be the other half of the equation. Chuck out the old advice to "write about what you know." Write about what you care about.

I've seen a number of interesting articles about what constitutes "voice", but if you look at what editors and agents *mean* when they say voice, they mean a manuscript that can evoke the ordinary pleasures of reading from somebody whose job it is to read manuscripts all day, many of which are well-written, but not that interesting.

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MartinV
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Voice comes with mileage. Can't produce it rationally without sounding tacky.
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extrinsic
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Voice has mechanical qualities that can be taught, learned, developed. Voice also has artful qualities that are unique to individuals and can only be developed by an individual. What any given person takes voice to mean comes with baggage and mileage and varies widely. The way I know voice, it has a gamut of qualities that spans and influences and enhances craft: setting, plot, idea, character, event, and discourse. Though voice is distinguishable, an artful voice is indivisible from a whole.

Actually, I know voice from other writing disciplines too: creative nonfiction, writing pedagogy and andragogy, rhetoric, expository composition, professional research and reporting, inquiry, problem solving, and argumentation. Many of them use the term expression instead. And for craft they use instead content and organization. Mechanical style remains mechanical style across the writing spectrum, though grammar is a catchall term used oftentimes imprecisely as a substitute.

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MattLeo
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quote:
What any given person takes voice to mean comes with baggage and mileage and varies widely.
Then it appears we're having a debate about terminology, and it would be much better to use a straightforward term for what we mean (e.g. "artistry" or "artistic expression" or "style") rather than jargon.

I think the reason writers worry about "voice" is that what editors and agents say they're looking for is a "distinctive voice". But of course this is jargon too.

So in plain terms, what is it that you think these people are looking for when they say they want "distinctive voices"? How is that thing to be measured, and how does one go about achieving a high score on that measure?

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extrinsic
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"Jargon," an excellent word choice for illustrating voice's attitude feature. Jargon's commonly negative denotation expresses an attitude, signaling disapproval of word choice and meaning. How delightfully ironic, a situational irony.

I don't know that voice is a writing jargon term. Jargon to me is unintelligible, confusing terms used for in-group coding, often with negative denotations and connotations, among other somewhat less negative connotations. Writing jargon in my book includes terms like slush, slush pile, slush reader, newbie, wannabe, signaling a negative attitude.

Vernacular, vocabulary, or lexicon have mostly neutral connotations and denotations, neutral attitudes, and the terms used span writing consensuses' understanding, like voice as a writing vocabulary term, in its simplest meaning is a medium of expression.

Yes, attitude is one feature screening readers, readers in general demand. To measure attitude, consider if a voice has one, and if so, to what degree of access and meaning. Is the attitude agreeable? Or is the attitude disagreeable to the point of being alienating? Do readers identify with or associate with negativity? With pedantic lecturing or preaching narrators? Do readers identify with another emotional expression? Anger? Joy? Sadness? Frustration? Fear? Pity? Delight? Desperation?

The gamut of human emotions ranges from universal and primal to unique and abstract. Is the voice emotional is the question. If so, then its measure is a matter of how effectively a voice's emotional meaning is conveyed, how effectively the voice's emotional attitude suits the subject or topic, and whether readers can easily access the emotional meaning of the voice. Score high on voice's attitude feature by expressing emotion.

Narrative distance and psychic distance are measured by degree of access to a viewpoint persona's immediate perceptions and thoughts. No more; no less. In terms of voice, that means anymore access to a character's voice. What word choices or diction are used, what syntax, what is the intent and meaning, how is the content organized. Is it organized? More often than not, struggling writers' writing I read is not well-organized in terms of narrative distance, nor in terms of ample content for expressing an intended meaning. To score high on narrative distance stay close to and fully express a central character's viewpoint regarding immediately unfolding dramatic action. C. J. Cherryh I believe calls this K.I.T.: Keep In Touch.

Dramatic action is another matter more closely related to craft, in particular plot, or dramatic structure, but nonetheless related to voice. Does a viewpoint character clearly, fully, artfully express a want? And does the character passionately clash with opposition impeding achieving the want? Thus emotionally meaningful? To score high on plot, establish a want and opposition, keep the outcome in doubt until at least a final crisis, or the transformation crisis in my private writing lexicon, before a denouement act, and deliver a final, irrevocable, unequivocal transformation as the outcome of the clashing want and opposition.

[ May 23, 2012, 11:26 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Robert Nowall
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quote:
Robert Nowall, I think you have the voice of a raconteur type storyteller who tells tales around campfires.
If I ever get the chance to collect my stuff in a [printed] collection, and need some linking material, I'll have to remember you said that.
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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
...well, with me, most times, it seems like the narrator voice shouldn't be intrusive, but sometimes, it seems better if the narrator is somebody who's telling the story to someone, even if I don't define who and why...or is that person who's telling it me-to-the-reader?

Then there's the difference between third-person and first-person...first-person is obviously the main character, but is the main character telling-it-as-it-goes, or telling-it-after-it's-all-over?

These questions are worth answering for your writing aesthetic. Do define who's telling a story to who. And develop both identities as fully as possible.

One of the artful rhetorical modes is an apostrophe: a direct address to someone not present. In a sense, readers are present. An assumption an author or implied author can make is that a story will be read. Implied readers at least, or real readers are of necessity part of the conversation, hopefully, at some point in time. Say an address is to a deceased person, in second-person. That's an apostrophe. Similarly, a diary entry addressing a person who isn't supposed to read it. An apostophe. Though an apostrophe creates a degree of separation between dramatic personas, the glimpse into an intimate, private conversation entices readers, evokes curiosity, which close narrative distance anyway.

Another method is dramatic monologue, where one person addresses a person or audience who is present within the narrative. One Thousand and One Nights is written in that voice. Scheherazade's voice fades away within the story installments though, getting out of the way of the moving portraits she paints, and resurfaces during the interludes. Not quite fully faded, most of the Arabian Tales are reported in a summary recital voice, tale tells told by Scheherazade.

Whether a story is told as it goes or after it's all over is a matter of tense's influence on voice. Past tense feels more objective from the quality of reporting the past when all is known about a circumstance. Past tense's figurative use as immediate-past substituting for present tense feels more reliable than literal present tense's default subjective nature. Present tense is a voice of unreliability. If that voice suits the subject matter, beautiful.

First-person, similarly, by default is a subjective voice, third-person an objective voice by default. First-person by default has a close, if not closest narrative distance potential. Third-person substituted for first-person potentially can be as close as first-person and yet feel objective. Actually, that's a good reason to write third-person, for objectivity's sake. Then first-person, present tense for maximum subjectivity's sake, if the subject matter of a dramatic action suits that voice.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Jargon to me is unintelligible, confusing terms used for in-group coding, often with negative denotations and connotations
Well, that's what *I* think "jargon" is too, although I intend no negative connotations toward what you have said here, other than that it is likely to be unintelligible to a lot of people who could benefit from it.

"Voice" is unquestionably writing and critical jargon, and it's confusing because it can be used to refer to several related but distinct things: the *effect* of distinctiveness or freshness in narration, the techniques used to produce that effect, and the persona of the narration.

Now I'd like take the unproductive issue of what "voice" means off the table, because when you talk about "narrative distance" you happen to be talking about one of my favorite writing techniques: sneaking the subjective perspective of a POV character into third person narration. As a satirist, I find it indispensable for achieving certain comic effects.

Take for example an unreliable narrator. In first person narration I can (I hope) get you to laugh *at* the narrator's folly. With third person limited it hits a little closer to home, because for just an instant I can get you to share that folly.

Or imagine a comical misunderstanding between two characters. Character A totally misconstrues B's reaction to something he does. This is easy to show in third person omniscient narration; it's harder but more funny to show this in first person or third person limited narration. Elizabeth Peters is a master of pulling off this comic riff in first person narration. When her Victorian sleuth Amelia believes she is persuading people with reason, a careful reader sees that she's actually cowing them with her overbearing personality. It's hilarious in first person but not funny at all in third person omniscient.

I tend to stay close to the POV character's subjective perspective, but there are times when I pull back to a more objective perspective. One reason are the rare occasions when an indepedent narrator opinion is called for(e.g., if the character is doing something which is ironic or contradictory and is not aware of it). I also tend to start scenes with more "distant" narration. This avoids calling attention to how biased the narration of the scene is going to be, and also gives me a convenient place to move the story forward with a little "telling" ("diegesis" if you prefer).

As for how I manipulate distance, it's largely a matter of ear. As I get closer to the POV character, the narration takes on the rhythm and rhetorical style of character's speech. I use free indirect speech more. When I want to pull back I use blander narration, like I'm writing an essay for school. And instead of free indirect speech I'll use phrases that tag the POV character's thoughts as thoughts ("thought", "saw", "realized" etc.).

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History
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"My dinner with Extrinsic"
--starring Extrinsic and Matt Leo

The mechanics of narrative story-telling
or
Pay attention to the man behind the curtain. [Smile]

You are both way too smart for me. And, having been a happy recipient, I agree Matt Leo's insights in his story critiques are erudite and efficacious.

For me:
Characters (including story narrators) possess VOICE.
Authors possess STYLE.

Possessing both...Priceless*

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

* and probably = Publication

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by History:

For me:
Characters (including story narrators) possess VOICE.
Authors possess STYLE.

Possessing both...Priceless*

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

* and probably = Publication

Do that, two out of an infinity of mischiefs managed.

MattLeo,

This one: "Elizabeth Peters is a master of pulling off this comic riff in first person narration. When her Victorian sleuth Amelia believes she is persuading people with reason, a careful reader sees that she's actually cowing them with her overbearing personality." [a browbeater? hilarious] along with this one: "As for how I manipulate distance, it's largely a matter of ear. As I get closer to the POV character, the narration takes on the rhythm and rhetorical style of character's speech. I use free indirect speech more. When I want to pull back I use blander narration, like I'm writing an essay for school. And instead of free indirect speech I'll use phrases that tag the POV character's thoughts as thoughts ('thought', 'saw', 'realized' etc.)." are in combination partly the voice of William Thackeray Makepeace's Vanity Fair, 1848.

Until I understood the many voice techniques Makepeace uses in the novel I had difficulty reading and enjoying it. It is the novel with the dread poison pill said-bookism "ejaculated," seven out of nine variants for tagged direct speech and the remaining twice for tagged indirect speech. Makepeace is comprehensive in setting scenes, developing characters, plotting a complex cast of characters' dramatic complications.

I think the omniscient narrator's voice expressing ironic at times, judgmental at times, disapproving at times commentary makes the novel, though the character voices are on the flat side. Few character idiosyncracies or idioms not expressed by the narrator's voice, and also dialect that's punctuation formatted rather than spelled out, as is the trend direction for nonstandard dialect since the 1960s.

There's no psychic access to speak of. No deep thoughts to speak of not expressed verbally or speculated upon by the narrator. Some free indirect thought, some tagged, but superficial. Narrative distance is on the open side. Some degree of passionate characters' clashing wants and oppositions makes up for the removed distance. Having an ever-present narrator with the stongest attitude, and a somewhat developed narrator identity, causes readers to identify with and associate most with the overbearing narrator's high-brow attitude. It's quite clear who the intended audience is. I don't much care for the lectured preaching the novel in sum projects. And I don't think it has the close and personally intimate narrative voice access to thoughts of our times' preference.

[ May 23, 2012, 06:16 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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rcmann
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*sits punch drunk*
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KayTi
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So...tell me, MattLeo and extrinsic...what do you think about voice and editing?

I have my own opinions, which fall strongly in the "stop editing or you'll kill what it is that makes your writing YOURS!" camp. But I'm curious about your opinions. You've clearly done more thinking about this than I have.

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MattLeo
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quote:
"My dinner with Extrinsic"
--starring Extrinsic and Matt Leo

I thought I'd seen this film before -- only this version has two Andres and no Wallace Shawn.

quote:
So...tell me, MattLeo and extrinsic...what do you think about voice and editing?

I have my own opinions, which fall strongly in the "stop editing or you'll kill what it is that makes your writing YOURS!" camp. But I'm curious about your opinions. You've clearly done more thinking about this than I have.

I'm not an expert so there's no reason to credit anything I say, but I think revision ought to *strengthen* the distinctiveness of your writing. You find the places where your style is bland, inconsistent, or inappropriate, then you work on making them "pop". I think voice-as-distinctiveness doesn't have to be a happy accident or an elusive, mystical gift. You can create it deliberately, even adopting different styles for different stories or different narrative POVs.

If revision tends to make your writing more bland, I suspect you are trying too hard to please too many people too much of the time. No matter how good your writing is on a piece some people won't like it. Even more importantly, often people won't get it, and consequently they give exactly the wrong advice.

That's why while you ought to listen to critique, you ought never take it at face value. Rather than take peoples' advice and do what they expect, take that advice and do something unexpected. Sometimes it's worth courting reader disapproval at certain places in a story in order to take them someplace different.

As for editing other peoples' manuscripts, that is an art in itself which I'm not qualified to comment on.

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extrinsic
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I've run into editors who don't and won't appreciate a creative vision and instead impose their vision on writers'. Voice can suffer from that degree of editing. Craft less so but similarly ursurping ownership nonetheless.

Rewriting and revision can, as MattLeo points out, and should strengthen a narrative. Revising solely to adjust mechanical style concerns, proofreading or copyediting really, doesn't alter craft or voice shortcomings.

One of the most common craft shortcomings I encounter in struggling writer writing is awkward plotting for little accessible reason. My principle is if a part doesn't connect to a whole, it's superfluous, if not a distraction, a red herring in one writing jargon, a kitchen sink plot in another, prestidigitation writing in another, and other disapproving terms used by critiquers and critics.

Revising for voice strengths, besides artful flair--structural voice qualities is one of the most common revision techniques that may strengthen a whole and its parts. Actually, experienced writers regardless of writing category think draft writing is a small part of writing as a whole; rewriting and revision for enhancing craft and voice take up a majority of their efforts.

Number one voice issue I see in struggling writer creative writing is unsettled voice: author, implied author, and narrator summary and explanation recitals standing in for far more artful mimesis writing, and consequently, writer frustration with identifying unsettled voice, recital voice, and mimesis voice, adjusting for unsettled voice, and making voice seamless.

The writing text that got me over the voice plateau hurdle I was stuck on is Seymour Chatman's Story and Discourse. The text is readable but meaningfully dense. It took me months to read and comprehend the discussion. Months more to fully grasp the concepts. And several years to go beyond purely an intellectual understanding. I'm working on application that's not so much of a struggle to implement.

[ May 27, 2012, 09:05 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Brendan
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quote:
I think revision ought to *strengthen* the distinctiveness of your writing. You find the places where your style is bland, inconsistent, or inappropriate, then you work on making them "pop". I think voice-as-distinctiveness doesn't have to be a happy accident or an elusive, mystical gift. You can create it deliberately, even adopting different styles for different stories or different narrative POVs.

If revision tends to make your writing more bland, I suspect you are trying too hard to please too many people too much of the time.

I think what KayTi is getting at is that revision can destroy the initial voice. I think this is because we, as writers, tend to put on different voices when writing, including a "get the story down quick" voice and an editorial voice during revisions. These voices can be so different that the two voices do not blend well, or the edited version does polish at the expense of the immediacy of the initial voice. This can occur whether you have an audience in mind, or you are your only audience.

Revision is something that creates a variety of opinions in the professional writers' circles. Some go through several drafts before their manuscripts are ready, including some that state that their initial draft is rubbish. Others, like Holly Lisle, state "As a professional writer, don't have time to rewrite anymore. Rewriting is for ameteurs." Still others believe that a moderate amount of revision is all that is necessary, preferring to pour their thinking into the planning process. (Note, others feel that if they plan, the story has been told and therefore they become less motivated to tell the story.) So, with such variety of opinions and story writing approaches, whilst it may be a concern that voice can be destroyed while editing, I suspect that it is more an issue of the writer not being an editing style of writer, or one that has an editing voice that is too distinctive from its initial writing voice.

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