CRAFT: maybe it IS changing your voice–decide

Today I was sent a link to an editor’s blog post about how she doesn’t feel that she is changing an author’s voice (or style, if you will) when she changes passages or “tightens them up.” I couldn’t get the Blogspot software to accept my comment, although I tried with my Google ID, my LiveJournal ID, and with Open ID. It kept crying that the cookie was invalid or whatever. Bad blogspot. No cookie!

What’s interesting is that the justification she gave for tightening or condensing things was perfectly rational. I just didn’t think that the way she implemented it had “no effect” on the book as far as how it came across to the reader, which is what we mean ultimately when we speak of voice or style. I will argue that she didn’t realize that she was indeed making a major change, one that I would object to (and suspect that others would, as well).

Well, anyway, I found the point of that post intriguing, and I wanted to respond. So here’s the original post that you can go read:

http://omnificpublishing.blogspot.com/2011/08/editors-corner-youre-stifling-my-voice.html

Basically, the editor is saying that she revised

“Fred saw her walking down the lane toward him. Now, Fred was no idiot. Everyone who knew Fred constantly talked about how smart Fred was. He was really smart, and being so smart, he wasn’t about to let her walk past him without taking the opportunity to speak to her, as any intelligent man would.”

(Yes, it’s very over-the-top. It sounds like part of a satire or parody, frankly, something that would have Fred being sort of a fool who thought he was smart, and a character who’s there to screw things up as a type of comic relief. I would expect the next line to be some kind of ridiculous thing he would say to her that sets off an explosion in the plot.)

to

“Fred considered himself an intelligent man, and when he saw her walking down the lane, he knew he couldn’t let her pass without speaking to her.”

(Which, IMHO, is straight narrative that encapsulates the action as just plain old action with no “spin.” There is really no suggestion, to me, that we as readers are supposed to start getting ready to laugh.)

May I play the devil’s advocate here for a moment? (Some might say the Devil him/herself.)

A major change has taken place in this revision. Let’s look at the original. It sounds like something written in, say, the 1930s USA at the latest. Herman Wouk’s first books, or Sinclair Lewis at his most twee. It’s almost a Jane Austen-esque pastiche: “Fred considered himself an intelligent man, and, as such, he thought he was pretty good at thinking and that sort of thing. Thoughts came to him as freely as M&Ms to a Mars, Inc., employee on break.” It’s kind of a telescope-out tweaking of the genre. (Don Westlake was the last writer who really got away with this type of thing–look at the late Dortmunder novels and the sort of thinking that his minor characters do–and he was allowed to do this because he was already a best-seller and an acknowledged GrandMaster.) Our market no longer approves of such books, or so they claim. Therefore, we can’t allow this example passage to stand as is.

The passage does have appeal, in that it lets us imagine the internal thoughts of the character–and it’s not dry narrative. (Narrative is too often something that readers take very seriously.) I know it SOUNDS like Victorian authorial intrusion, but because we’re in Fred’s POV, this comes across more as a musing he is having, despite naming himself in third person. “Now, Fred was no idiot. Everyone who knew Fred constantly talked about how smart Fred was. He was really smart, and being so smart, he wasn’t about to let her walk past him without taking the opportunity to speak to her, as any intelligent man would.” Waaaay overkill in non-humorous fiction, because of course “smart” is not the reason we stop to speak to a looker. “Lust” is more like it. But anyhow, the implication here is that Fred thinks he is smart. He’s kind of obnoxiously smug about it. That’s the connotation of the lines.

“Fred considered himself an intelligent man, and when he saw her walking down the lane, he knew he couldn’t let her pass without speaking to her,” is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT, different in tone, and takes itself far too seriously. It doesn’t convey the twee-ness of the guy thinking to himself that he’s SO smart and he wasn’t about to let this opportunity pass him by. It’s not funny. The change makes the line into something that the reader is expected to take seriously, IMHO, and takes all the “setup for a punch line” out.

What’s the solution? Not turning this into strict narrative. What about something else?

Fred spied Ella on the sidewalk coming towards him. This was his chance to show her how sharp, how clever, how HOT he was. He racked his brain for a smart greeting, but came up with nothing but gamer codes and lame puns. “Does your butt hurt where you fell out of Heaven?” No, that one had been done. As she approached he licked his lips and found his mouth a desert. As she made her final approach, he turned away so as to appear not to have been watching her. He heard her heels clicking nearer, and at the perfect moment, he whirled. . .

(And we expect him to end up in a Jerry Lewis faceplant.)

This is off-the-cuff and twee, but it retains the sort of tone that the author intended. It gets across to the reader that Fred is kind of a fool and we can laugh at him as well as WITH him when she says “Hello” and he splutters out, “Connie!” when he knows perfectly well what her name is. It doesn’t sum the bit up into narrative. I suspect the objection made by the original author was that the edit made this bit into condensed narrative, whereas the author (for whatever reason) felt that there should be an aside that amused the reader and drew him or her closer in for the punch line.

The revision steps away from a cozy voice or tone. That’s probably what the author means. If the industry in general is unable to comprehend this distinction I’m making, either because it doesn’t exist outside my mind or because irony is now lost on the post-postmodern generation (which wallows in irony, so I can’t believe that’s the case), then I won’t be able to connect with the powers that be, either.

If you as editor need to reduce wordcount and you don’t think the bit is funny, then tell the author to take it out completely and replace it with something that IS funny and DOES add to the story by indicating the relationship between Fred and the woman. Don’t bother with mentioning it at all if it isn’t going to make Fred display some character trait that we want readers to know about. If it’s not something that builds to a crescendo, then do something different. If it IS a setup, I don’t see what’s wrong with doing a bit of buildup. Maybe BETTER buildup, but still. I don’t see the value in making it encapsulated narrative.

You’ve got to decide whether you want to “be published” so badly that you will let messed-up prose go out under your name, or if you will withdraw your offering if you can’t come to terms with the changes. You don’t have to nod politely and say eagerly, “Of course that didn’t mess up my voice! I’m just being a prig!” You can retain your artistic integrity. Although it probably won’t take you to the bank.

That’s my take on it.

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Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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