Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Craft Book of the Month:Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Week 3: Voice

This is my final week reviewing Renni Browne and Dave King's Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I feel I've scratched only the surface of this wonderful book so, if you want to read and learn more, please think about buying a copy.

The chapter on Voice begins with a comparison between the voice of the narrator in Melville's Omoo and Moby Dick. There are also examples from The Lovely Bones, Wuthering Heights, The Power and the Glory, and The Constant Gardener. (And if you can name all four of these authors without cheating you can win yourself a YoWD gold star.)

The authors then write:

A strong, distinctive, authoritative writing voice is something most fiction writers want--and something no editor or teacher can impart. There are, after all, no rules for writing like yourself. Voice is, however, something you can bring out in yourself. The trick is not to concentrate on it.

That sounds counterintuitive, doesn't it? They go on to discuss the dangers of literary pretentiousness as well as the problems with going the opposite way into minimalism. Their point is that your voice should not overshadow your story. They quote Frederick Buechner saying that the limitation of the great stylists, such as Henry James or Hemingway, is that "you remember their voices long after you've forgotten the voices of any of the people they wrote about."

Browne and King give the following pointers (paraphrased by me) on how to self-edit for voice:

  • Highlight sentences or phrases that give you "a little jab of pleasure." Then... go through and read all of them aloud, absorbing whatever made them sing to you. These will represent your voice at its most effective.
  • Highlight sentences that make you wince or that seem to fall flat. Go back and try to analyze what makes these places different from the passages which sing. "Is the writing flat? Strained? Awkward? Obvious? Pedestrian? Forced? Vague or abstract?"
  • Read these passages aloud, "listening to any little changes you're inclined to make while reading. More often than not, these changes will be in the direction of your natural voice."

They conclude:

The greatest advantage of self-editing--including the highlighting we've recommended in this chapter--is the kind of attention you have to pay to your own work while you're doing the self-editing. It demands that you revise again and again until what you've written rings true. Until you can believe it.

It invites you to listen to your work. Do that job of listening carefully enough, lovingly enough, and you will start to hear your own writing voice.

Thank you, Renni Browne and Dave King for your marvellous book. And stay tuned for tomorrow's unveiling of October's Craft Book of the Month. It's a doozy!


  1. I will be going to Powell's tomorrow-- looks like I have one more book to add to my list!

    This book sounds like a fabulous tool. Thanks so much for reviewing it!

  2. Thanks, Ann. Happy shopping... (and book shopping is the very best!)

  3. I love this book. I've had a copy on my shelf for a couple of years and I love the section on voice. Voice is tricky to define, but this book does one of the best breakdowns ever. Thanks for sharing.


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