Scoring Criteria, Part III: Voice

Hello, readers —

I’m feeling a bit stuffy-headed today, perhaps due to the fact that the great big crabapple tree in my backyard has suddenly burst into magnificent masses of pink blooms. Very beautiful, very pollen-laden.

It reminds me of the small town — a village, really, ensconced within an agricultural preserve — where I grew up, in the Napa Valley. (Note to outsiders: PLEASE don’t refer to the entire area as Napa; it makes the locals apoplectic. Napa is a city; the Napa Valley is the winegrowing region.) Tourists overrun the Napa Valley in the autumn, when the grapevines sport leaves of many colors, but my favorite time there has always been the early spring, this time of year, when the vines are dormant and the vineyards are full of knee-high fluorescent yellow mustard flowers. Acres and acres of neon brilliance. The local truism runs that if you don’t suffer from pollen allergies then, you never will.

Because I am inherently contrary, I never suffered from pollen allergies until years later, when I moved to Washington. Go figure.

I bring this up, not merely because my head is stuffy, but as an apt metaphor for today’s topic. Authorial voice can’t really be taught (although there are writing teachers who would disagree with me on that point): it arises organically, often after years of cultivation. It’s extraordinarily rare that an author’s distinctive personal voice shows up in her first writing projects, except perhaps in flashes. No, for most good writers, one day, after seemingly endless writing, a personal voice abruptly emerges and takes over the narration, like all of those crabapple and mustard flowers bursting into bloom.

And like those early spring flowers, a strong, original voice will not appeal to all readers. The more distinctive the voice, the greater the risk, in a way — it can irritate in a way that a merely clear, pleasant voice will not. So how on earth can a contest judge rate voice on anything but personal preference?

Basically, by concentrating on the appropriateness of the chosen voice for the story it is telling. Not all voices fit with all material. At the moment, I work in three distinct voices: in descending order of perkiness, my blog voice, my fiction voice, and my memoir voice. (My memoir is funny, too, but as a great memoirist once told me, part of the art of the memoir is feeling sorry enough for yourself NOT to make light of your personal tragedies, for there is your subject matter.) If I used my memoir voice here, in discussing the sometimes-grim realities of how the publishing industry treats writers, I would depress us all into a stupor. Because my goal is to motivate you all to present your work’s best face to the world, I use a cheerleading voice.

Minion, hand me my megaphone, please.

One of the great things about gaining a broad array of writing experience is learning how to switch voices. I’ve written back label copy for wine bottles, for heaven’s sake, as well as political platforms and fashion articles. Obviously, tone, vocabulary choice, and cadence needed to be different for all of these venues. I firmly believe that all of my current voices owe a great deal to this experience, just as playing a lot of different roles in high school or college drama classes might give a person poise in real life.

One writing experience in particular prepared me for dealing with the horrible in a light-hearted way. Right after I graduated from college, I landed a job writing and researching for the LET’S GO series of travel guides. The series’ method of garnering material, at least at the time, was to pay a very young, very naïve person a very small amount of money to backpack around a given area. The job was jam-packed with irony: I was supposed to do restaurant and motel reviews, for instance, but my per diem was so small that I slept in a tent six nights per week and lived on ramen cooked over a campfire. That sort of thing.

However, the tone of the guides is very gung-ho, can-do kids having the time of their lives. But when one is visiting the tenth municipal museum of the week — you know, the kind containing a clay diorama of a pioneer settlement, a tiny, antique wedding dress displayed on a dressmaker’s form, and four dusty arrowheads– it is hard to maintain one’s excitement. Yet I was expected to produce roughly 60 pages of copy per week, much of it written on a picnic table by candlelight.

I can tell you the precise moment when I found my travel guide voice. It was the evening of July 3, a few weeks into my assignment. The date was important, because my publisher had not yet sent my overdue paycheck, and the banks would be closed the next day. I had precisely $23.15 in my pocket; it was raining so hard that I could barely find the motel I was supposed to be checking out, and when I stepped into the lobby, I was informed that the management did not allow outsiders to work there.

“Excuse me?” I said. “I just want a room for the night.”

The desk clerk was so astonished at the request that she ran and fetched the manager. Apparently, no one in recent memory had wanted to rent a room there for more than an hour at a stretch. The clerk did not even know what to charge.

I ran to the nearest pay phone (the room was phoneless) and called my editor in Boston. “I have $8.15 to my name,” I told him, while the rain noisily drenched the phone booth, “the banks are closed tomorrow, and you have sent me to a house of ill repute. What precisely do you want me to do?”

“Improvise?” he suggested.

I elected to find a campground that night, so I spent Independence Day huddled in a rapidly leaking tent, scribbling away furiously. I had found my travel writing voice, a sodden, exhausted traveler so astonished by the stupidity around her that she found it amusing. My readers — and my warm, dry editor back in Boston — ate it up.

I told you this story not merely because it is true (which, alas, it is; ah, the glamour of the writing life!), but to make a point about authorial voice. A contest judge would look at the story above and try to assess whether another type of voice might have conveyed the story better, as well as whether I maintained the voice consistently throughout. How would a less personal voice have conveyed the same information? Would it have come across better in the third person, or if I pretended the incident had happened to a close friend of mine?

Appropriateness of viewpoint tends to weigh heavily in judges’ assessments, and deservedly so. Many, many contest entries either do not maintain the same voice throughout the piece (apparently unintentionally) or tell the story in an absolutely straightforward manner, with no personal narrative quirks at all. So the same story might end up reading like a police report:

A 22-year-old woman, soaked to the skin, walks into a motel lobby. The clerk asks her what she wants; she replies that she wants a room for the night. When the clerk tells her they do not do that, she responds with incredulity. The clerk gets the manager, who repeats the information. Noting the 7″ x 10″ wall of pornographic videotapes to her right and the women in spandex and gold lame huddled outside under the awning, flagging down passing cars, the young woman determines that she might not be in the right place. She telephones her editor, who agrees.

Not the apex of colorful, is it? A contest judge would read this second account and think, “Gee, this story has potential, but the viewpoint is not maximizing the humor of the story.” She would then subtract points from the Voice category, and rightly so.

One pet peeve of contest judges, as well as agents and editors everywhere, is when the narrator reports things s/he could not possibly know. This is VERY common in first-person narratives — where necessarily, all the reader should hear about is what the narrator can observe or recall. So why is the reader hearing other characters’ thoughts, or seeing incidents that occurred when the narrator was not present?

I blame television and movies for this. Just as their limitations have told writers that all human experience should be conveyed merely through the audible and the visible, leaving out other stimuli except as verbally described by the characters, they have also instructed us that where the camera can go, so can the narrator. But in a first-person piece, this logically is not true.

Another technical factor in evaluating voice is consistency, as I mentioned quickly above. Once a narrative choice has been made, does the author stick to it? Are some scenes told in tight third person, where we are hearing the characters’ thoughts and feelings, while some are told in a more impersonal voice, as though observed by a stranger with no prior knowledge of the characters? Judges tend to like to see a point of view held throughout an entry; they will often award points for this, even when they disagree with the choice of voice or point of view.

Judges also take freshness of voice and POV into account. How often has this kind of narrator told this kind of story before? (You wouldn’t believe how many stories were told by the deceased in the years following the success of THE LOVELY BONES, for instance, or how many multiple-perspective narratives followed hot on the heels of THE POISONWOOD BIBLE.)

This is often a tricky one for authors, for there is no denying that being able to say that your work is like a well-known authors is definitely a useful hook for attracting agents’ and editors’ attention. (“My book is Sarah Vowell meets household maintenance!” “My book is BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY set in a rehab clinic!” “The story is SCHINDLER’S LIST, only without the Nazis or all the death!) However, as the late great Mae West liked to point out, while copies may sell in the short term, for the long haul, what is memorable is originality.

Perhaps that is one of the best measures of how effective an entry’s narrative voice was: three days after the judge read it, will he remember how the story was told?

Of course, after all of these factors are taken into account, whether the judge happens to like the narrative voice still weighs heavily into the calculations. That’s inevitable, and there’s nothing a writer can do about it — except to make her narrative voice as strong and true and individually hers as she can possibly can.

Next week, I shall tackle the more nitty-gritty aspects of judging. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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