Pirates, Parrots, and Problems with Voice – Parvus Press

Pirates, Parrots, and Problems with Voice

 In Advice

Happy Monday, Parvus People! First off this week, I wanted to share some statistics compiled from our submissions. So far, 70% of our subs have come from the US, 10% each from Canada and the UK, and 7% from Australia. What about that other 3%? Well, that accounts for submissions that didn’t include an address. It’s important to include your full contact info on your submissions so that we can track you down if we like your manuscript!

Of our fantasy submissions, two thirds have been of the “epic” variety. The remainder are mostly urban fantasy with a few “other” thrown in. Hat tip to all you hardboiled fantasy writers out there! The average fantasy manuscript, of any and all flavors, is 104,000 words. Over on the sci-fi side of the house, it was 86,000 words. There’s a joke in there about the attention span of sci-fi readers or the verbosity of fantasy writers; I’ll let you all fill it in on your own, though.

Nifty? Not nifty? We’ll dig out some more entertaining statistics next month. For now, though, let’s move on to this week’s Lesson From the Submission Pile (We really need a better name for that):

Problems With Voice:

“Voice” is one of those obnoxious meta terms that everybody throws around but nobody really defines all that well (Nobody except Grammar Girl, that is. Stop and read this: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/understanding-voice-and-tone-in-writing). Yes, voice is the “feel” of the writing. It’s a mixture of the pacing, language used, grammar, etc. It’s that unique patois which results from all the small writing choices you make. Like using “patois”. That’s a choice I made to make this paragraph a bit more authoritative; give it a French sound, dress it up a bit, etc.

How can you, the writer, identify “problems” in the voice of your manuscript, then? Isn’t the voice entirely subjective?

No. It’s not entirely subjective. In fact, there is one thing that a lot of new writers get wrong when it comes to the voice of their stories and it’s this: You describe scenes with the words you would use instead of the words your narrator would use. Stick with me for a few minutes and I’ll explain:

MOST fiction is written in third person limited viewpoint. For this little adventure in explanation, let’s pretend the narrator is a movie camera. It makes this a bit easier to visualize.

In third person limited, the camera is basically sitting on the POV character’s shoulder like a parrot on a pirate. There’s a cable that runs from the camera into our POV character’s brain, so we can read their thoughts if we want. The camera is a parrot plugged into a pirate’s processing port.

So we see the scene from a spot JUST next to the POV character’s eyes (which lets us, the reader, look around the scene a bit and notice things before the character does), but that line into their brain means we can see their thoughts. It ALSO means that the thoughts of the POV character can influence the camera. How does ANY of this impact voice?

If you choose to tell the scene entirely from the camera’s viewpoint, we are entirely in the voice of the narrator and we can use whatever words we want to describe a scene. Imagine we are watching two men boxing. A ninja and a pirate. Our POV character is the pirate. (…parrot plugged into a pugilist pirate’s processing port…). Check out this line of text:

Paulie the Pirate grinned, showing a mouthful of teeth that resembled the shattered storefronts of an inner city strip mall. He hitched left, winked, and threw a powerful right hook that caught Nancy the Ninja completely unawares. There was a sickening crunch of cartilage giving way under the force of Paulie’s punch as her nose didn’t just break but crumpled.

 Nothing wrong with this, right? Well, nothing related to voice, at least. Now, let’s view the scene with input from that cable to the POV character’s brain.

Paulie grinned. He had been telegraphing weak lefts through this whole fight and the vain ninja thought she had him all figure out. He hitched left and winked and he thought, “Yar, this here’ll be damnably rewarding”. She never saw the right hook coming. He heard a satisfying wet snap as his fist smashed her nose into a shapeless blob of flesh.

There are a number of differences. We see some of Paulie’s thoughts, we see that he has been “telegraphing weak lefts”, data that we can be certain of because Paulie knows they were intentional. Our dispassionate narrator from the first sample wouldn’t be able to so bluntly describe such bluffs, because he doesn’t see it coming any more than Nancy does.

The key difference, however, is the description of the sound of Nancy’s nose breaking. In sample one, our narrator is a proxy for us. It is a dispassionate third party and it does NOT enjoy the sound of a nose breaking (because it’s an icky sound). To this narrator, the sound is “sickening”. In the second sample, the narrator is pulling a live feed from Paulie’s brain. To him, that is the sound of victory, so the sound is “satisfying”.

Note that we don’t have to limit ourselves to grammar and vocabulary that Paulie would use. The narrator is still an independent entity that is delivering us this story. But we DO have to recognize the influence of the POV character’s thoughts on the narrator’s view of events.

SO: Re-read those same two samples but SWAP the descriptor for the sound. Read it as “satisfying” in the first sample and “sickening” in the second. Doesn’t work, does it? THAT is a “voice” problem. Voice problems tend to arise from adjectives. They tend to be the narrator describing something the way the author sees it in their eye rather than from the viewpoint of the narrator/POV character relationship.

Here are some quick and dirty examples:

 Thorgbald prepared for battle. He tightened the straps of his bracers, rolled his neck, and tied back his silky hair…

No. His hair might be silkier than the silkiest silk, but Thorgbald is prepping for battle. He’s not thinking about the silkiness of his hair.

“Jenna had a shit day. Just shit. First, Thorgbald broke up with her to go fight in some Barbarian/Pirate/Ninja tournament, then she had lost her crown to her sister. Angry, frustrated, and hungry, she folded her arms under her ample bosom…”

Or she slammed a fist against her voluptuous thigh, or rested her hands on her shapely hips… You get the idea. The author might be picturing Jenna as a big-breasted woman, but Jenna certainly isn’t thinking about the size of her breasts in this scene. Or the sensuality of her thighs or inviting swell of her waist or any other such silliness. Stop staring at your character’s breasts, too. It’s just odd.

And, lastly,

Commander Jaxxor of the StarCruiser ‘Malevolence’ was looking forward to this. He had come from the farthest reaches of the galaxy in order to assert his dominance over the Barbarians, Pirates, and Ninjas of this sliver of the multiverse. With the barest of efforts, he swung his energized vibroblade through Thorgbald’s meaty torso. The energy weapon split Thorgbald from his well-muscled shoulder to the opposite voluptuous thigh with all the effort of pressing a kabob skewer through a cremini mushroom.

See that metaphor at the end? It’s beautiful, but that’s probably not a comparison that Jaxxor would make. Make comparisons that make sense to your POV characters’ experience and worldview.

 Fine tuning voice is an incredibly complex aspect of writing and something that only comes with practice and time, but it is the difference between writing a good novel and starting to master the art of being a novelist. If you’ve had negative feedback on voice in the past, or had readers tell you “The story was interesting, but I just had a hard time getting into it”, re-read and look for descriptors that don’t quite fit the POV you’re using in a scene.

Best of luck, writers, and please keep sending in your manuscripts! We’re still looking for more books to fill out our 2016 publication schedule. Visit our submissions guidelines here: www.ParvusPress.com/Submissions

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