Monday, October 31, 2011

Editing Out Voice

For those of you who don't know, I was a writer/editor/project manager in the corporate world for 23 years, though toward the end I seemed to be spending far more time managing than doing what I think I do best: writing and editing. I've worked in advertising, marketing and sales, and am fluent in corporate speak. I've also edited newspapers for nonprofits and newsletters for businesses.

Although I played at copyediting, it was never a job I relished doing. Too many grammarians -- especially in the corporate world -- get caught up in the rules and forget about what makes writing effective and memorable: voice.

Since I didn't have the luxury to pick and choose my projects, I worked with text that ran the gamut from techno-babble that made precious little sense to competent copy that read fine but just wasn't that compelling. Unfortunately, I also worked against a corporate mentality that rewards the bland and frowns on anything outside a small range of approved voice.

Two projects stand out most for me where I had to battle for the addition of voice -- one a technical white paper and the other a company newsletter.

In the white paper, which I ghost wrote for an executive, I used an extended metaphor to get across the idea of why business continuity and disaster recovery are critical components of a company's IT strategy. (Stop fidgeting; I promise that's as technical as I'm going to get.) For the metaphor, I chose the asteroid slam that wiped out the ponderous dino beasties and gave the smaller, more agile mammals a chance to thrive. "What's this all about?" was the cry I kept hearing from one reviewer to the next. "This kind of thing just isn't done. Not in this organization! We pride ourselves on being a staid and incomprehensible IT company. Stop making what we do accessible to the general public!"

For a paycheck, I'm willing to compromise -- but only to a point. I argued that the metaphor was the paper's hook, the thing that would make it stand out from all those other white papers every other IT services organization was writing on the subject. We could either be noticed or be assimilated. And if they chose assimilation, someone else was going to have to write the paper. In the end they signed off on it, grumbling all the way. Of the hundreds of white papers the company produced, that one had the longest shelf life and was the one most downloaded and used. In fact, when the original executive resigned a couple of years after it was first published, the one taking his place slapped his name on the paper and kept it alive a few more years.

There weren't any groundbreaking revelations in the paper. In all other respects, it was pretty run-of-the-mill. It was popular because of voice.

In the second example, when a techie guy working at a client site sent in an article about how his team had pulled together and overcome obstacle after obstacle to get a computer network up and running, I knew I had to use it in the company newsletter. Why? The actual details weren't any different from any other team's challenges in putting in a network, but there was such a raw enthusiasm in this guy's writing that it begged to be included.

Corporate speak it was not, though, and that was a problem. I had a choice: rein it in so it was in line with the bland brand or give it its head and let it take others along on its rather wild ride. I chose the latter, which actually presented the greater editing challenge. Preserving unique voice in an unpolished work while making it conform to at least some syntax, structure and punctuation rules is akin to performing delicate surgery. The last thing I wanted to do was kill the brash joy that crashed through so potently.

I published the newsletter. The investment relations manager was outraged. "What if a client sees this? I want all future newsletters to come through me so I can give them a professional edit."

Which, if you know me, didn't sit well at all. "Um, excuse me, I am a professional editor. And if I were a client, I'd be thrilled that someone working on my site had the level of passion this guy obviously has for the work he's doing. Given a choice between this guy and someone just punching the clock and spending his days conjugating verbs correctly, hands down I'd choose this guy -- meaning OUR company -- every time."

What is it about a large corporation that makes people afraid of standing out in some way? Of infusing life and voice into the work it produces? Of wearing passion on its figurative sleeve?

As a result of that article, we had employees with some truly amazing stories tell us they felt they could submit them now because they weren't intimidated; our employee newsletter was now accessible by its intended audience. And yes, the article did fall into the hands of some of our clients, and they expressed hope that future issues would be highlighting similar stories and teams at their companies.

So what does any of this have to do with your fiction writing?

You have a unique voice. Use it -- loudly and well. Don't give in to the pressure of critique groups who try to flatten it or otherwise corrupt it. Have confidence in your voice, nurture it, praise it, reward it.

Your voice is you. Never, ever let anyone edit it -- or you -- out of your work.

Phoenix Sullivan's short stories have appeared in various pro anthologies and magazines. In the corporate world, Phoenix was a professional writer and editor for 23 years. Before that, she was a registered veterinary technician, working with small animal clinics and wildlife rehab centers. She taps that knowledge in SECTOR C, a near-future medical thriller with a vet heroine, a CDC analyst hero and a pandemic that crosses both species and time.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Writer's Block

Greetings from the South.

I'm sure everyone has heard of it. Many have had it and some are experiencing it now. Yes, you know what I'm talking about. The dreaded writer's block. Or as I like to call it, writer's panic. That sheer feeling of fear as you stare at the stark white blank page with the little lone cursor blinking rapidly in front of you.


Waiting for you to type something. Anything. But, you can't. Your mind draws a blank and you just stare at the cursor praying the screen has some kind of magic ink that will reveal itself to you. It doesn't.

So, how does one overcome writer's block? By writing, of course. No it might not be your best. It might not even make sense. Chances are it will have to be trashed immediately, but as a wise author once said, "You can't fix a blank page."

Personally, I take that little slogan to heart.

Don't get me wrong. There are days when I stare at the white screen with the little blinking cursor and want to throw in the towel. Nothing seems to fall into place and for the life of me I can't string two sensible sentences together. Instead of surrending to the blinking cursor, I type. And delete. Then type some more. And delete some more. Finally, just when it seems like a lost cause, something happens. A little magical spark of sorts and my characters take over (they really do have a mind of their own, you know) and the scene starts to flesh out. Maybe not perfectly at first, but enough to move forward. So I type while my characters lead and at the end of the day I am no longer facing stark white pages with a lonesome little cursor. I have something to work with. I might not be able to fix a blank page, but I can certainly fix a page full of ideas and promise.

So there you have it. Writer's block defeated once again. Ok. Your turn. Let your fingers tickle the keyboard while your mind releases the magic.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fairy Tales Vs Romance

I saw it again this week: “Romance novels, like fairy tales, lack realism; they make women believe a handsome prince is going to rescue them with promises of happy-ever-after.”

Oh, please!

I loved fairy tales as a girl, but spent not a single second gazing down the road for my prince. It’s my considered opinion that those who use this analogy know fairy tales only from Disney movies, particularly “Cinderella” with its dreamy-eyed heroine singing “Some Day My Prince Will Come.” This makes for a seriously skewed view. And if you really want to set me off, try telling me men and boys have no problem with fiction versus reality in male-oriented stories such as 007’s exploits or “The Sword in the Stone,” while women and girls, poor weak-minded creatures that they are, can’t distinguish between female-oriented fiction and real life!

In fact the basic theme in “Cinderella” is far from being Female Rescue. As in most enduring fiction, it’s actually the battle between good and evil. Gentle, down-trodden Cinderella gains the love of her prince in spite of unreliable miracles and the machinations of her wicked stepmother and stepsisters. “Sleeping Beauty” has the same premise with the addition of a warning against trusting schemers and strangers. “Rumpelstilskin,” with its twisted little man who forces a young woman to spin straw into gold, features a heroine who triumphs through intelligence, plus a caveat about males who profit from female labor. “Beauty and the Beast,” instead of encouraging female attempts to redeem violent, abusive men, as some claim, is about compassion and seeing beneath surface appearances. And its secondary message, as with “The Princess and the Frog,” is that every prince need not be handsome. “Rapunzel” illustrates the essential truth that women can change what happens to them, since the prince-hero is unable to reach the eponymous heroine in her lonely tower until she decides to let down her long hair as a rope. And the list goes on.

My point here is that neither fairy tales nor romance novels lack core realism. Both address serious issues, both reward the good and punish the wicked as they hold out the gift of hope. As romance authors and readers we should ignore critics who use slanted comparisons to belittle our genre—or suggest they take a closer look at their own fantasy and reality.


Since publishing her first book at age 27, New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Jennifer Blake has gone on to write over 65 historical and contemporary novels in multiple genres. She brings the story-telling power and seductive passion of the South to her stories, reflecting her 8th-generation Louisiana heritage. Jennifer lives with her husband in northern Louisiana.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Art of the Query Letter

This is for the writers out there who have a manuscript -- or will have one soon -- ready to start submitting to agents or publishers. One of the requisites is a query about the project, which is part sales letter and part demonstration of writing ability. For many, writing this single page is far more stressful than writing the entire book.

I recently saw an ad for a class being taught by someone who made the critique blog rounds with their query a couple of years ago. The first version I saw was, shall we say, not very good. The critiquers came through with some really brilliant and considered advice to help improve it.

The query then started popping up on other crit sites, revised for the better each time. By its fifth public version, the query had gone from bland to spectacular. In fact, when version 5.0 appeared on one agent's query critique site, the agent didn't just ask for pages, she demanded them. While THAT agent didn't take on this author, another did. (It's been a few months now and the ms that snagged the agent hasn't sold yet, but they are pressing forward and working on other projects together.)

What's important to this conversation is not the revelation that getting an agent doesn't always translate into a book sale to a publisher (although that's a reality we all need to keep in our back pockets) or that people actually get paid to critique queries, it's that this person put their ego aside and learned from the critiques. Now those early versions were beaten, kicked, shredded, gutted and left a bloody mess. It took courage to subject those attempts to public pummeling -- not once or twice but multiple times. And it took bull-headed determination to get that query to the point where it had agents begging for more.

I have tons of respect for writers so willing to learn.

So, in easily digestible form, here are the takeaways from today's sermon:
  • It generally takes several revisions to get a query to the point it can do its work well.
  • Query writing is a skill that can be learned (some writers will always be better at it than others, just as some people are better at writing brilliant marketing pieces than they are at writing technical documents, but if you have any kind of general writing skill, you can learn to write a good query)
  • You have to be able to filter conflicting advice and choose what works best for your unique style and voice.
  • While feedback is subjective and you might easily ignore advice you only hear once, if several people are piling on over the same issue, realize it's a "you, not them" problem and CHANGE IT.
  • Initial drafts (plural) usually suck.
  • There is no one way to write a query; even the pros in the biz differ on length, ingredients, and spoilers.
  • Listening to conflicting industry advice and trying to cater to every conflicting "rule" out there is a sure way to madness. Pick a style that works for you and do your darnedest to perfect it.
  • The same people you're thinking of paying for advice might well be the same people who learned for free -- the same way you can learn for free.
  • Whether you pay for advice or not, be sure to solicit multiple opinions and not rely on any one person's blessing or evisceration.
  • Even a killer query can't overcome a story that isn't perceived as marketable (go back and read that one again -- it's important).
  • Pay it forward -- once you've learned the skill, pop on the critique boards and help others hone their skills as well.
Phoenix's 5 Stages of Query Writing
Version 1: It might need a little tweaking but it can't be that bad. (Oh, but it is.)

Version 2: Ouch. But OK, I've cleaned up the stuff readers had issues with and it really is better. (Uh-oh, new issues have been introduced.)

Version 3: OK, I am going to meticulously answer every reader's concern and concentrate on exactly that and nothing else because, frankly, I'm getting pretty frustrated over all of this. (Only now, the query has lost its voice and, somewhere, the story's tight plot and style.)

Version 4: Ah, now I see that I can leave out some of those problematic issues completely and the query experience for the reader will actually be improved. Less really IS more. (And it is. Often, V4 is a complete re-envisioning of the query, with a cleaner feel and fewer plot points and characters.)

Version 5: Gah, how could I have misspelled THAT and not seen it until now? (Final grammar check, but it's now ready for submission.)

It's never too early to start writing your query. In fact, writing the query before you even write the book can help keep you focused on the major themes you envision for the story.

One caveat: It may well take 10 or more revisions to get to "Version 5." That's normal. But revising ad infinitum can become a habit or a stonewalling tactic. At some point you need to call it, stop revising and send that puppy out. Because the only query sure to get rejected is the one that doesn't get submitted.

Phoenix Sullivan's short stories have appeared in various pro anthologies and magazines. In the corporate world, Phoenix was a professional writer and editor for 23 years. Before that, she was a registered veterinary technician, working with small animal clinics and wildlife rehab centers. She taps that knowledge in SECTOR C, a near-future medical thriller with a vet heroine, a CDC analyst hero and a pandemic that crosses both species and time.