Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ventriloquism

By Keith N Fisher


Do you remember Charlie McCarthy? He’s one of the most famous dummies in history. His controller, Edgar Bergen, provided a voice for Charlie that was funny and thoughtful. Burgeon did it so well, many folks were almost convinced Charlie, and his cousins, were real.

As writers, we’re charged with finding our voice. At conferences, in books, and in critique group, I discovered what voice is. If we compare the writing of famous authors, we’ll find examples. Such as: A paragraph written by Kurt Vonnegut, is vastly different than Mary Higgins Clark. Also, there is JK Rowling versus Ernest Hemmingway.

The difference isn’t in the genre alone or even writing style, it’s the way the author said things. The words they used, and the way those words are arranged. They are distinct like personality. Of course, If that personality spawns catch phrases, or situations that turn cliché, many readers get tired of it and move on to other books.

A few years ago, a new writer gave me a portion of a book to critique. I was honored but quickly discovered errors in formatting. The writer had broken many of the rules we follow in our craft. I began to make notes on the pages, but about halfway into it, I realized I wasn’t correcting mistakes as much as I was restructuring the sentences. I was adding my voice, instead of letting the writer use her own.

Many ventriloquists, like Edgar Burgeon, can cast their voice across a room and make it appear to come from something or someone else. Like the ventriloquists, I found myself putting my words into another writer’s manuscript. I was changing the voice in the name of editing.

Often, we get good feedback from our critique group and others. Even though I sometimes argue, I’ve learned to trust my group. There was a time, however, before I found my voice, when an edit like the one I mentioned above, would’ve set me reeling. I would’ve tried to match the voice of the editor. Since then, I’ve learned a good editor doesn’t mess with voice. They point out grammar errors, and suggest formatting changes.

If you get an edit that attempts to change your voice, don’t let it throw you. Ask a trusted friend if they think the edit corrects voice or if it really is needed. If you’re trying to find your voice, picture yourself telling the story to a large audience. How would you tell it? What words would you use? Grammar and formatting can be fixed later. Express yourself and before long, you will find your own way.

Good luck with your writing—see you next week.

2 comments:

L.T. Elliot said...

Voice has been on my mind a lot too. I think it's because I read something recently that contrasted an author's voice and I realized how much I missed it. It was a good thing and a great reminder of how important our voice really is. Great post!

Michael Knudsen said...

Excellent points, Keith. What does it really mean to "find our voice"? I believe it means to find that balance between where you feel comfortable expressing yourself and an end product that evokes real emotion from readers, a blend of realism, compassion, and the correct arrangement and selection of words.