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May 13, 2009

When Do You Lose Your Voice?

I've been on both sides of the beta read.

In the following hypothetical situations, I've also been the reader making vague or specific suggestions. For simplicity's sake, I'll discuss it from the writer's side today.

I've experienced what it's like to have someone tell me: "This paragraph [scene/chapter/last third of the book] doesn't work. You could probably cut about 10,000 useless words if you tighten this."

My response: That's great, but how? If I knew which words were useless, I wouldn't have included them.

Then again, the beta reader may rewrite the five-page scene where the hero and heroine storm the castle as, "They ate ice-cream."

My response: Wtf? That isn't what I wanted to say, or how I would have said it.

However, frequently I do accept a beta reader's suggested changes, especially of clunky sentences, even scenes, wholesale.

Suppose what I had written was originally, "Laboriously, yet also suddenly and instantaneously the bullet kaboomed and zoomed out of the gun muzzle on the gun she was holding and pointing at him, hurtling through the air like a speeding bullet, which in fact it was, until it began to pierce his broad yet vulnerable chest, fragmenting bone and hurting a lot."

The beta reader suggests, "She shot him."

And I think, "Brilliant! This captures the whole thing in just three words! Why didn't I think of that?"

But then a part of me looks at the stripped down version, and wonders, but has it lost my voice? Did I do more than put out the fire on the roof, did I kill the spark in the lamp?

Do you ever worry about losing your voice during rewrites?


The Screaming Guppy said...

The more I work on the same chapter (like my chapter 1-3) the more I start to wonder about this.

Actually, I feel like my first three chapters suck right now. But, I wonder if I came back to them later if I would feel like they are in tune with the rest of the mnauscript?

It's so hard to know when you're looking at the same words, over and over and over...

I feel your pain. :)

Tara Maya said...

Yeah, and this brings up another problem too: some chapters, especially the early ones, are revised and revised and revised, while later chapters go virtually untouched -- even if they were weaker to begin with.

A lot of beta readers (and I do it do my own mss myself!) rush through the end. Sometimes the reason is good (they got caught up in the story), sometimes bad (they got bored and wanted to finish quickly) but either way, what do you do? Your books is now uneven, and the style may be different from chapter to chapter.

scott g.f.bailey said...

When you're in the thick of it, it's hard to have enough critical distance to tell the difference between simply fixing and actually doing damage. The best thing is to make your changes, maybe flag the passage in question for a later look, and ignore it for a week or more. When you come back to it with fresh eyes and rested brain, you should be able to tell if you've harmed the prose.

Uneven prose is a big concern for me, because my narrator speaks in a sort of Elizabethan English. The earliest chapters I wrote were very Shakespearean in voice, but over time I modernized his speech a bit. Passages that remain untouched from the first draft (and to my surprise there are actually such passages) really jump out at me in my current read-through.

Davin Malasarn said...

I used to worry about losing my voice when taking other people's reviews, but I've changed my attitude. Now, when I get the review, I usually try to get at the source of the problem rather than the new words the reviewer has suggested. If I know what they found wrong and how they tried to fix it, I'm usually able to fix it in my own voice to make both of us happy.

Tara Maya said...

Scott, I experienced the same thing recently. A beta reader told me, "The prose is much weaker in this section. What happened?" I looked at it and realized, with some amazement, it was a piece which had remained unchanged through more than seven revisions -- which meant it was about five year old writing.

Brand new scenes also tend to stand out, often because they are rough and full of typos.

Tara Maya said...

Davin, I think you've probably identified the best way to fix broken prose. When someone suggests something I like better, I try to ask myself, Why? What works more in what they've written than what I had before? Often there are other parts of the novel where the same principle applies too.

Ban said...

i have a fear of this myself, i was once part of a crit group that did nothing but re-write each other's work, adding their own touches in their attempts to show how 'they would have done it' - it was not what i was looking for at the time, so i left. i'm still not at the point where i need a beta reader so i was very wary about blogging and sharing my work with others. i'm happy to say i've found people who understand and are giving me what i need most - encouragement and suggestions NOT re-writes. Davin, your advice is excellent - hope to have the same attitude when i seek a full crit :)

Unknown said...

I find that I most often lose my voice when the beta reader offers a suggestion (i.e. gives me specific words or a specific scene to insert) rather than offers a question (i.e. make me ask whether that scene is necessary or if it could be condensed.

Because of that, I always try to offer questions first--and when I do suggest a scene, I try to remind the author that it's just my opinion.

Sherrie Petersen said...

I think you need to hang on to your voice. It's the thing that makes the story yours and yours alone. When I critique, I try to be very specific about what isn't working for me and why. I may rewrite a sentence here or there, but I really try to limit it to removing excess adjectives or other unnecessary words.

I know it stings to get criticism, especially when it may not make sense. But always remember, it's your story and what someone else says about it, you can take or you can leave.

laughingwolf said...

what works for me: i look at the suggestions then find my own solutions, based on those ideas...

lisa and laura said...

I think this is one of the hardest parts of critiquing and accepting critiques. I know that I'm guilty of rewriting someone elses work using my voice and that's really not helpful. So more and more when I'm critting I try to point out awkward phrases and suggest rephrasing rather than suggest something myself.

Tara Maya said...

Actually, I DO find it helpful when a beta reader explicitly re-writes a passage. If I have to rewrite it again, it's as much to be fair to the beta reader as to myself.

After all, perhaps my real voice is Ursula's and the beta reader is my Ariel. I can't steal her voice forever. I have to learn to sing on my own.

Still, sometimes it helps to have someone show you how they would handle the same sentence or paragraph. Then you can decide how much of that you want to use.

Flower said...

Hi Tara!

I was asked to critique a few chapters two weeks ago and it scared the crap out of me as I do not feel I am skilled in writing enough to do such a thing.

I read the persons work and had no clue how to articulate why it was so boring. I felt bad as she deserved a fair critque.

I am concerned I might be giving bad advice as well. Neeless to say I am not critquing until I have more experience!

Tara Maya said...


I hope I didn't scare you off from giving crits. If you told yourself you weren't going to start writing until you were skilled enough, you'd never learn. The only way to learn to write is to write. And the only way to learn to crit is to crit. Actually, critting will also help you learn to write.

Don't be afraid of critting "wrong." If you say, "I'm sorry I started to get bored around the page" or "I really didn't like the heroine" that is already extremely helpful to the writer.

I just had a beta reader who told me at a certain point in my book, "This is where I would have stopped reading." This is tremendously helpful information. (Hard to hear, but that's a different matter.)

If you still want hints on how to crit there are lots of good cheat sheets for questions to ask yourself as you read. But the simplest one of all, "Would you keep reading?" is one any reader can answer.

Flower said...

Tara, thank you. What if you dislike that particular genre?

I wasn't sure if I was bored because it was about a subject I have no interest in or the writing.