Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Your Story, Your Spin

Voice: “Voice is the author's style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique, and which conveys the author's attitude, personality, and character; or, Voice is the characteristic speech and thought patterns of a first-person narrator; a persona.” –About.com

Style: “Style…is basically the way you write, as opposed to what you write about... It results from things like word choice, tone, and syntax. It's the voice readers "hear" when they read your work…To an editor, on the other hand, style refers to the mechanics of writing, i.e., grammar and punctuation…” –About.com

Treatment: Never heard of this one? Author Dave Farland puts it best: “The treatment is the way that you choose to tell your story. It’s your personal spin as an author, the unique way that you choose to tell a story. It includes many of the elements that you’ll learn about in writing classes in college—such things as the use of character voices, choices in metaphors, character voices, the tone of the story, and so on. It even includes all of the elements of your personal style, your personal word choices, your phrasing, the lilt of your own voice—things that you don’t even think about and perhaps cannot change.”

Voice, style, and treatment are all rolled together. It’s the essence of you as a storyteller. Finding your voice is an exciting journey. Your treatment of the story sets that story apart from all others because it’s the essence of you as a storyteller.

There are guidelines and rules of grammar, punctuation, even story structure. When someone breaks those rules we tend to attack in a bloodthirsty pack. Yes, sometimes we’re critiquing a newbie who doesn’t even know the rules yet. But--I wonder how often we make this assumption of someone we don't know well yet. Perhaps that person isn’t as green as we think. Perhaps what we are assuming and harping on is in fact that person’s treatment of the story. (The bloodhounds freeze mid-air.)

A post on critiquing and beta reading will be forthcoming this month, I promise.

Some writers have achieved notoriety and even their brand name based on their rule-breaking story treatments. But breaking a rule just to break it or to make a sensation isn’t what we’re supposed to strive for. In these aforementioned instances, we’re looking at a writer’s style. Don’t be a copycat for the sake of sensationalism. Don’t rule-break for the sake of trying to make a big splash. You betray your natural voice by doing so.

How do you find and recognize your own voice or style? Writers agonize over the question. They look for the magic incantation to give them instant voice. Your voice will be like you, individual, unique, and something not naturally duplicated. We can emulate other’s voices for practice. I’ve heard of writers who take the time to copy out of books in order to get a handle on that author’s voice and style as an exercise. Sometimes we find we echo the voice of a book we’ve just read or that influenced us a lot.

Your voice is your take on the world, your vision, your way of saying things. Don’t be afraid to be yourself, especially when you analyze feedback from readers. Critiques are good for writers. They show you where flaws and common problems lie in your manuscript. They show the unclear parts, the boring parts, the questions that rise, as well as the frustrations on the part of the reader. Sometimes there is a tendency to try to replace your words with words the reader would have chosen first, to alter dialogue or description to the style of the reader. And yes, sometimes punctuation and grammar become a stylistic issue.

I don’t profess to be an expert. I’m not going to nitpick over all the instances that could arise. I will say that you need to stay true to your voice. Stick with your words, your style (unless the word you picked is completely wrong. I once had a glaring typo using “taunt” for “taut” that needed fresh eyes to point it out to me.) Remember that reading is a highly subjective process. Some readers will embrace and love your style; others won’t find it to their liking.

And don’t confuse your treatment of the story for glaring errors such as plot holes, info dumps, and clich├ęd characterizations. There are some writers who take great offense to any feedback and sum it up to the reader’s failure to recognize their voice, when the issues pointed out had nothing to do with voice.

Keep guard on the voice in your head. What sounds good in the silence of the mind may not translate well through the vocal chords. Use your brain and your tongue to smooth out your words, to articulate the story treatment the way you want and need it to be.

Voice and style go through a maturing process over time. They alter and change with each new story you write, much like your increasing skills in the art of writing craft. Avoid the pitfalls of comparison. Voices shouldn’t be compared. Someone from Tallahassee will have a different treatment than someone from Boston, Shanghai, or Glasgow. Age, gender, culture, life experience, personal philosophy, and even religion will alter one voice from another. Some styles appeal to larger masses of people than others. Trying to make yourself into one of these when your not can kill a writing career.

What about agents and editors? What about booksellers, librarians, and other gatekeepers?  If one is to get published, one needs to produce the treatments They want. Subjectivity, the arm of Fate extended toward writers, is either one’s friend or enemy. Going through careful research when submitting work for publication helps. Recognizing that some treatments will not gain admittance should not deter a writer from writing. Not if you write because you must; if your love of storytelling overrides fame, money, and all the glories of being published. Yes, we’ve probably missed out on some fabulous voices. We’ve all scratched our heads and wondered at other voices that rocket to the top of the lists—voices we don’t care for.

At the end of the day it may be you alone with your manuscript, kicking back and enjoying a tale told in your style. If you’ve stayed true, the words will delight you, the story will carry you away from reality, and a deep sense of satisfaction will cover you like a quilt. There’s nothing wrong with that.

If the Subjective-Powers-That-Be love your voice, you’ll be on your way to publication and possible mass-acceptance.

The important thing is to cultivate and stay true to your voice and style. Enjoy the path to discovery, don’t fear the growth, and don’t try to be someone you’re not.

Bonus Fun:
Here's something zany and unique. The kids are telling the story while the adults act it out. Hilarious--enjoy!


  1. Hi Joyce! That video is hilarious! My kids laughed so hard and begged me to let them watch it again and again. Thanks for sharing.

    I love your post above. You have articulated so well what voice, style, and treatment is in writing (I didn't know about treatment, so that was good useful info for me). I'll have to bookmark this post for future reference. Very well done.

    I also love how you emphasized that glaring errors should not be excused or treated as a proponent of voice.

  2. Oh hey, there's the comment I thought I lost on my iPhone. And I also see the typo my iPhone auto-corrected for me: proponent. I meant component. Silly, no?

    Anyway, as I've said before, this is a very articulate post and I truly enjoyed this. Thanks, Joyce!

  3. Hi, cherie. We quote the video clip all the time now. It really sticks in your head.

    Thanks for the kind words too. The upcoming Posting Marathon has all kinds of gears whirling in my head and you'll be seeing some more posts that result from that.

  4. "Oceanology, not oceanography."

    Found their other videos--totally hilarious! My kids have a new favorite: Kid History.

    Hey, I'll probably read and crit during the marathon. Don't think I can make it to post my own chapters. See you there!

  5. Kid History #3 is another quotable one.

    Readers and critics are the marathon's most valuable players. Thank you!