Saturday, September 1

Real Life Diagnostics: Good Voice vs. Bad Writing: Where Do I Draw the Line?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Seven

This week’s questions:
I'm having somewhat of a hard time distinguishing between good voice and bad writing. I know a bit of what I do is generally frowned upon (i.e. excessive exaggeration, the phrasing of the last sentence of my excerpt), but I'm pretty sure it still works, considering my MC, Kimberly, is a seventeen year old girl, and I'd like to think that as long as my voice is genuine, other things are less important. So my main question isn't so much a question as a request for confirmation that it does in fact work; and then, if it doesn't, where should I draw the line?

Market/Genre: Contemporary Young Adult


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

A quick summary to catch you up, since this is the beginning of the fifth chapter- Kimberly is popular and well-liked by everybody at her school, until her biggest secret is revealed and she's not so much of either anymore. This part picks up right when she's starting to deal with the fallout of her secret being leaked. Also, as far as her relationships with the other characters mentioned are concerned, Hazel is her best friend, Will is her boyfriend, and Ellie is her younger sister.

The rest of the weekend went by too quietly. The time that I usually spent shopping with Hazel, going to a movie with Will, hanging out with whomever at the local town hot spots, playing board games with my family, or even just catching up on homework, was instead spent doing practically nothing.

I think a good ninety nine or so percent of it was spent lying alone in my room, crying or thinking or listening to the radio. Nobody called. Nobody texted. Nobody sent me any messages online. Nobody seemed to care that I was completely and utterly alone. And I couldn’t blame them.

But then on Monday, the storm blew in.

I made sure to start my day out the same way I usually do, while pretending that nothing out of the ordinary had happened those past few days. Everything was fine, today would be just like any other day. The only difference was that Ellie and Hazel, whom I usually drove to school, had found replacement rides.

The illusion of normalcy shattered the second I pulled into the school parking lot. Slowly but surely, more and more people turned to stare at me, and then whispered to their friends. I considered staying in my car until the bell rang for first period, but I didn’t want to let people see my weakness.

I got out of my car, held my head high, and stared straight ahead as I walked to my first period classroom. I could hear the whispers now. All sorts of curses and names were flying around, and I swear I even heard somebody call me a Dementor. Which, you know, ouch, but also ten points for creativity.

My Thoughts in Purple:

The rest of the weekend went by too quietly. The time that I usually spent shopping with Hazel, going to a movie with Will, [hanging out with whomever at the local town hot spots,] This line feels like one too many examples. Since it's the least specific, I'd suggest a trim to tighten the paragraph playing board games with my family, or even just catching up on homework, was instead spent doing practically nothing.

I think a good ninety nine or so percent of it was spent lying alone in my room, crying or thinking or listening to the radio. Nobody called. Nobody texted. Nobody sent me any messages online. Nobody seemed to care that I was completely and utterly alone. And I couldn’t blame them. Perhaps she's already reflected on the situation, but this feels like a great spot for her to think about what happened and why she doesn't blame folks. For her own sense of self doubt to spill in. It also allows you to have her worry about what might happen at school and set that up.

But then on Monday, the storm blew in.

I made sure to start my day out the same way I usually do, while pretending that nothing out of the ordinary had happened those past few days. Everything was fine, today would be just like any other day. [The only difference was that Ellie and Hazel, whom I usually drove to school, had found replacement rides.] Perhaps cut to tighten. This paragraph feels a little long and there's been a lot of summary narrative so far.

The illusion of normalcy shattered the second I pulled into the school parking lot. [Slowly but surely, more and more people turned to stare at me, and then whispered to their friends. I considered staying in my car until the bell rang for first period, but I didn’t want to let people see my weakness.] This is where the action starts, and what she's been dreading, so perhaps flesh it out more. Or cut to pick up the pace.

I got out of my car, held my head high, and stared straight ahead as I walked to my first period classroom. Good spot for some thoughts on how she feels. I could hear the whispers now. All sorts of curses and names were flying around, and I swear I even heard somebody call me a Dementor. [Which, you know, ouch, but also ten points for creativity.] Great line.

Does this voice work, and if it doesn't, where should I draw the line?
I think the voice works. I loved the last line, and loved the voice there. I didn't notice any exaggerations, and the text felt natural and the way a teen would talk. I felt in the POV's head the whole time. I think your voice is working just fine. And I'm curious what a Dementor is now.

(More on finding your voice here)

Great voice often breaks the rules. Trying to be perfect with grammar and punctuation usually flattens the prose and makes it sound like everyone else. Your voice shines through because of how you write, what words you choose, how you string those words together and even what rules you choose to break. (For example, I love sentence fragments. But sentence fragments are consider bad in everything but fiction) Voice only becomes bad writing when it turns gimmicky and those unique aspects draw attention away from the actual story. Nothing here does that.

(More on developing voice here)

The only "bad writing" as you say (and I use this term very loosely, because it's actually not) has more to do with pacing than word choice. This section is well done, but it felt a little long to me, and I was eager to see something happen. Kimberly summarized her weekend, but she didn't delve much into how she felt about being alone or what this meant to her. Or what she feared would happen now. (though it's possible she did this before this chapter, and if so, you wouldn't do it again).

(More on pacing here)

Something bad happened to make all her friends abandon her and turn her into an outcast, yet I'm not getting a sense of her dealing with the fallout so much as telling us she is. I wanted to feel her pain more, see her struggling with this issue and the fear of what will happen at school now that her secret is out. Maybe see her trying to reach out to her friends and they shun her. Examples of the new reality she's living in now.

As is, the snippet feels more like a transition between scenes than a scene itself. Kimberly has no goal driving it (though she does once she gets to school--act like everything is fine and pretend it's all okay), there are no stakes, and no action. It's sequel-like, (her reacting to the end of a scene), but it's not showing her actually reacting and dealing. I'd suggest thinking about what you want to accomplish with this snippet and decide from there what to do with it.

(More on sequels here) 

Is this a sequel where Kimberly is reacting to the revelation of her secret? If so, try showing her reacting and dealing and what happens. Her emotional reaction to this situation is probably pretty powerful and an important part of the book, so seeing that unfold would be nice. Even a few more lines of emotional internalization would add tension to this snippet and turn it into a solid sequel.

Is this a scene about her going to school for the first time after the secret gets out? If so, perhaps trim the transitions and start at school to get right to the action. You could easily sum up her weekend with "I spent the weekend alone" and move right into school on Monday. Show her getting out of her car and the other students whispering, show her reactions to that and how it makes her feel. Really get in there and make the reader feel all the strong emotions Kimberly must be feeling now. It's got great heart-wrenching potential.

Is this a reflective transition to let the reader catch their breath between scenes? If so, perhaps tighten just a little to pick up the pace. My suggestions tightening:
The rest of the weekend went by too quietly. Nobody called. Nobody texted. Nobody sent me any messages online. Nobody seemed to care that I was completely and utterly alone. And I couldn’t blame them. (you could still add a reason why here. I really want to hear her reasons in that great voice here)

But then on Monday, the storm blew in.

I made sure to start my day out the same way I usually do, while pretending that nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Everything was fine, today would be just like any other day.

The illusion of normalcy shattered the second I pulled into the school parking lot. I got out of my car, held my head high, and stared straight ahead as I walked to my first period classroom. I could hear the whispers now. All sorts of curses and names were flying around, and I swear I even heard somebody call me a Dementor. Which, you know, ouch, but also ten points for creativity.
Overall, it's a well-written piece, but it doesn't feel like it's driving the story yet, which could be what's triggering your "something is wrong" feelings. Your instincts are picking up on it, but you're not sure where the problem lies. But the voice is good and the writing is good, so no worries on that front. It's got good voice and good writing. It's just a matter of polish.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

9 comments:

  1. The last line is great. I'll admit I'm a bit curious to know what the secret is, closet Harry Potter nerd? I like the play with 'giving' the house points and the link to the dementor. It makes me want to know how is she similar to a literal soul sucking creature that takes all your good memories away, because that is a strong metaphor.

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  2. Author, I don't know who's criticizing your voice, but I enjoyed it! Most YA fiction doesn't appeal to me; this snippet does.

    I think I liked the last line so much because I know several people who would say it, or something very similar. Or, y'know, I may use it myself the next time I get insulted creatively!

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  3. I liked this too! And I like how Janice trimmed it. I remember a post by Shannon Hale that talked about improving poetry just by removing words and how improving fiction/writing is often the same thing.

    And thanks Janice for pointing out that this is a transition.

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  4. I agree with the above sentiments. You've created a great voice and with Janet's trimming it really reads smooth. I'm already interested in finding out what happens to the character in a few short lines--so you know you've got something going here. Well done!

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  5. Great fragment and great critique/editing. I like the teenager voice and with the suggestions for faster pacing it works really well!

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  6. This is the one time I'm afraid that I have to disagree with Janice. A very rare occurrence to be sure. LOL. But I do have two enormous problems with this piece. The writing is excellent, that isn't in doubt. But to me, this isn't the voice of fifteen year old teen. More like someone much older. Maybe in her early twenties with serious emotional detachment issues.

    And that is my second issue with your story. No matter how much your protagonist can hold it together in front of people, inside (like other normal teens) she would be an emotional rollercoaster. This didn't come through at all in your piece. She seems like I said before very detached. And showing a maturity that isn’t that well developed at that age And as for your voice, your last line seems to be the only point where I glimpsed that fifteen year old you're writing about

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  7. I enjoyed the voice as well. I think it might come across as somewhat mature because it's not quite as "chatty" as most YA is these days, but if you throw in more of that internalization Janice mentioned, I think that will remedy any voice issues you might have.

    Thank you very much for asking these questions. I am struggling with the very same thing myself, and I wondered the same thing about voice versus bad writing.

    One thing I have noticed in revision is even if it's perfect for the character's voice, if you repeat it too often, it stops helping your story. For example, my character is prone to weird comparisons. She'll say, "It was like Halloween, only with less scary people."

    Here and there I think it adds to the writing, but if she's saying that every few pages it starts to get annoying. I keep a list of all of the "voice" elements, and double check them during revision.

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  8. I like this and love Janice's tightening, but I've got to say the `whoms' threw me. The voice casual. `Whom' is formal. It stick out to me.

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