Monday, July 6, 2009

Magic Voice

from Joan

You have the perfect idea for a novel and complete your first draft. You revise and tweak it, conjuring the perfect concoction. You’ve instilled your magic voice.

Before you submit, you test it on your critique partners and anxiously await the results. Then your agent and editor scurry into the lab and VoilĂ ! Out comes an even more alien brew. With enough riffing, the creation you deemed nearly perfect is saturated with remarks that read like Mystery Science Theater 3000 commentary: “You forgot the eye of newt,” or “No, your monster wouldn’t spare the girl. He’d chomp off her arms,” or “Turn back!”

Why didn’t I think of that? you reflect, and accept the change. Brilliant! you think, and incorporate another. I was going to write it that way, you justify.

Most likely, none of your advisors are mad scientists, just benevolent associates who want to see your book on the shelves. But, writer, beware! Pretty soon the concoction is theirs, not yours. Pretty soon you’ll need line-by-line credits in your acknowledgments.

If you’re lucky, your beta readers will suggest revisions without making it their own. My writing is better because of my brilliant critique partners. Even if I don’t agree with all they suggest, I learn from their input and I hope they concur. But sometimes I make a suggested change because it sounds better, only to discover later that the line or word sticks out. It’s not my voice.

My advice: Don’t write by committee; retain your story. Know when to turn back, take the intent of well-meaning suggestions, and mold them into your magic voice.

Save the riffing to the guys who brought you Mystery Science Theater 3000. (For hilarious new commentary from Michael J. Nelson of MST3K go to


  1. I don't usually adopt changes that folks suggest unless (1) I really like the change and think it improves the work, or (2) multiple people say the same thing. No. 1 is pretty rare and far less important than no. 2. When multiple people say the same thing about my writing, it's usually because they all see the same issue, which means that there may be an objectively-identifiable problem with the work. It seems to me that the point of a critique group (or partner) is not to help you make your material amenable to every reader, but rather to make sure your work is free of the kinds of errors that most or all readers will spot.

  2. Thanks for stopping by Anthony! Your logic makes sense.


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