The Perils of Author Voice

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

space-shuttle-582557_1920Today’s lesson comes via a Kill Zone first-page critique. It concerns what I call “author voice.” Let’s have a look at the submission and then we’ll discuss.

A FREE EARTH

James Klass lived alone in space, and you can be sure that he didn’t mind it so much. In his opinion – and his was the only one that mattered for at least a parsec – that dark, empty space was freedom. No distractions, no noise. A guy could hear himself think out there in the black, and James had plenty of time to think.

The only real downside to it all, James often mused, was that he couldn’t really be the one floating freely in space. It was always the ship, or a far-too-bulky space suit enjoying the fresh vacuum. As for James, he was always stuck inside, surrounded by walls of metal and plastic. It was a common topic of discussion between he, himself, and his robot as to what it would be like to be out there, allowing your body to absorb the starlight directly and to feel the touch of cold space on your skin. Death notwithstanding. The robot, Zee, had actually done it a few times, but how could an artificial being truly appreciate that experience? They couldn’t, that’s how.

At the moment, James was as close as he could get, which sadly meant he had his face nearly flattened against one of the only real windows on the ship. He strained his eyes to see the Retriever in action as it slowly grappled the nearby derelict starship, preparing to pull it inside. Sure, he could have watched a large, closeup view of the action via the large holographic cloud display that filled the whole bridge, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t real enough. Ever since those kuzon C-Specs came out…

Before C-Specs, holograms were mostly a novelty. They were always translucent, poor reflections of reality, and they rarely mapped well to their environments. There were military applications of course, but the headsets were too bulky and ugly for general use. Then a company called Prakaashan came out with the C-Specs, and the universe changed overnight. C-Specs were thin and light and easy to wear, and even attractive, but more importantly they made holograms that not only mapped perfectly to the real environment, but looked absolutely real.

***

It’s clear from the start that we’re hearing from the author. The phrase you can be sure is direct author-to-reader. So is At the moment, James was as close as he could get, which sadly meant he had his face nearly flattened against one of the only real windows on the ship. 

So is the entire last paragraph.

Which makes this page Omniscient POV. Now, Omniscient has a range of “author intrusiveness.” The author’s voice can be muted, as in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon: 

Spade sank into his swivel-chair, made a quarter turn to face her, smiled politely. He smiled without separating his lips. All the v’s in his face grew longer.

 (Spade can’t see the v’s in his own face, so we know this is Omniscient.)

On the other side of the Omniscient spectrum, the author’s voice can take center stage. This was common in the Dickens era. An author would sometimes address the “Gentle reader,” or give us a small essay on “the best of times and the worst of times.”

Our first page here uses an author voice that is more on the side of calling attention to itself. I assume this is intentional.

So let’s spell out the dangers.

First, these days author intrusion is used almost exclusively in comic novels. Which means the writing has to be funny. Really funny. Which is about the hardest thing there is to do in life. Just ask any standup comic.

Let’s have a look at the opening lines from one of the comic masters, the late Douglas Adams. This is from Life, the Universe and Everything:

    The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was.
    It wasn’t just that the cave was cold, it wasn’t just that it was damp and smelly. It was that the cave was in the middle of Islington and there wasn’t a bus due for two million years.

We hear Adams in these lines and, indeed, all the way through The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. 

Thus, if A Free Earth is intended to be humorous, the author needs to really go for it, from the jump. Just remember what the old actor said: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

If this is not a comic space opera, I don’t like hearing an intrusive author voice. It distances us from the main character. Much better would be to use Third Person POV. Write everything from within the head and heart of James.

A second danger for an intrusive author is the temptation to tell us what’s going on. That’s what’s happening here. This page is almost entirely exposition and description. The only action is James looking out the window at a spaceship retrieval. But that’s only one line, and then we’re back to exposition.

My suggestion: Start with James looking out at the retrieval, then extend the action. I was intrigued by this line: It was a common topic of discussion between he, himself, and his robot as to what it would be like to be out there, allowing your body to absorb the starlight directly and to feel the touch of cold space on your skin. But instead of telling us this, give us the scene! Thus:

James Klass flattened his face against the window of the ship. He strained his eyes to see the Retriever in action as it slowly grappled the nearby derelict starship, preparing to pull it inside.

“It looks cold,” Zee said.

James whirled around and glared at his robot. “What do you know about it??

“I have been outside,” Zee said.

“But you have no skin!”

“I am sensing tension in your voice, James. Perhaps you would like your evening dose of Darnitol now?”

Now we have action and conflict. All the explanatory stuff can be dribbled in as we go along.

Act first, explain later.

So, writing friends, if you are determined to use author voice, understand that it is the nitroglycerin of POVs––one false move and it could blow the whole story up.

Now it’s your turn. What other suggestions to you have for the author?

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24 thoughts on “The Perils of Author Voice

  1. I may be a minority of one, but I don’t feel that omniscient voice is the plague. As with any POV, when well done it is wonderful. Likewise, any time I read a book I know an author was behind the writing, so the concept simply isn’t shocking to me, doesn’t jar me.

    I thought the above piece did an excellent job of drawing me into story world. I do agree, however, that the telling got to be too much. By the excerpt’s end I was thinking “okay now, move it along.”

    I found myself making mental comparisons as to what year this was and the mention of star ships of course instantly made me think of Star Trek, but I was curious to know more. I would read further because it piqued my curiosity, and because they DID take a chance with omniscient, instead of just using the same old same old first or third person. That tells me they’re willing to step outside the box.

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    • While there are those who might consider Omniscient POV “the plague,” I’m not one of them. It can be done well. The issue is not Omniscient POV per se, but the level of intrusiveness. That’s the tricky part.

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  2. My first suggestion for the author would be to read VOICE: Secret Power of Great Writing. I’m rereading and studying it for the third time, along with some other books you suggested for distinct voice – Liar’s Club, All Over But the Shoutin’, and My Name is Aram. Now those are autobiographical, so maybe they don’t fit into the discussion here. But I get the impression that if you are going to use author voice, not only recognize that it is “nitroglycerin,” but also go for the gusto – make it extremely unique.

    And as for VOICE: I’m still mining new nuggets of wisdom and insight.

    Thanks for discussing this subject today. I’m glad to see that you’re not using an AI (last week’s post) to write your posts. We like the soul, the emotion, and the passion. Throw away the Darnitol. And keep a tight rein on Zee.

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  3. I’m not a grammar nerd, especially with regard to the creation of voice. However, the early statement of “discussion between he, himself, and his robot” made me think that the author was not only intrusive (although that, honestly, didn’t bother me) but also either poorly informed or inattentive to his writing. Grammatical errors of the nails-across-the-chalkboard variety (“between he”!!!) can enhance voice when they contribute to the personality of the POV character, but in this case they just take the reader out of the story. The nitro here isn’t just nitroglycerin — which can be life-saving as well as destructive — it’s TNT. It just blows you up.

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  4. There is a good sense of a created world here. I can easily visualize the cold impersonality of the ship, the isolation. And I don’t mind the omniscient authorial voice–though I agree with Jim that it might be more solidly done in more experienced hands. Big points for going big, author.

    I also agree that it needs to open with some kind of action. As a reader, I don’t want to be led so gently into the protagonist’s surroundings and situation. It’s like asking permission to write what’s to come. The opening of a story has to set up a question in the mind of the reader, and the question has to be answered by the end.

    As it’s written, the big question in the story is (and it doesn’t come until the second paragraph): Will James– a man in a very tense relationship with his robot– fulfill his deep desire to float naked in space for a few moments before having his skin bubble off, his tongue shrivel, and his heart cease to function? If this is actually what the story is about, then let’s get to it. I’m not poking fun here. This is what it seems the story is about, and that would be okay with me because–wow.

    __James Klass pressed his face against the airlock window, watching Zee, the planetary research ship’s onboard robot, and his only companion for the last six years in the Fourth Quadrant of Space Galaxy Number 42, go through the door-opening sequence. Since they’d reached the Quandrant, Zee had executed the weekly space walks alone. Zee, whose triple-coated enamel steel skin couldn’t even feel the lingering starlight washing over it. Zee, with his shining stalk eyes and cheerful green and red lighted buttons in circles around his middle like decorations on some demented Christmas tree. Zee, who didn’t know what a joke was or know what chocolate tasted like. The astonishing wonder of floating, weightless among the stars was wasted on Zee. James ached to be in his place, to feel the burning cold of those stars on his own fragile skin. His index finger hovered, shaking, over the button that would open the inner door and let him join Zee, and he sucked in his breath. But then Zee performed the final sequence and the outer airlock door hummed open, and James simply watched as Zee stepped into space.__

    But is it true that the *only* downside of living alone in space with a robot is that James can’t go out and feel starlight on his skin? The use of the authorial voice makes it seem like the author is toying with James for our benefit. Because if that’s what James really thinks, then there’s something deeply wrong with him that makes him the perfect candidate to live where no one else has to deal with him. Is he being punished? Is he a scientist? And because, as rational beings ourselves, we know that his desire is technically irrational, and his problem more philosophical, James needs to learn that there are actually many, many downsides to living alone in space, and this is just one of them. The author’s voice could lead him there–with the help of his trusty robot– with humor and compassion.

    I see a lot of potential!

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  5. As I read this — and I found it interesting enough to put the Lions game on pause while I did, which was a mistake considering how the Lions choked — I was pulled into this world. I love realistic stories set in space, so at first I didn’t mind that nothing much was happening. And I didn’t even mind the omniscient POV.

    However…

    As Jim said, if you’re going there (omni pov) you gotta go full-throated screaming into the warty wormy human consciousness. I think this writer has a good steady hand on technique, and this has great potential, but I so wished for more of…something. James feel sort of bloodless, a bit too cerebral for me to connect with — robotic even. My interest perked up when James was musing about wanting to expose his skin to the deadly space elements — such an intriguing glimpse into his mind! — but it really went nowhere. Why was he thinking this? What prompted it? The desire to feel something “real”? After years in space, was it the simple need for, as Bruce said, human touch?

    And though I was patient, in the end, as Jim said, I really needed a sense that something was happening, already did happen, or was about it happen.

    This entry made me think of Andy Weir’s novel, “The Martian,” which I loved. (Good movie, too, by the way). Here is its opening…forgive the blue language.

    I’m pretty muck fucked.
    That’s my considered opinion.
    Fucked.
    Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.
    I don’t even know who will read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a thousand years from now.
    For the record…I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be national day of mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say “Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.”

    Now there’s a voice. And there is a hell of a tease. You can’t not read on.

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    • For the record. My blog post tomorrow was written and uploaded BEFORE I read this, Kris, but it’s about The Martian, voice, and how characters make books.

      For me, omniscient, especially those “if I’d only known then … ” usages pull me way out of the story. The author has just told me what’s going to happen, and all the fun of discovery, and the “I never saw that coming” is gone. Our book club read Odd Thomas this month, and although I finished it, had it not been ‘assigned’ I probably would have stopped at the first omniscient aside to the reader. Going into how good prose can bring a book to a screeching halt is another topic.

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      • How…odd!
        I loved Odd Thomas, Terry. But I understand your misgivings about it. I was put off initially with the strange pov, but in the end, I was moved, surprised…and I loved that book.

        But I am a sucker for the unreliable narrator. 🙂

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        • Most of the issues with Odd Thomas (and this was an almost unanimous opinion, which is very rare in our group) was that the prose slowed the story too much and it could have been a 200 page book, not a 400 pager. I did like the character a lot, and there were certainly reminders that he was an unreliable narrator, but there were just too many descriptive “flow-stoppers” for me.

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  6. I agree with the above comments. There is another problem. The alone-in-space idea has been done a lot including Heinlein’s Hugo Award winner ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’, Alfred Bester’s ‘The Stars My Destination’, the movie ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and god only knows how many episodes of ‘The Outer Limits’. All this means is that a writer must bring something new to an idea that is well used. It’s a little like covering an Elvis hit, it must make it your own. And, we need to see it right away. Something like: After his conviction and digital brain examination by the robot Zee, he’d been sentenced to his worst nightmare, life alone in space. Zee was assigned as his jailor.

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    • Good point, Brian, about bringing something new to the table. As you say, the set-up has been done many times before — Robinson Crusoe right through the Tom Hank’s movie, Castaway. So if you do this, you need to be fresh.

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      • There are many other situations that need to be ‘fresh’. The procedural police story, the psych thriller, and the traditional romance story.

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    • There are some good movies to add: Silent Running with Bruce Dern and Moon from 2009.

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  7. I, too, was ready for humor after the “you can be sure” comment. Not finding any, I pressed on anyway, only to be stopped cold by the final paragraph which reads like it came from the C-Specs sales brochure.

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  8. Before I got to the comments, I caught the problem:

    “James Klass lived alone in space, and you can be sure that he didn’t mind it so much.”

    I find this to be overly intrusive and too in-your-face for my taste. The author is telling me about James instead of showing it. When I see that in the first line, I have a feeling that there is going to be a lot of the writer trying to convince me he’s clever. An entire book of omniscient POV could get really old.

    In the Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck alternates rather ponderous omniscient chapters about the restlessness of the country as they take to the road to a closer third person POV in the chapters with the Joads. His skill weaves those two together into a much larger story.

    If James truly does spend a lot of time alone, consider first POV as well.

    “Despite the lack of closets, I liked living in space better than any apartment I’d ever infested.”

    Anytime I see “you” in anything other than dialogue, I feel like the fourth wall has been breached and it’s rarely for the best. Even live TV fails at this more often than not. It can feel gimmicky.

    Terri

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  9. Lots of valid points in earlier comments, and I agree the POV is the most jarring issue. However, the redundancy is a close second.

    “his was the only one that mattered for at least a parsec” and “James had plenty of time to think” are both already implied and unnecessary.

    Words like real (in this context), really, actually, practically, literally…. completely unnecessary. We get the point without them.

    “They couldn’t, that’s how.” sounds like a nonsensical argument one might hear from a nine-year-old. This phrase serves no purpose, other than perhaps a failed attempt at humor.

    And of course the almost-total lack of showing kept me from ever being drawn into the story. I didn’t feel like anything about this was compelling, although it’s plain to see there are a plethora of ways the narrative could be altered to make use of action and intrigue to get my attention and keep me riveted.

    In closing, seems like a neat idea if done right, but definitely needs some work to get there.

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  10. Here are a few notes for you:

    1. Like many of the other folks here, I think the voice needs work. Don’t be discouraged. Embrace the work. Read lots of books that are similar to the one you’d like to write, and pay attention to the voice. Also read books and articles about voice.

    2. In general, the writing seemed a bit rambling. Try to practice economy of words. Let’s look at your first paragraph:

    “James Klass lived alone in space, and you can be sure that he didn’t mind it so much. In his opinion – and his was the only one that mattered for at least a parsec – that dark, empty space was freedom. No distractions, no noise. A guy could hear himself think out there in the black, and James had plenty of time to think.”

    Let’s see if I can rewrite it using fewer words without losing any of the meaning:

    James Klass lived alone in the cosmos, but in that dark, empty space was freedom. No distractions, no noise. Plenty of time to think.

    Your second paragraph mentions a robot named Zee. Cool. I’m starting to get interested. Instead of telling the reader about his conversations with Zee, how about some actual dialogue? Draw the reader in with an interesting conversation. You could show contrast between James and his rambling mind with the succinct language of the robot.

    3. Your writing suffers from too many adverbs. For example, you use “only” four times in this sample. Other adverbs on the first page include: freely, really, directly, truly, actually, nearly, sadly, nearby, slowly, mostly, rarely, absolutely. Whew! I don’t hate adverbs, but too many can detract from the story.

    4. You have three sentences that begin “It was” or “It wasn’t” – try to vary the way you begin your sentences. Three sentences that begin the same way on one page is too many.

    5. Read John Gardner’s examples of “psychic distance” (http://www.susanwoodring.com/2010/06/john-gardners-psychic-distance.html). As you rewrite your first page, think about what level of psychic distance would best help to bond your reader with your protagonist.

    6. It’s always a good idea to have someone proofread your work.

    Best of luck, and keep writing!

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  11. I don’t have much more to add except to echo the comments on voice. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a great example of comic voice and it’s tough to pull off for sure. I think here, setting the tone in a unique, vibrant voice is critical. That’s what’s going to draw us in – the author is part way there I think but not quite. Bravo for submitting though and I think there’s good material here to work with!

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