Friday, February 9, 2007

The use of "author voice" for poor writing

It's gotten so that I roll my eyes when I see a reference to "author's voice". The term has been done to death. I've seen it used way too often as an excuse for poor editing. Or, to be more accurate, the refusal to even try editing. Sure, I guess you could make an argument that poorly worded sentences, plots with enormous holes, and incorrect grammar constitute a "writer's voice". But I'm struggling to come up with a definition that makes sense.

I wish people would just drop the damn term. I hear the word "voice" and my eyes glaze over and I figure that here comes a content-free statement that I can just ignore. Acquiring editors like to say "we're looking for a fresh voice". Uh-huh. I'm guessing that means ... hmm. What? Somebody that writes well? Somebody that doesn't write like every other damn writer on the planet? Oookay. The way it's commonly understood it seems to mean "style". Sure, some authors have a distinctive style. But some really excellent authors don't have an identifiable style at all. They have a clean, standard way of writing that's hardly identifiable.

But the word "voice" seems to be used most often by writers defending their every last word and phrasing choice to the death, or the editors that refuse to even try fixing a writer's bad choices because it would "interfere with their voice."

If you want an example of somebody who never seems to be well-edited, take Mandy Roth. She's written for a bunch of e-publishers out there, so apparently they all suffer from the same problem. (Well, we KNOW they do, because e-publishers don't make enough money off the sales of a book to AFFORD to pay decent editors.) Mandy has many good qualities for a writer--she has good characters, some good dialog, and a good feeling for the kind of situations that will pull readers in. And she apparently knows absolutely nothing about punctuation, produces terminally awkward sentences, and can't structure a plot. Her stories have a lot of promise--which is never fulfilled because they're never properly edited, by her or anybody else.

Now, clearly a lot of people just really don't care, because she seems to be selling tons of books. So maybe it's just me. But I read "Loup Garou" yesterday, and I had to do deep breathing to force myself to keep reading it, the editing mistakes and plot holes were so bad. By the time I got halfway through the story, I was practically hyperventilating. The first four chapters were backstory dumps disguised as conversations. The story made clear to the READER halfway through the first chapter that the hero was the heroine's childhood friend, the "prince" everybody was talking about, and the heroine's "mate", but the heroine was too stupid to figure out even ONE of these "secrets". Finally we got to some "good stuff" halfway through the book, but the scenes went here and there, with no real structure or buildup. From reading this and other of her books, I'm almost positive that she sits down, starts writing, writes through to the end, then sends it off to be published--with no revisions, no polishing, no ... nothing.

The story has so much promise -- and so much wrong with it that it's a crime.

Everybody out there does know that e-publishers pay their editors hardly anything, don't they? One standard arrangement is to pay the editor nothing upfront, but give them 5% of the royalties (the authors may get 35 or 40%). This might sound like a reasonable deal, but when you realize that many e-books may never sell more than 300 copies, it's obvious that the editor will make just about nothing. And even the (very few) publishers that DO actually pay their editors, don't pay them anywhere near the the market rate for a professional editor, leaving them with UN-professional editors, of course. The lack of sales don't justify spending anything more on something that so many e-book readers clearly don't care about at all.

It's really a kind of vicious circle. E-books don't get well-edited, driving away readers that care about such things, leaving only readers that DON'T care, meaning that there's no point to spend more on editing, meaning that the market for e-books won't expand as much because the quality is too low, and on and on.

You start to have more sympathy for the sales related calculations of the NY publishing industry. THEY know they can't afford to publish a book that won't sell more than a certain amount, because the cost of acquisition, editing, and production will make it unprofitable. Seems like e-publishing is having to face a similar sort of calculation, except their sales figures are so much lower that I don't see how they can break out of the cycle.


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