Over the Transom: The Voice

What makes narration work? Voice, the confident delivery of narration, is a cornerstone of making it work.

Most of these “Over the Transom” entries have their origins in trends that I discover in the notes that I make while reading submissions. Many of them talk about common pitfalls in creating a successful story, whether it’s neglecting to give characters enough definition or failing to let them make meaningful choices. This time, I’d like to talk about something that I often say about the stories that we do end up publishing.

The comment is usually some variation on “I like the confident tone in this,” though sometimes it comes out as “This is completely awesome.” Either way, it signals the presence of a distinctive capital-V Voice — that elusive quality that raises a story above the rest. Voice is more than a firm command of the English language or stylistic flourishes (sometimes the latter is even a detriment). It isn’t necessarily something that can be learned or produced on demand. Voice, above all, comes from having something to say and being utterly committed to it.

This is partly why, as much attention as first sentences get, I don’t put that much stock in them. In the hands of a confident writer, a story will broadcast that confidence from the first line. But not every story with a strong opening can sustain that quality if the author lacks the conviction to carry it to the end. And strong doesn’t mean flashy: “My Bicycle, 4500 A.D.” starts off simply enough — “My bicycle was stolen on a Friday.” — but Stephen Case quickly develops the story with firm, sure steps that take us on a mad journey up the timeslope.

How big a difference can voice make? A story with a distinctive voice sticks in your head and is hard to dislodge. “Don’t Move a Muscle, Mr. Liberty” was one of the earliest submissions to come in to AE. We were under its spell, but even with a liberal interpretation of SF we weren’t sure that we could make it fit in our fledgling magazine. In the end, we couldn’t let go of it and bought it to publish after we’d established our sci-fi bona fides. Similarly, when we read “Remains” we loved it, but hesitated at first. Did we really need a vampire story? No, we didn’t, but we had to have this one. And I’m not sure we would ever have seen ourselves publishing a folklore-inspired short-story version of a Seinfeld episode set in Banff National Park until Ivan Dorin charmed us utterly with “Dinner Guests.”

Then there are stories that are squarely in our wheelhouse, so much so that we’ve seen dozens of variations on them already. “Science Can’t Fix Everything” is a familiar enough theme in SF, but Shane Rhinewald wrote the one that stood out for us. We’ve read countless stories about the pervasiveness of advertising and social media, not to mention stories about characters trying to bring their loved ones back to life, most of which fall flat. Trevor Shikaze was the one who blended them together in a way that grabbed our attention; “The Ghost Pool” won us over.

Is confidence alone sufficient to make a story work? To tell the truth, it isn’t always enough. There are stories where we love the writing but they ultimately don’t make the cut. Sometimes it’s because the plot is a bit too familiar, or it’s not well served by our length constraints, or just isn’t a good fit for us. But a distinctive voice certainly goes a long way.

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