Elements of a Good Review 2: Voice, Verbosity, and Gettin They Clunk On


First, thanks so much for staying with me after last week’s rant. It means a lot to know someone out there is actually interested in my thought process.

To recap, this is how I review books. I use the nine elements  of Voice, Clunk, Character, Setting, Theme, Dialogue, Belief, Plot, and Originality. Because Clunk drew so much attention to herself last week–not all of it good–I’m going to open her up today along with Voice.

And to borrow a cliched phrase from last weeks micro-debate: “Just to be clear,” this is MY review process, not THE review process. For anyone who may disagree, fantastic! I’d love to hear your opinions about it so I can refine my own methodology. Punks.


Last fall I had the opportunity to attend a Writer’s Digest boot camp in Beverly Hills, taught by the lovely and incredibly talented Paula Munier of Talcott Notch Literary Agency. If you ever have a chance to attend one of Paula’s seminars, do it. This particular seminar was on Plot, but my bigger take away came from one of her side notes: “If you have Voice, you can pretty much get away with anything… but if your voice is weak, you need to have a bullet proof everything else.”

And there it is. Examples of great voice from my own library include A.E. Rought, James Glass, Allison Dickson, Sean Cummings, Suzi M., Scott Westerfeld, Rosie Best, Kim Curran, and one of my all time favorites, T.L. Costa. Notice anything? Most of my voice commanders are YA writers. I can bore you to tears with my hypothesis as to why, but suffice it to say YA writers have twice the burden of suspending belief because they are dealing with a teen audience–70-85% female according to varying sources–with a natural snark and eye-roll disposition. T.L. Costa busted through the belief/voice barrier by using two protagonists with totally different voices. One, a teen girl prodigy in college and far removed from her peer group; the other, a teen boy with severe ADHD. You can imagine which one was her money maker.

I usually find lacking voice in horror and SF/F.  The biggest voice problem seems to come from Point of View. When writers try to do the whole 3rd person, omniscient POV narration, they are either really good at it and pen a classic, or trudge through pages with a monotone, passive voice and forced flavor quirks (doesn’t work). It’s like reading a technical manual telling me what happened with a metric butt-load of past continuous/ past perfect continuous phrasing. Know what that does? It puts 82 painful layers of separation between me and the action.

ex. “The vampire stood in the shadows and was licking her lips as the herculean muscles of Trent’s back were coiling and uncoiling like two lovers’ bodies beneath his skin.”

The use of was and were kill this scene. Along with a clunky writing style, but I’ll hit that next. The writer did a fair job of plugging in sexed-up metaphors, but to what end? It still reads like it’s a million miles away and subtitled. By cutting the fat and rewording for a closer feel, the words disappear and put you in the scene.

“The vampire hid in the shadows, licking her lips, tracing the muscles of Trent’s writhing, naked back.”

See? We’re right there in the shadows with Vampina, licking our lips, and hey! Trent gets to keep his sexy back without all the over-explained garbage clogging the moment. This is also called showing-versus-telling and for genre fiction is pretty monumental. If I could recommend one great author to showcase what good voice can do for a piece, it’s Chuck Palahniuk…unless you’re squeamish. So go with someone like Susan Creech, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Stephen King, or Scott Westerfeld.

Next. POV matters. Not just making the mistake of shifting into different people without warning or a scene break, but strategically choosing within whose POV the reader is getting a right-seat ride. How that character’s personality is translated to the page. Take a look at The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. Beautiful voice from the perspective of a teen with Asperger Syndrome.

These are only a handful of aspects I feel go into solid voice, but they work for me in terms of keeping me wrapped in some other person’s vision.


What is Clunk?

Verbosity. Using a whole wad of adverbs, redundancies, extraneous detail, and other unnecessary calories. You’ve seen it. You hate it. Hell, you’ve probably hated it in half the garbage I write. Hi, my name is CS and I’m a clunky writer. There. Step one complete. Booyah!

Without cramming a bunch of verbose and non-gluten-free explanations down your gullets, I’m going to use examples of serious Clunk from my own mistakes. This is stuff I’ve written in the past ten years and has been torn apart by betas, agents, friends, enemies, and relatives. Don’t ever give your work to your friends and family to read unless it’s a mutual and professional relationship for both sides. oops.

“Hefting the child effortlessly, the man cradled him in his arms to the elevator and disappeared within, accompanied by his driver, an equally large, professionally dressed gentleman.”  (Too much detail and a runaway comma gun)

“He had already stretched the limits of what any woman with a typical understanding of the popular version of love would have endured.” (over explained and wordy; not really necessary to the story)

“Now he had a live-in rent factory and punch dummy for his sick sense of humor/ guilt mechanism, and he had his Matt so that they could live happily ever after with their live-in step-wife.” (aside from a whole lot of telling and repetition, it’s over-the-top, forced voice)

“The counselor gave him a thin smile and placed one arm of her glasses in her mouth while she cocked her head to the side, regarding her patient. He was in his mid-twenties, not necessarily fit, but not a pork chop, either. Andrew was the norm of normal, regulation regular. Five foot seven, a semi-soft one eighty five, and standard cut brown hair to match his standard brown eyes. The only remarkable thing about Andrew was his depressing demeanor.” (Oh good lord)

“For all family members struck by military tragedy, the C-A Team was their guardian angel force of sorts. There was an administrative labyrinth that needed to be navigated and a suddenly single, grieving parent could not be expected to just automatically know what to do. Unfortunately, the slow turning admin machinery of the military did not have a compassion circuit, either. That was where the C-A Teams came into play. They took care of people and helped cushion their frustration in time of need.” (That’s me crying. And this hot garbage actually got published!)

Voice and Clunk. My take on it.

I’m ending Clunk a bit abrupt, but other than suggesting Strunk and White’s Elements of Style for a deeper understanding of brevity and conciseness and wanting to put your eyeball out after you’re done reading both clunky prose and Strunk and White’s technical manual, I hope this helps understand my reviews in terms of these two elements.

Thanks for reading and I’ll be back next Friday, Desert Gods and Stryker Brigades pending, to cover Character, Setting, Dialogue, and Belief.

“And that’s all I have to say about that.” (Gump, 1995)





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