Ask the Book Doctor
By Bobbie Christmas
Ask the Book Doctor: About Avoiding Fraud and Finding Your Voice
Q: I just read a news report that Laura Alpert, who writes under the name of JT LeRoy, has been found guilty of fraud. She called her book a novel, and she’s guilty of fraud? What do you think about that? Isn’t a novel fiction? Why must the author even be known?
A: An author’s real name doesn’t have to be known, but in this case Alpert was found to be a fraud, not because of her novel, but because of her attempts to pass it off as truth. She was not indicted for writing a book she sold as an autobiographical novel based on the life of male prostitute JT LeRoy, even though the implication was that it was true, but slightly fictionalized, and that fact turned out to be untrue.
Instead, she royally messed up when she sold the rights to a production company that planned to make a movie based on LeRoy's life (not necessarily based on her novel). The movie, then, was not planned as fiction, but as a documentary of a true life. In addition, she definitely committed fraud when she had friends dress up and pose as LeRoy at book signings and had them lie to journalists about having had sex at truck stops. The author herself even posed as a troubled teen when she called a psychiatrist, possibly another publicity stunt. All those efforts to legitimize something that was not true were, I’m sure, what convinced a jury that Alpert wasn’t simply the author of a novel; she was defrauding the public by implying that the novel was based on a true story, and she didn’t sell the novel to the production company; she sold them the rights to make a movie on LeRoy’s life, with the implication that it was real.
The moral of the story is that the truth may set you free, but a lie can get you thrown in jail, fined, or both.
Q: I have often heard people speak about the writer's voice. What exactly is it, and how can I find my own?
A: Voice applies to two potential ways of writing. You can use your own voice when you write a book or article, or you can narrate through a character’s voice, and the two voices often are quite different.
As far as finding your own voice, a quick answer came from a client of mine recently. When he talks, he has a quick sense of humor and uplifting spirit. He said to me, "I spent ten years looking for a voice, and then I discovered it was mine."
Entire books have been written on voice, but in truth my client summed up the subject of author’s voice nicely. If you have a naturally pleasant way of conversing and you use correct grammar, all you have to do is let that style of speaking pour into your writing, and you’ll find your voice has been there all along. To hear voice at work in the writing of others, read anything by William Price Fox, Bill Bryson, or Pat Conroy.
To get an idea of how voice is used when a story is told through the voice of a character rather than in the voice of the author, read Catcher in the Rye or Sophie’s Choice.
Narrative voice is vital in contemporary literature. I often hear agents say they are looking for a fresh voice, which is another way of saying they are tired of reading manuscripts that are derivative of whatever is selling at the time. Don’t try to be another John Grisham, Stephen King, or Dean Koontz. Be yourself, and you’ll have a fresh voice.
The best way to find your own voice is to relax and write as if you were writing to your best friend. On the second or third draft you’ll want to address what we call "schoolgirl writing" by substituting dashes, exclamation marks, and parentheses with correct punctuation, but otherwise, you’ll find that you’re writing in your authentic voice. In your authentic voice you won’t stretch for words you wouldn’t say in conversation, and you won’t push to write long metaphors and similes that detract from your message. Relax; your voice is already with you!
–Do you have a question for Bobbie Christmas, book doctor? For a personal response, email Bobbie Christmas at Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Bobbie Christmas is the owner of Zebra Communications, a literary services firm providing manuscript editing services to individuals and publishing houses since 1992. Contact her at 770-924-0528, visit her Web site at http://zebraeditor.com/, or e-mail her at the address above. Be sure to sign up for the free Writers Network News by visiting her Web site and clicking on "Free Newsletter."