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Finding My Voice–Deborah Raney, Terry Burns, & Chip MacGregor

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Please make welcome Deborah Raney, Chip MacGregor, and Terry Burns.

Deborah Raney grew up on a farm in Kansas and, inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, first tried her hand at novel writing at the age of twelve. But after accidentally putting airplanes in a story set in the 1700s, she tore up her manuscript in frustration and vowed never to write historical fiction again. Two decades later, she began work on her first novel—a contemporary story—after an intriguing discussion about Alzheimer’s disease with her husband, Ken, and their young teenagers. A Vow to Cherish was published by Bethany House Publishers in 1996 and won an Angel Award from Excellence in Media. It has been translated into the Swedish, Danish and Norwegian languages, and is also available in a hardcover large-print edition from Thorndike Press. Steeple Hill Books recently released an updated and expanded version of the book. It also inspired a TV movie by the same name. Deborah’s books have won the RITA Award, the National Readers Choice Award, The HOLT Medallion, the Inspirational Readers Choice Contest, and numerous other awards, as well as finaling in the Christy Awards. Deborah is currently working on her fourteenth novel. Her most recent release is Remember to Forget from Howard Publishing.

For Terry Burns, telling stories comes as natural as breathing. With a combination of a strong faith and a legacy of Irish storytelling and Texas tall-tales, he writes Christian fiction set against a western canvas. Even when trying to be serious, he finds it hard to keep his subtle West Texas humor out of his writing. Terry just can’t buy the notion that all Christian fiction is written for female readers and his simple, fast moving writing appeals to male readers, though he admits he has more readers among the ladies. “I don’t have a problem with that,” he says. “I love to interest one of those pretty ladies in a book, then watch them talk hubby into reading it. You’d be surprised how often that happens.” In addition to writing, Terry is also a literary agent with Hartline Literary Agency. A list of Terry’s titles can be found on the books page of his website.

Chip MacGregor is an extraordinary Literary Agent with a comprehensive knowledge of the publishing industry, from book development to writing, acquisition to production, marketing to sales. He has secured more than one hundred book deals for authors with all of the major publishers in both CBA and ABA. Chip has written more than two-dozen titles, including two books that hit #1 on the bestseller lists in their category. He has also been the collaborative writer on books with people like Howard Hendricks, Joe Stowell, Andre Kole, and Bruce Waltke. This longtime agent has represented such luminaries as Brennan Manning, Michelle McKinney Hammond, Jill and Stuart Briscoe, Alistair McGrath, Neta Jackson, Donna Partow, the MOPS organization, and Hearts at Home. His work with Lisa Beamer and Ken Abraham led to Let’s Roll hitting #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List, eventually becoming the bestselling nonfiction book that year.

WPWT: For Deb and Terry—how did you find your unique writing voice? Did you struggle to find it or did it come easily to you?
DR: I honestly have never been sure I even have a unique writing voice. People tell me I do, so I’m beginning to believe it, but it’s certainly not something I set out to “create.” If I struggled, it was with the worry that I didn’t have a unique voice. But other than studying the craft of writing, and honing my craft through practice, I haven’t done one thing different from the day I began writing until now. So I don’t think one necessarily has to work at finding their voice.

TB: In my opinion if somebody is struggling to find “their writing voice” they’re trying to force it. My writing voice is not the way I talk, my West Texas Drawl, it is who I am. It is the sum total of my education, my upbringing, my faith, my family, my experiences and it comes through in the way I write, even when I am trying to craft dialogue where the character speaks far differently than how I would speak myself. Some of my characters would speak much as I do, others speak far differently, but always no matter what is going on in the dialogue there are ways I would phrase things and ways that I wouldn’t. There are things I would allow in my writing and things I wouldn’t. The way I craft sentences, the pacing of my writing, these are the things that make up voice, not the way I speak or make my characters speak. I think far too many writers mistake dialogue for “voice.”

WPWT: How would you describe your unique writing voice? What is it that you do to make sure your writing “sounds like” you?
DR: Readers who know me say that reading my books is like sitting down across the table from me and having tea. So I guess I’d describe my voice as conversational, chatty even, and easygoing. I suppose what I “do” to make it that way, is just not be too concerned with it. I just write the only way I know how, and my voice is what comes out!

TB: My writing style is simple, because that’s what I am, a simple old cowboy. If I tried to write complicated literary fiction it wouldn’t work because then I would be outside my voice. I write simple, fast-moving stories and even if I’m not trying to do so, my faith is still evident. As long as I stay true to my upbringing I don’t have to worry about my voice, it’ll be there.

WPWT: What advice would you give to beginning/intermediate writers to help them find and develop their unique writing voice?
DR: Don’t work too hard at it. Don’t try to “affect” a voice, or it will certainly come out seeming less than genuine. Just write your story the way it comes to your mind, hone your craft, and then apply what you learn to that foundational writing—and what you’re left with will be your voice. One thing I would warn against is trying to emulate another writer. None of us can help but be influenced by other writers—and the more we read one particular author, the more their writing will inform what we write. That’s fine. But to purposely attempt to copy another writer will undoubtedly hinder the unique voice that’s trying to come through your writing.

TB: Don’t overthink it. Tell your story, then look at what you’ve written and see if it sounds like you or if it sounds like you are trying to be someone else. Not the dialogue, we all try to be someone else in the dialogue and sound the way we feel that character should sound, but in the general tone and style of the writing. Does it feel natural, or does it feel like you are trying to write like somebody else? If someone were sitting there with you, is this the way you’d tell them a story?

CM: Write something you’re passionate about. Kill the teacher in your head. Write something for yourself. Read it out loud and make sure it sounds good on your ear. Try to stretch your vocabulary, broaden your imagery, and strengthen your rhythm.

WPWT: For Terry and Chip, when reviewing submissions, what do you look for in others’ writing? How do you identify a writer’s voice?
TB: Is the writing natural? I don’t try to identify a writer’s voice and style but I can tell when it is contrived, when it is not natural. When it is forced it can seem pompous, the story doesn’t seem to flow easily, it sounds like the writer is using words and phrasing they are not comfortable with. It feels very much as if they are trying to be something they aren’t.

CM: Brightness. Likeability. Consistency. Passion. Clarity. Smoothness. The ability to get your character onto the page. A good voice will offer good character, which will lead to good stories, which make up a good book.

  1. Erica Vetsch permalink
    Tuesday, February 27, 2007 7:28 pm

    It’s interesting to get the POV of both authors and agents as to what ‘voices’ they hear. 🙂

    I saw a glimpse of ‘voice’ in the last round of critiques we did. You gave an example of how to ground the reader in a certain character’s POV at the beginning of a scene, and while it was an excellent example, it stood away from the writing. I realized as I read and reread it, that I needed the sentence there, but I needed to word it the way I would say it. I had to put it into my ‘voice’. I’m getting it! 🙂


  2. Kaye Dacus permalink
    Tuesday, February 27, 2007 8:21 pm

    Oh, yes, you’re definitely getting it… and that is one very important thing to realize about critique partners–is that when we suggest rewrites of each other’s work, it’s going to natrually be in our own voices. The person receiving the critique has to figure out how to make it fit into her own voice/style.


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