After last week’s motivating tirade of snark, I found myself perusing Unmoving, trying to get reacquainted with the characters and plot. I know, re-reading while in the drafting phase is a cardinal sin. But I had to, because (and this is going to horrify a lot of you) it’s been about 7 months since I last looked at the darn thing! And with a bazillion plot bunnies constantly distracting my muse like an ADD dog in a field of squirrels, I wasn’t feeling particularly confident that I remembered where I was going with poor Derek. I’d cruelly left him stuck on his park bench, and trust me, he’s quite pissed about it.
But anyway, I was reading (OK skimming, I do know the story better than that) along; everything was going well; I was getting inspired, the muse focusing, and then Bam! Derek’s voice shifted, and not in that it’s-just-this-scene kind of way. No, it shifted in the I-took-too-damn-long-to-write-this-and-now-I’m-a-different-writer kind of way. And I realized I had forgotten a big reason why you should never be a slow writer like me– the morphing voice.
When it takes you an eon to write a novel, you’ll run into this problem. (And yes, that makes reason #6 why you don’t want to be me, in case you were counting. 😉 ) Growth is an inevitable part of the process, just as it is in life. Creative influences will come and go, creeping into your style and changing it without your permission. Your perspective on things will change, and suddenly your character does a complete 180 in their personality. Or you simply improve, because, as they say, practice makes perfect. Regardless of why it happens, when you take too long on a project, you’re bound to find yourself staring down the barrel of the morphing voice. And that’s a blow to your manuscript editors won’t forgive. So how do you fix it? Well, that’s the tricky part.
The way I see it, you have three options.
Option 1: Edit and Hope it Works
This seems like the logical choice, right? You’ll have to edit anyway, so why not just shrug it off and deal with it later. But that’s not actually a good plan. Depending on how dramatic the shift is, trying to edit it into submission can turn into a giant pit of tar you’ll never escape from.
Chances are good the problem lies in the beginning of your story. And the thing about editing is that it’s like throwing a pebble into a pool of standing water. Even minor tweaks can create disastrous ripples, impacting the entire manuscript and obliterating the later parts in a tidal wave of mess. It can be done, but only if you possess an editor’s eye for structural inconsistencies and can accurately assess exactly where the voice distorts and why. Or, alternatively, you could bribe an editor with those skills to help you out. I suggest a large plate of brownies. Or money. Money works too. The point is, it takes a valiant effort on the part of the editor (whether that be you or the poor schmuck you lured in with the promise of chocolate) to save a story from a schizophrenic voice. And even then, the result is likely to be stilted, rocky and forced. Which is why I would probably go with Option 2.
Option 2: Rewrite
Ah, rewrite. Every writer’s most hated nemesis. (Except me, but I’m weird. We established that a long time ago.) In this scenario, it’s actually your best friend. Unlike editing, where you can tweak and twist and try your darnedest to force your manuscript and characters into submission, rewrite provides a clean slate. OK, a partially clean slate.
In this strategy, you actually start over with a blank page, using the original work as a template. The key is to hold on to the scene itself, not the words. By picturing the scene and divorcing your words, you can try again to capture it in your new, improved writer-voice. Instead of ending up with the strange, forced sound that editing alone gives you, you end up with an organic, natural-feeling version that should coincide perfectly with the later parts of the story. Sounds like the perfect solution, no?
The problem is that many writers are unable to step away from that original version. Maybe it was particularly painful to do the first time, or they just can’t kill their darlings. Whatever the reason, they dig their heels in and resist. Personally, I have no problem saying “Sayonara!” to a section and starting over, but I can understand why it would be hard for others. Rewriting like this requires a blind leap of faith. You’re trusting yourself to recapture the scene in a different way; trusting that it will be better than the original, that it will convey the same message but in a shinier package. And that kind of self-belief can be hard.
There’s no doubt that this approach is the most difficult, both in what’s required and in the amount of work involved. But I believe it’s usually the best option. Once you get over the fear, rewriting can become a freeing experience, and you might even be surprised at how much stronger the scene is the second time around.
But, for those unconvinced cynics out there, there is a third option.
Option 3: Scrap the Whole Thing and Walk Away
Hey, I didn’t say you would like it! 😉
If editing has made your manuscript a bigger mess than when you started; if the idea of rewriting has you screaming in horror and feels like a Mount Everest sized task you’d rather die than tackle, then you’re really only left with one choice. Scrap it and walk away. Brutal, yes, but what else can you do?
Chalk it up to a learning experience, hide away the embarrassing evidence in a drawer somewhere, and move on. It doesn’t mean you failed. It just means that maybe that wasn’t the project you were meant to complete. It was a practice run, a chance to stretch your literary wings. And now you can fly with the next one.
See? It’s not all bad and dreary. In fact, I bet all of us have at least one half-finished manuscript lurking around somewhere that already serves this purpose. It’s OK to have more than one. They can be buddies then.
As for me and my conundrum with Unmoving, I’ll be choosing option 1. Usually I go with 2, but in this case, I think I can salvage it. At least, I seriously hope so. I shudder to think how long it would take me to complete if I had to start over. At that point, I might just chuck it at the wall (or a blazing fire) and go with option 3. There are plenty more plot bunnies where that one came from. But I don’t think it will come to that. Will it, Derek? *sends a pointed glance at the stack of pages on the desk*
Obviously, the best fix for a morphing voice is not to end up facing it in the first place. But I’m curious, have you had to deal with this issue? How did you fix it? Share your strategies in the comments below. 🙂