How to Fix a Morphing Voice

After last week’s motivating tirade of snark, I found myself perusing Unmoving, trying to get reacquainted with the characters and plot.ย  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. ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) 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.ย  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! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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. ๐Ÿ™‚


13 thoughts on “How to Fix a Morphing Voice

  1. I swear this blog has the uncanny ability to read my mind. I was just thinking about this and my current rewrite-in-progress.

    Book II (Ember) is the oldest of the four. It inspired much of the series. But the most recent draft dates back to 2008, and the series itself matured since then. If its only problem was morphing voice, I’d probably be inclined to do what you are doing with Unmoving. But there are many other inconsistencies, so I’ve found it to be easier just starting over.

    I don’t think option 2 is all that bad. Most of my time is spent thinking of ideas. The words I use will go through several revisions anyway, so one more layer of them doesn’t seem so bad. When I already have the scene worked out and just need to put the words down, I can get 2,000 to 4,000 words written a day (during summer).

    • Coincidence is a funny thing, isn’t it? Or maybe this a more common topic than I thought. Either way, glad you found it timely. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      2-4k a day?! That’s impressive. Even at my most inspired I don’t think I manage that. I envy!

      • I thought I had written something about this topic and my current project, but maybe just as a draft that was ultimately deleted.

        2-4k is only what I can do if the scenes are already mapped out… sadly, not the case with Ember ๐Ÿ˜ฆ I’m averaging about 1,000 right now, which I don’t think is bad, but I would like to get it up to 2k. Some days I get 2-4k, but there are also other days I chalk up nothing.

  2. Like you, I’m a snail who writes in blocks. Which has led to my protagonist’s voice (it’s a first-person narrative) taking a few twists and turns here and there. Sometimes that’s OK, as he can switch from cynical and world-weary to flippant, depending on his mood and the scene. It’s not, however, acceptable when he’s doing his narrating thing for the benefit of (currently non-existent) readers. I reluctantly came to the conclusion that Option 2 was the only answer for most of these cases. Step back, ditch the original words and re-write, attempting to maintain the same feel. Surprisingly, in most of these instances, I think the end result has actually come out stronger than the original, as I’ve been able to develop the themes and ideas that were half-drafted in the first version.

    • Seems like Option 2 might not be as reviled as I first thought…

      Your situation is exactly what I’m facing with Unmoving, which is also written in first person. The MC goes from being rather dark, cynical, and a total jerk, to suddenly extra sarcastic, (almost flippantly so), and resigned to his fate. And while that does stay somewhat in line with the circumstances he finds himself in, it didn’t read well. Instead, it sounded like we suddenly met a different lead character. Definitely a no good situation! So now I’m trying to figure out how to combine the two voices while still staying true to the scenes and the emotions he would believably feel during them. ;/

      I’ve long felt that the best approach to a scene that just doesn’t quite feel right is to re-do it. Like you noticed, it typically comes out stronger the second time. For whatever reason, doing a practice run (aka first draft) creates the groundwork for the road, and once you have that, it’s much easier to travel it again since you don’t have to hack your way through the shrubbery at the same time. (Whew! That was quite the sentence. I think I need more caffeine!)

      Sounds like you’re doing some pretty significant rewrites. Was that prompted by a response from the agent you were waiting to hear from?

  3. Sounds like your lead character is just the type who would intentionally switch voices to annoy you ๐Ÿ˜€

    Sadly no response from the reclusive agent yet; he must still be stuck down that well. The re-writes were prompted by (extremely) frank feedback from what I believe is now being termed a ‘beta-reader’ – otherwise known as a mate who’s also a writer. Although after the feedback, ‘mate’ might be pushing it a bit… he’s teetering on the brink of the ‘acquaintance’ category!

    • Well feedback, even if it’s slightly less than the stellar kind we wanted, is always good. Sounds like he gave you some constructive criticism that will help you improve in the long run. But, if you want a second opinion, you do still have that prize to cash in on. (Although, I might have to tread lightly if you demote people based on the quality of their feedback.) ๐Ÿ˜‰

      And you could be absolutely correct. Maybe my morphing voice problem is revenge for leaving him stuck on the park bench for so long. Lol.

      • Don’t worry, I’m terribly forgiving really ๐Ÿ™‚

        It’s not the quality of feedback that troubles me, nor the fact that he’s (quite rightly) pointed out where things are really terribly terrible. It’s more the tone… There’s a sizeable difference between “Think about re-wording this” and “Oh FFS, what the &%$* is this??”

        Oh no, I’ve turned into a sensitive tortured artist haven’t I?! ๐Ÿ˜€

      • I think in that situation, it might be warranted. ๐Ÿ˜‰

        I’m not sure how I would take feedback like that either. I mean, all feedback is good, but when it’s presented in the razor sharp edge of a blade, it can be hard to find the value. Usually, I give it a while to get past the desire to throw my shoe at the person (don’t ask why I like to think of my shoes as throwing stars) and then try to find the constructive hidden in what they’ve said. But I completely understand why you’d demote him from “mate” to “acquaintance” now. And, for the record, I give feedback like the first example.

        Thanks for the pingback, by the way! And for giving me the idea for what to write about this week. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Yeah, I’m with Option 2. Never edit while drafting. Rule.

    I’m a “basher” too–2k words is a good day–so the voice changes depending on whether I’m hungry, whether I’m pushing to get some words down, whether my boss is being a binkie. Rewrites (or post-production, as I like to call it). That’s the ticket for me.

    • Thanks for stopping by and sharing! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Yeah, I know you’re not supposed to rewrite while drafting, but I just don’t have enough duct tape to keep my editor side from stepping in periodically. I do try to relegate the different tasks to different days though, and try not to edit while I’m actually writing. I’m not always successful with that strategy though. It just depends on how much something bugs me whether I have to fix it before I can move on or not.

      I envy your productivity! 2K words a day would be phenomenally fast for me. But it makes sense that your voice would fluctuate depending on varying factors throughout the day. I notice that while working on blog posts. Some days I’m a lot funnier than others. Other times, I end up with key shaped indents in more forehead from bashing my head on the desk at my lameness. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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