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.  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. 🙂

The Difference Between Editing & Ghostwriting

I’m sure the more astute of you already know that I moonlight as a freelance editor (there’s a handy little tab at the top of the page that will tell you about it if you missed it), as well as working on the editorial staff at REUTS Publications. But I’ve also been known to work as a ghostwriter (very infrequently; it’s not really my cup of tea). This week had me doing both. And it got me thinking about the differences between the two; how they can often be confused by those outside the literary world. So in the interest of clarity, I’m going to take a moment to break each of them down, starting with editing.

There are three types of editing a freelance editor (or an editorial staff) will perform:

  • Content Editing: This deals with the underlying structure of a piece, focusing on things like flow, POV, character consistency and plot. Sometimes called Substantive Editing, it’s usually the first part of the process, as there’s no point in fine-tuning a scene that will just get cut later on. Content Editors have a firm understanding of storytelling basics, and can rearrange a work like pieces in a puzzle, requiring dramatic changes that will ultimately make the story stronger. It’s the part that most feels like honing a diamond from a rough piece of rock and is my favorite style of editing.
  • Copy Editing: Also known as Line Editing, copy editing dissects individual sentences, working on tightening the prose and overall smoothing, as well as things like spelling and grammar. Similar to the layered approach of painting and sculpture, copy editing builds on the foundation content editing provides, focusing on the details rather than the work at large. This can be extremely painful for people that dislike dealing with minutiae, but it’s an important step in creating the final outcome.
  • Proofreading: Generally the last stage of the process, proofreading gives a manuscript a final pass, looking for any typos, misspelled words or wonky punctuation. There should be relatively few revisions made in this stage, and often, the proofreader will simply make the necessary changes without requiring the author to step in. Proofreaders are the last defense before a manuscript heads to the printer, so it’s a good idea to have them be a fresh set of eyes from the prior stages.

You’ll notice that none of those definitions included rewriting. That’s because it’s not the editor’s job to actually fix the problems. This is where the confusion kicks in. It’s a common misconception that editors help with the actual writing. But editing isn’t that kind of hands on, instant fix. In fact, most editors won’t even look at a piece that hasn’t already been completed and polished to a high standard.

An editor is like a personal trainer for words. And just like a personal trainer can’t lose weight for their client, an editor can’t rewrite a manuscript for their author. The author does all the heavy-lifting in the relationship, working out the kinks and fixing the rough spots under the editor’s guidance and moral support (even though it can feel like the complete opposite when you get your manuscript back covered in red delete suggestions). When they do their job well, the end result is like the movie star version of the original work, but it’s the author that actually gets it there.

So who, then, helps the people that can’t quite articulate their brilliant idea into words on a page?

Ghostwriters.

Ghostwriting and editing are two completely different things. Editors are passive observers, guiding the author with a hands-off approach, while ghostwriters are active, aggressively transforming the author’s thoughts into a commercial literary product. Unlike editors, a ghostwriter’s job is to actually write the manuscript. To take the vision, voice, and generalized, messy thoughts of the author and literally write in their stead. In short, ghostwriting is hard. Which is why I only do it on very rare occasions and why you won’t see it listed in the services I offer.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some small similarities between the two, though. For instance, both require the ability to see past a rough exterior to the heart of the story, to be able to understand the final vision for the piece and the best way to present that to the world. They both require a firm grasp of language and storytelling (although ghostwriting mostly happens in the non-fiction world), as well as a keen understanding of voice, so that the final product sounds like the original author, not the ghostwriter/editor.

They both have their place, but editing is more akin to reading with annotations, while ghostwriting involves the more rigorous creative process of actually putting words on paper, complete with stipulations and expectations attached. They both require someone well-versed in the craft of writing, but rarely will you find someone who likes to do both. Just like writers have preferences when it comes to style and genre, those on the book-doctoring side of the fence have preferences on the types of surgery they like to perform. So before you ask for help, make sure you’re asking the right person. If your manuscript is finished and you just need polishing, you’re looking for an editor. But if you need help constructing your idea from the ground up, you might actually be better off looking for a ghostwriter to collaborate with. Knowing the difference will save you a lot of headaches.

**Just a quick reminder; this is the last weekend to enter the Two Steps Closer Giveaway over at REUTS Publications. One of the prizes is a free, full-scale editorial critique by me and the other is a custom, print-ready cover design by Ashley Ruggirello. It’s a pretty sweet deal– professional services with no strings attached. If you haven’t entered already, what are you waiting for? Go do it before you run out of time! The giveaway ends Monday, 3/25/13 at midnight. Don’t miss out!**

Divorce Your Words; Save Your Story

Revision. For many writers, I may as well have said Root Canal. They dread it like they do a jury duty summons. They know it’s necessary but hate every second of it.

I’m not one of those writers. Revision is actually my favorite part. There’s something so satisfying in tearing apart a story to reassemble it in a better version, polishing and cutting and rearranging it like pieces in a puzzle until everything finally clicks. I don’t fear the delete button, I wield it proudly. That 6 page scene I slaved over for three weeks still isn’t working? Buh-bye! Two-thirds of my story is riddled with plot-holes, superficial characters and overall stinkage? Adiós! The word count is too high for the magazine I want to submit to? No problem, let me grab my scalpel.

How am I able to freely chop my manuscripts into little mutilated bits? I don’t marry my words. Maybe that’s a perk of writing like a film director. I don’t see words on a page, I see the scenes themselves. The words are just a way for me to communicate those scenes to my audience. They’re my camera. So when what I’m trying to convey gets lost in translation, I have no problem chucking them and trying again.

I know, I’m extreme. Cutting an entire section is most writer’s worst nightmare. But sometimes, that’s exactly what needs to happen in order to save your story. Sometimes, you have to strip it down to it’s bare bones before you can build it back up. Sometimes, you have to hit delete.

Similar to “kill your darlings,” which tells us our favorite phrases are also the cancer of our manuscript and should be instantly removed, you have to divorce your words before you can successfully revise. Easier said than done, right? I know how hard it is for some of you to disconnect from those precious patterns of words and beautiful phrases, to see past the letters to the plot itself. Which is why I decided to write this post. I’m going to teach you my method of revision in the hopes that it helps some of you become less afraid of the process. :)

Step 1: Remove the Rose-Colored Glasses of Creation

Let’s face it, when we’re wrapped up in a love affair with our muse, we think everything we write is brilliant. There are days when we know it isn’t, because we’re having a lover’s spat with the fickle biatch, but deep down, we still think our manuscript can do no wrong. Everything is tinged with the rosy glow of creation.

You’ve heard of the runner’s high, yes? The rush of endorphins that provides runners with a euphoric moment in paradise? Well, I believe creative people feel a similar burst of euphoric pride, a creator’s high if you will, that prevents us from seeing our work the way the rest of the world will. So the first step in my revision process is to disconnect from the piece. Set whatever you’re working on aside and wait for the creator’s high to wear off. This can take anywhere from a day, to a couple weeks. But once you’re no longer creatively invested in the piece, you’ll be able to see it through the harsh lens of reality and objectively assess it.

Step 2: Strip to the Bare-Bones

Once our judgement is no longer clouded, we can easily spot flaws, the scenes that just aren’t quite right, the wonky phrasing, the plot holes. Don’t get discouraged though, that’s exactly what we want. Because now you’re in editing mode. One of an editor’s jobs is to see past the words to the skeleton beneath. So that’s exactly what step 2 is about.

Read your manuscript again, ignoring the small things, the weird word choices, the rocky sentences, the missing punctuation, and focus on the scenes themselves, the flow of the story. (Click here if you need an explanation on what I consider “flow.”) Channel your inner film director and watch your story unfold in your mind. Kind of like one of those computer generated posters that contained a 3-D image if you crossed your eyes and stared long enough, (Yep, fads from the ’90′s for the win!), the words should fall away and you should be left with just the visuals they contained.

Those visuals are what I consider the skeleton of a piece, the bare bones. Once you have stripped away all the clothing, fat and useless fluff that masks the underlying architecture, you can analyze that skeleton, looking for cracks and weaknesses and in some extreme places, breaks. Much like a doctor examines x-rays, devising a strategy to repair the damage, an editor uses the bare bones of a story to identify and repair problems with the overall flow and structure. Which brings us to step 3.

Step 3: Divorce Your Words

This is where a lot of you are likely to rebel, because it’s where you’ll move from simply identifying the issues to becoming the surgeon that fixes them. And that’s a transition a lot of you might not like. (Warning, it involves heavy use of the delete button.)

Keeping the visuals from step 2 in mind, read your manuscript again. This time, compare what you’re reading to what’s in your head. Do they match? Do the words accurately convey the emotional content, the action, the details of the scene? If not, can it be fixed with a few minor tweaks or smoothing? (Not all editing has to be dramatic, after all.) Sometimes it just takes a minute shift of a single word or phrase to make everything perfect. But if the gap between the scene as you imagine it and what’s on the page is as large as the grand canyon, then you’ll have to do something more drastic– rewrite.

This is what it means to divorce your words. Highlight the trouble passage and say, “sayonara!” No alimony, no visitation, just rip it off like a band-aid and hit delete. (If that terrifies you, you can cheat slightly and copy/paste the original passage into a different file. That way you still have it if you don’t like the new version. But trust me, you’ll never need that safety net.)

Now that you have a blank slate, picture the scene as clearly as you can and try to recapture it. You’ll be surprised how often the second, (or third, or fourty-fifth), attempt is dramatically improved over the original. My theory is that the original acts as a dry-run. In film, they’d call it blocking in the scene. It’s essentially a rough draft placeholder meant to provide guidance for the real thing in terms of lighting, mood, choreography, etc. It helps the director organize their thoughts so that when the time comes to film it for real, it’s smooth sailing. Plus it’s cheaper to work out the kinks without the actual actors.

A similar thing happens when you rewrite. Rather than try and force the original to behave, you are free to start over. But because you’ve already practiced, it’s easier to write this time, and the result is a closer translation of the scene in your head.

That’s really all there is to it. Three simple steps that can take you from laboriously beating a broken carcass of letters into a semblance of what you hoped for to a liberating experience that gets you closer to your original goal. This method might not be for everyone, and that’s quite OK. But if you find yourself dreading the revision process like you would going to the dentist for that root canal, give it a try. Kick your words to the curb and you might just save your sanity as well as your story.