This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
Welcome to our writing advice column, where you'll find bestselling author Julie Cohen answering reader questions! Hit a roadblock or have a writing-related query? Drop them in the comments or email firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ve been writing a novel for about a year with a few stops and starts and I’m nearing the end (finally!). Reading back through, I feel as though the voice and tone changes as the story progresses. Perhaps this is because of what I was reading at the time of writing certain chapters or maybe it has more to do with my style improving during those weeks and months when I was able to write with more regularity. Is this something all authors deal with when they’re writing over a long period of time? In some parts, there are whole perfect chapters, which read as though a stranger wrote them, whereas in other places I’m mortified at how stunted and awkward things seem. Should I go back and rewrite or is this something a good editor will be able to help fix?
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First of all: congratulations on nearly finishing your novel! Do something for me right now. Go out and buy either a bottle of champagne, or a box of chocolates, or both, and put them away someplace safe, in readiness for the day that you do finish your novel. Because when you finish, it is compulsory to celebrate. Go do that now. Okay? I’ll wait.
All right, you’re back. So: your question. You feel that your writing voice is uneven because you’ve been writing your novel in fits and starts. This is actually is a good sign, for several reasons. As a new writer, I think it’s important that you try out different styles, voices, and tones—even if they aren’t your own. You’re learning a skill, and a great deal of learning is imitation.
What’s even better, is that you recognise that your writing voice is uneven. That shows that you have a good ‘ear’ for writing voice, and it shows that you have an instinctive feel for when something seems like the correct sort of voice and tone for you. This skill is actually quite difficult to acquire if you haven’t got it already. I think we learn it mostly through reading and absorbing others’ voices, and we then apply it to our own writing.
You ask if this is something that all authors deal with. I’d say that most new authors deal with it. But with experience, writers settle into their own voice. The more you write, and the more regularly you write, the more you will find that there’s a way with words that feels comfortable to you. This voice will be flexible enough to be applied to different types of stories, but it will be distinctly yours.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what this writer’s voice consists of, without a great deal of intricate analysis of the type done on Creative Writing Masters degree courses. But as an author, when you’ve found your own voice—you will know. It will feel like pulling on your favourite pair of jeans: not clumsy, not too stiff, not tight in all the wrong places and loose in others. Just right.
The good news is, you will find this voice. The bad news is, it takes time. Time, and a lot of writing, and a lot of trying out things and getting it wrong.
Reading drafts of first novels, I often see how a writer settles into their voice as the book progresses. The beginning might be awkward or too literary or too casual or too overworked or too much like Helen Fielding. But then as the chapters roll on, something very special begins to emerge from the words, as the writer finds their feet and their voice. Maybe when you reread your draft, you’ll see this happening.
Then again, I’m a little concerned that you say that some chapters sound perfect, ‘as though a stranger wrote them’. While clumsy writing isn’t good, you should be able to feel that you are part of what you’ve written. It shouldn’t be too perfect; it should just be you. If you’ve found your voice, there should be a little tingle of recognition when you read your own work.
(As an example of this, I was on Twitter recently and someone posted a photograph of a page of the book they were reading. I didn’t remember the dialogue, but there was something about the writing that made me think ‘…Hmm. Familiar.’ I tweeted the person—and yes, it was one of my backlist novels she was reading.)
You ask if an editor can help you. As publishers won’t generally take on a manuscript where the voice and tone is uneven, I assume you mean an independent editor whom you hire. And yes, I think that a good, sensitive, very experienced editor can help guide you in finding your voice…but what I really think is that voice is something that you have to discover yourself. You have to do the work, and write and write and write.
That little voice inside you that says: ‘Maybe I have to rewrite parts of this manuscript’? That’s your writer’s voice talking. Listen to it.
My advice is this: Finish the book first. Then choose some scenes to rewrite—but do them completely afresh. Don’t look at your original version at all. Write them with what you’ve learned about yourself and your story…and see if what you write feels like a favourite pair of jeans.
Julie Cohen has had 20 books published under her own name and pseudonyms, selling nearly a million copies and being translated into 15 languages. Several have won or been shortlisted for awards, including the Romantic Novelists' Association's Award and the National Readers’ Choice Award. Her novel Dear Thing was a summer 2014 Richard and Judy Book Club pick.
Julie is also a popular speaker and teacher of creative writing, tutoring courses for Penguin Random House Academy, The Guardian, Literature Wales, The Victoria and Albert Museum, and Writers' Workshop. She runs a fiction consultancy business, with several of her clients having gone on to publication. Her latest book is Where Love Lies.