For those of you who are new to self-publishing and who are new to writing book-length manuscripts as well, the act of cultivating of a resoundingly authentic and consistent voice can present a particularly difficult (and ongoing!) struggle. What is voice? And how do we go about cultivating one, much less stick with it through chapter after chapter while negotiating other, competing concerns?
Voice, simply put, is your personality made manifest in the style, characterization, plotting, and point of view that emerges over the course of your book. Voice is the unique approach that distinguishes one author from another, even when they’re writing the same story. Voice sets Jackson Pearce’s Sisters Red apart from Marissa Meyer’s Scarlet apart from Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber apart from the Brother’s Grimm and their transcription of the original Red Riding Hood tale. Distinctive voices allow us to revisit even a familiar, beloved storyline and get something new from it each and every time.
But authors are very rarely the written equivalent of a Maybelline commercial: nobody, and I repeat, nobody is “born with it” in the sense that a kitten is born adorable and fire is born when a lit match touches a candlewick. Which is not to say any of us use cosmetics companies as standards for authorial experience, but we do sometimes fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to other authors that we respect and admire as if those authors were delivered into the universe with the tools and skill and voice requisite to connect them with their readers in later life. It simply doesn’t happen that way! And a captivating voice, like every other aspect of good writing, takes time and work to acquire.
In order to develop clear thinking and therefore a clear voice, an author must do two things that might, at first glance, seem contradictory: pay close attention to detail, and relax into the writing process. Whoa there, you’re thinking. I can’t do both at the same time! And this may in fact be true: everyone’s writing process looks different. (And mine, I must admit, even looks different from one day to the next.) Whether you apply yourself to both of these things at the same time or separately doesn’t matter so much as ensuring that you do them both at some point. And I personally lean heavily towards relaxing first, and then applying a microscope later––but some authors prefer to go into the drafting stage with a rigorous outline and a bundle of research already in hand, which is perfectly wonderful too.
The benefit of paying close attention is that you’ll notice when your voice changes. I find this particularly applies when reading aloud a passage I’ve written, although that might take more time than you have if you’re reading an entire manuscript. Keep a weather eye out for shifts in tense, plurality, characterization, and vocabulary as well as sentence structure as you go along––a sudden jump in any of these things can give a reader pause, and halt the flow of your prose. And sometimes, these shifts slide completely under the radar; after months or even years of writing our manuscripts, we as authors simply cannot edit our own books! It becomes impossible to hold both the big picture and the finer points of editorial expertise in mind when writing––we tend to either fixate on all the little flaws that only we can see, or our eyes skip over plot holes and inconsistencies in voice because we know what’s going on and our minds fill in the gaps automatically. This is where a professional editor, like the ones I work with over at Outskirts Press, comes in handy.
Editing is not optional for the dedicated author, but there are all sorts of reasons––including the ones stated above––why we need to seek out fresh sets of eyes in addition to our own during the editing and revision processes. Casual editors and first readers, such as friends and family, can be useful during the early stages, but what we all really need––what self-publishing authors specifically need––is someone on hand who can recommend changes based on years of experience and a wealth of industry expertise. Not to mention, someone who will help you spot the points in your manuscript when you need to circle back around to a consistent voice. A good editor may recommend changes, but ultimately, the author’s wishes and vision for a book are respected––and that is what is published. A captivating voice is, when push comes to shove, something that taps into a shared relationship between author and text … and that sort of relationship cannot be manufactured.
Which brings me to my second point. To create a unifying and consistent voice, an author really must relax and let the inspiration flow uninterrupted. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road may be an extreme example of continuity in writing leading to continuity in voice, but it does illustrate the point that whatever you can do to limit your exposure to emotional and physical disruptions while writing––do. Kerouac locked himself away for three weeks while he typed up the continuous “scroll” that would eventually form the base manuscript for his book, but you don’t have to go to such extreme measures to write a good book or to relax into the writing process! You know the boundaries of your own mind and attention best, so you know what must be done to cut through all of the white noise generated by everyday life. And not to harp on like a broken record, but seeking a professional editor for your book will lift the burden of obsessing over the details and leave you free to do what you do best: write. That’s it, that’s really it: you write books, and you’ll write better books when you’re “in the zone,” or when you’re physically and emotionally free to stack word on word until something beautiful and unexpectedly perfect happens––and you have a book.
Writing is hard. Writing well is even harder. But you have a voice that the world needs to hear, and a book that the world needs to read. And always remember:
You’re not alone. ♣︎
||ABOUT ELIZABETH JAVOR: With over 18 years of experience in sales and management, Elizabeth Javor works as the Manager of Author Services for Outskirts Press. The Author Services Department is composed of knowledgeable publishing consultants, pre-production specialists, customer service reps and book marketing specialists; together, they all focus on educating authors on the self-publishing process to help them publish the book of their dreams. Whether you are a professional looking to take your career to the next level with platform-driven non-fiction or a novelist seeking fame, fortune, and/or personal fulfillment, Elizabeth Javor can put you on the right path.