Be True to Your Book All the Way Through

Be True to Your Book All the Way Through

boy wearing goggles and cape like a superhero costume

Great things can happen when you own your narrative voice. CC image “consumer confidence!” courtesy of Chris & Karen Highland on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

“One day you’ll see,” he said with a wink. “And remember. Always have everything you say exquisitely annotated, and, where possible, provide staggering Visual Aids, because, trust me, there will always be some clown sitting in the back—somewhere by the radiator—who will raise his fat, flipperlike hand and complain, ‘No, no, you’ve got it all wrong.’”

This is how we meet Marisha Pessl’s unusual and wonderful narrator, Blue van Meer, and Blue’s father, in Special Topics in Calamity Physics. The instant we begin, we are caught up in her voice, her way of thinking, and the rhythm of her story. Whether she appeals to you immediately, the way she did me, or not, you can’t mistake her for anyone else.

Blue is different from the stereotypical teenage girl in so many ways that the only way to tell her story is to absolutely, 100 percent own her way of seeing. This is also what you must do for any book that you write, whatever the genre and whatever the perspective.

You need to own the voice, the tone, and the style all the way through your book. You have to commit.

We want our book to be unique and different—so we copy other successful books

This is one of the most wonderful ironies of any creative pursuit. We want our book to stand out because it’s unique and special and amazing, and when we get scared that what we’re writing is less than amazing we start looking at (possibly copying) another book we think is amazing, at the expense of being unique and special.

Writing a book can be scary. You’re creating from nothing. You have a wonderful idea, and you’re terrified that you won’t be able to capture that idea perfectly. It’s natural to look for tried and true models to emulate: other books in your genre or on a similar topic that have been successful.

These are great starting points. But you can’t write those books again; those books have already been written. What you need to write is YOUR book. A clone would be a death knell.

When you write a book, you have to own it. Your characters and your narrative voice might be less Baroque than Blue van Meer. The situations they encounter might be more everyday (Blue investigates a murder). Yet from the beginning to the end of your book, they must be 100 percent themselves. Fiction or nonfiction, your voice can’t waver. You must be consistent all the way through.

A book is a commitment

A book is a commitment. Sitting down to write one. Sitting down to revise it. Editing it. Working to publish it. Working to promote it. This is not a five-minute email.

Keeping to your authentic voice and tone over a long period of time can be strenuous. Sometimes your attention will wander as you write; your tone might wander too. At a certain stage—usually when you’re in the murky middle of your manuscript—you’ll start critiquing many of your writing choices. The voice of your inner critic will be loud and derogatory. You may second-guess your first instincts for tone and the choices you made in terms of style.

Own your choices all the way through. If you started with a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor, carry that through to the end. If you’re earnest and sweet, stay earnest and sweet. If you are matter-of-fact, stay matter-of-fact. A changeup will be a shock to the reader’s system. If you waffle back and forth with different styles (but you mean to use only one narrative voice), your readers will be confused.

Comedians are a great example of owning their voice. The most successful comics have honed in on a certain delivery, a certain way to interact with the audience, and made that their signature style. And they are different from each other: think about Maria Bamford and Chris Rock.

Don’t waffle. Your book shouldn’t mumble, it should speak clearly. Commit to the delivery.

The bottom line

Writers fall down when they try to be all things to all readers. You need to know your strengths and own them. You might feel you are cutting out potential readers, but you’re not. When you DON’T write in the voice and style you should be writing, that’s when you cut out your readers—the readers who recognize and want to hear that voice.

You can’t be unusual and different and sound like everyone else at the same time. Admire other writers, yes. In your own work, strike out on your own strengths. And if you’re not sure what your voice is? The best way to find your style is to start writing.

Take a cue from Blue van Meer. You can be as eccentric as you want, but be eccentric all the way through. Be true to your book from beginning to end.

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