What you want to hear about your unique voice

What you want to hear

As an editor, I don't always play nice. Among the things I've been known to say to authors are:

    • You don't have the experience to write what you're attempting.​
    • Trying to run before you can walk is part of learning. But don't expect anyone to read what you write until you've mastered the basics.
    • No one cares if your ideas are unique. They care if you know how to tell a good story, and tell it well.
    • No one cares what inspired you to write this. They care that you know how to tell a good story.
    • No one cares about your personal journey. They care that you know how to tell a good story.
    • This is very interesting, and some of it is very well-written. But where is the story?
    • etc.

As I'm sure you well imagine, in my occasional forays into attempting to publicise my work and find new clients, I quite often encounter the offers, products, services and promises of my colleagues. Most of what they all offer is honest and valuable, and if you're serious about becoming an author, or you're already and author and you're serious about becoming a better author, you should read all the craft books and do all the writing courses you can possibly afford, until you reach the point where you can see just how limited their benefits are.

Because when you reach that point, it means you no longer need them. You've learned as much as you're going to about methodology, and you can set aside the games and start looking for mastery.​

When you're a student, you're not alone. There are plenty of others trying to soak up all that past knowledge and experience, and trying to understand all that terminology, analysis, and method.

Mastery is a solitary pursuit.​

You have to study the work of masters, of whom those who aren't dead are likely inaccessible to you. But more than that, your study of them has to be personal.

You have to examine and observe what moves you about their work, and try to understand what it is, why it moves you, and how that was achieved, in order to reproduce it.​

What impresses, moves, or inspires you in the work of the masters you study will not be the same as for others. And this is the secret - if there is one - to mastery: it's when you reach a point where you are deciding what to learn, what to study, what to practice, what to hone. When you are choosing your techniques, and choosing who to learn them from.

This isn't because you are unique or special. It's just how you motivate yourself to become a master. But it is how you become unique and special.

What you want to hear

​The marketing folks are always telling me - and my colleagues seem to be hearing the same advice - that no matter what your product really is, you have to package it so it looks like it's exactly what your target market wants. So we're supposed to look at the way authors, creative writing students, right the way through to anyone who daydreams about one day being an author, and determine what preoccupies them about writing - their concerns, their anxieties, as well as their wants, needs and dreams.

In my experience, you're a pretty level-headed bunch.

If there's one thing I'll say about authors, they know the difference between fantasy and reality.

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​In fact, that's why it's so easy to spot the scammers. The scammers all think that authors dream of a big publishing deal, and will therefore part with their money if the possibility of fame and fortune is dangled before them. But authors know that just because it happens to a few, doesn't mean it isn't a fantasy.

Far more insidious, then, are the small concerns, the minor anxieties of new authors. I'm going to take two examples.

Protecting your story idea

​On Quora, this is a regular question. All the new and hopeful authors who think they have a great idea for a story (and in fairness, most of them do), are afraid to talk about it because they think someone will steal their idea. They're all preoccupied with the originality or uniqueness of their story concept, and they believe that is what will make it sell, and make readers want to read it.

A unique concept is not a hook. Only a skilfully wrought first chapter can be a hook.

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​Because new writers think that their story idea is their most valuable asset, those providing services to them (editors) have to make a big show of our discretion. Actually, I am pretty discreet. Even when I talk about your terrible writing in private, I don't tell my close friends or family members your name.

But your story idea isn't an asset. Your brilliantly written compelling page-turner, duly and rigorously edited, is an asset. But even then, a small one. Once you've spent a few hundred dollars promoting it, and have sold a few hundred copies, it's an asset worth protecting, because it's become an asset worth stealing.

No one who wants to make a living from theft steals a story idea, because they'd still have to write the book.

But they will steal it once it's been written, and try to re-sell it elsewhere, or use it as bait for a scam, by offering it for free. This is known as piracy. It's common, but doesn't happen to everyone and you can do something about it.

Here are just three articles on what to do. There is plenty more advice to be had on this topic, so use your search engine.

Preserving/developing your unique voice

​Remember I said at the top that I don't always play nice? On Quora, there's a rule, known as BNBR - be nice, be reasonable. It's a very good rule on Quora, it's like good manners, it enables people with very different backgrounds, cultures, beliefs and values to interact and learn from each other. Quora is awesome.

Here on my personal blog, I am under no such obligation. So listen:

You don't have a unique voice, unless you invent one. Which takes both experience and skill.

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​I've heard the complaint many times from authors that an editor 'completely removed their personality from the manuscript' or 'damaged their distinctive style' or 'replaced their unique voice.' In many cases, the author in question has shown me. In only one case did I really "agree" - but even "agree" gets scare quotes because what the editor did was overstep the normal bounds of his job, and rewrote much of the book in his own style when there was nothing wrong with the original.

In all the other cases, what happened was that the author was shocked by the sheer amount of blue pen, and saw this as his own hard work being denigrated or even insulted.

You know I mentioned that stage when you realize the craft books and the courses aren't doing anything for you any more? When you reach that stage, you will be able to tell when an editor makes changes that aren't needed. Until you reach that stage, you have to look at every change and every suggestion as if from a position of complete ignorance.

You have to be an uncarved block.

Because even if the editor is no more experienced than you, their doubt is an opportunity for you to evaluate your creative and linguistic choices, to be come more aware of your own writing, to learn.

And also: by the time you begin to pursue mastery of your art, you already know how to use several voices, some of which may be unique to you, and some won't.

The great masters of writing are those who know how to speak to their readers. Uniqueness does not help this.

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Harry Dewulf

Literary Editor, Creative Writing Coach and Teacher. If you want help of any kind with your book, you may contact me here. Sign up to my mailing list for regular information on course, live lessons, webinars and promos.

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