Clashing tones: a peril when we spend a long time writing a book

frankensteinI see a lot of manuscripts by writers who tell me they’ve been honing their book for years, sometimes even decades. Often these are first novels, slowly maturing as the writer feels their way – not just with that story’s material but with all the controls of their writing craft, and the influences they’re absorbing from other fiction they read. Even their idea of what kind of writer they are might change.

And quite often, I can see these phases in the novel itself, like a Frankenstein monster. In some paragraphs the narrator sprouts a personality, and starts to present a humorous view of proceedings that wasn’t in the narrative before. Sometimes the plot events or dialogue abruptly switch to the conventions of a different genre, or the writer’s vision for the characters seems to change from tragic to dreamy.

When I flag them in my report, the writer usually says that the line or section came from an earlier version, or they were unsure whether to include it or not.

Mood to mood

It’s inevitable that we’ll write or edit in different moods from one day to the next. That’s fine; we’re not machines, after all. And we often get our best revelations from messing and experimenting. But we don’t want to develop a patchwork of tones.

One of the many things we must do as we edit is to create an even tone to give the reader a consistent experience – or at least make sure we don’t change it unintentionally. That doesn’t mean we can’t create characters who are contradictory or multifaceted. Or narrative styles that are flexible and supple. But we must watch out for the moments when our narrative veers too far from variety and we have slipped into a different version of the book.

This is difficult to spot. If we’ve been working on a book for a long time, we’ll have got used to assembling it piecemeal from bits we like. As we read through, we know what it all means and we don’t realise when we’re giving the reader an unwanted mental gear change. We become tone deaf to our book.

We need to edit with an awareness of this moment. If at any point we catch ourselves making a mental hop to process a sentence, this could be because its tone doesn’t quite belong.

This kind of editing is usually only possible in the late stages of the novel, when we’re happy and have stopped experimenting. It isn’t until then that we have the coherent vision of our work, the deep knowledge of what we are trying to do, and therefore the certainty to feel when something fits and something doesn’t. Or, indeed, the strength to let go of the parts that don’t fit – the evergoing purge of darlings.

But if you learn to recognise the shadows of former versions of your novel, you’ll give the reader a smoother ride.

Thanks for the pic

guarmasterNEWS If anyone’s in or near London, I’m teaching in the one-day Guardian self-publishing seminar, along with Joanna Penn, Orna Ross, Ben Galley and Polly Courtney. Funnily enough, most of them have been or will be guests on The Undercover Soundtrack – except for Joanna, who writes to the sound of rain. I’m working on her to write me an Underwater Soundtrack. I’m teaching the module on print books, and other modules include marketing, formatting and using social media.

Back to tone! Do you have problems with your novels shifting tone? How have you solved them? Let’s discuss


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  1. #1 by mgm75 on February 16, 2014 - 8:52 pm

    You’re absolutely right about working on it over many years – after some 12 years I finally submitted my manuscript to Angry Robot just before Christmas but I made sure I gave it a good, solid 2-3 edits for content, grammar and spelling, internal consistency and to really ask myself whether certain parts actually worked. I ended up chopping about 13,000 words out and writing a whole new chapter. I feel that it is now the most consistent and solid version. Waiting for feedback from them now so hopefully they should be able to give some pointers.

    We need to learn to “murder our darlings” if we are ever going to improve.

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 17, 2014 - 9:07 am

      Hi Mgm – yes indeed, we must murder our darlings. And eventually if we stick with a book long enough and develop a strong enough vision for it, it’s actually easy to let them go. Did you find that too? I was surprised the first time it happened to me, but there definitely comes a point with each manuscript where I don’t mind being ruthless.
      Best of luck with Angry Robot.

      • #3 by mgm75 on February 17, 2014 - 11:05 am

        It was more a case of “I don’t like that bit any more”(at one point I took out on entire chapter because it simply no longer worked) and “that’s a bit out of character” so yes, murdering the darlings was easy 🙂

  2. #4 by Robert Scanlon on February 16, 2014 - 9:52 pm

    I can’t imagine toiling over something that long! But that ‘mood/style’ shift happens to me even day by day, only in the frantic first draft phase. Suddenly I realise I’m throwing in more jokes, or the previously sad protagonist has miraculously cheered up.

    I try to take your advice and ignore it (since I’m writing to an outline, so the story will be on track – it’s just an issue with ‘the voice’), make a couple of notes (in ‘Notes’ in Scrivener – I also have a Status called ‘to fix’ which is helpful for later, along with the note about what I think needs fixing)

    Apparently everything can be fixed with brutal editing anyway!

    • #5 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 17, 2014 - 9:09 am

      Hi Robert! Once you recognise the problem of different moods, you can flag it as something you need to fix later. In fact, I prefer not to think of it as brutal editing, but constructive deletion!

  3. #6 by Alex on February 17, 2014 - 3:07 am

    This is an ongoing struggle of mine. When I edit something, I try to make sure I do it in huge sections rather than whittling away at the revision process. My hope is that this method equips me to smooth over problems with shifting tones.

    I’ll have to learn to “recognize the shadows,” too.

    • #7 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 17, 2014 - 9:11 am

      Alex, I find I have to split the editing into different phases. In the slow phases, I go through for story mechanics, dialogue etc, and I’m too close to the manuscript to be able to pay full attention to the voice. I only do that very late on, when I’m totally sure of the book and know how each element fits together. I also know how the mood of each scene fits into the whole book, so I can perhaps lighten one element or make another more brooding.

      • #8 by Alex on February 17, 2014 - 9:14 am

        That’s smart. I’ll have to give that a try next time I finish a draft of something.

  4. #9 by Natalie on February 17, 2014 - 4:34 am

    Roz, do you have any specific advice for solving this problem? I started a novel almost six years ago and only now am I finally finishing it. (It took me a while because I went to uni and then grad school… but better late than never, right?) Anyway, I know there are massive inconsistencies in tone in the first half. Thankfully, I wrote most of the second half last year, so I think that bit is decent. I’m actually considering rewriting the entire first half so it’s more consistent. Do you think that’s overkill? Should I just work with the old parts first and see how that turns out? Any advice would be appreciated. 🙂

    • #10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 17, 2014 - 9:16 am

      HI Natalie! Rewriting the first half is not drastic in the slightest. I’d say it’s elementary and completely normal.
      As for how to do it, it depends what gives you the freedom to change what you need to change. Some people like to edit the original file. Others find they get swallowed up by the prose, remembering very clearly what they meant each paragraph to mean, which stops them being able to form a new plan for it. If you think you’d be too distracted by the patchwork tones, you could start a new file and keep the old one open beside it for reference while you write your new version. Good luck!

    • #11 by Robert Scanlon on February 17, 2014 - 11:10 am

      A brief plug for Roz’s ‘Nail Your Novel’ beat-sheet process: It would be worth revisiting the ‘scenes’ that make up the beats in the first half, and colour coding them according to how they match/mis-match each other/the second half etc

      It might make the big rocks more obvious and easier to tackle, than re-writing linearly?

      I’d definitely keep the original anyway (always do – it’s super easy in Scrivener, either by duplicating the scene and dropping one of them into an ‘Old Scenes’ folder, and/or by using the snapshot feature. I use both, depending on how much rewriting is beign done, and what for. ie, I use snapshots for proof-reading/some tweaking style-based stuff, but use an entirely new file for structural scene rewrite).

      • #12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 18, 2014 - 9:23 am

        Robert, that’s a terrific idea! Or you could highlight the text in different colours if you feel the tone changes.
        And I agree about keeping the original. I have plenty of versions of my manuscript, each with bizarre suffixes according to the approaches I’m trying or how confidence I feel this is the ‘final’. The word ‘final’ gets used most of all..

    • #13 by Natalie on February 20, 2014 - 3:14 am

      Thank you both for your advice!

  5. #14 by sharonhughson on February 17, 2014 - 5:15 am

    Some days I can hear one POV character’s voice than I do another’s. Perhaps it would be best to just edit scenes from that POV when I’m feeling comfortable inside their head.
    I can’t imagine working consistently on the same book for years. Taking a break, maybe, but I have ended up walking away from projects when I take too much of a break.

    • #15 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 17, 2014 - 9:18 am

      Hi Sharon! That’s interesting about the POV characters. And yes, it’s tricky to get inside more than one on a given day, especially deep POV. The Mountains Novel has many POV characters and I’m finding I can manage two a day, max.

    • #16 by DRMarvello on February 17, 2014 - 1:17 pm

      Thanks for that bit of insight, Sharon. I never really thought about it before, but I do feel more comfortable inside the head of certain characters on certain days. I work from a beat sheet, and I now realize that I tend to pick which scene to write next based on the POV as much as anything else.

  6. #17 by DRMarvello on February 17, 2014 - 1:11 pm

    The longest I’ve spent drafting a novel was about eight months, but I’ve noticed a few tone shifts here and there. Thank goodness for revision. My “process” consists of five drafts, so by the time I’m done, I’ve had multiple opportunities to purge those tonal variations. I used to worry about everything during the first draft (including tone consistency), but now I just write the story and trust that my internal editor will tidy up my work during revision. If something bugs me while I’m writing, I make a note in square brackets so it will be easy to find later, but I no longer agonize over it.

    • #18 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 18, 2014 - 9:24 am

      Hi Daniel! That’s a great point that we can leave some of the worrying until later. I use the square brackets for pieces of research that I’ll catch up with once I know I’ll really need it. I spent a lot of wasted hours researching things I then took out in a later draft.

  7. #19 by danholloway on February 17, 2014 - 9:36 pm

    To mix this blog with your Undercover Soundtrack, I sometimes listen to the same music throughout my drafting of a novel – that gets me into the same mindset each day

    • #20 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 18, 2014 - 9:25 am

      Oh I definitely do that, Dan! It’s one of the very important uses of an Undercover Soundtrack. If I can’t remember the mood of a scene, it often makes no sense.

  8. #21 by aldreaalien on February 17, 2014 - 11:48 pm

    Seventeen years it’s taken me, from spark to finish, to get one story to the point where I was satisfied to let it go this April.

    In between, it’s suffered chapter additions/removals, full rewrites (one being a switch from 1st to 3rd person), partial rewrites, pov changes, incentive alterations, personality overhauls… heck, you name, I’ve probably done it. The only thing not to change was their main quest.
    The story wound up being so long, that I’ve split it into four (it covers 33 years, so it really needed more room).

    I think, so long as you’re fully prepared to run through the whole story several times before you send it to anyone, piecemealing isn’t so bad. And I find reading on a different medium (be it paper, kindle, tablet or aloud) helps with the tone deafness.

    • #22 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 18, 2014 - 9:27 am

      This is a great example, Aldrea. And that’s a good tip about reading on different media. If you don’t want to print or send the book to a tablet, you can try changing the font on the Word document. But anything to jolt you out of the familiarity is good.

  9. #23 by Jan Joe on February 18, 2014 - 12:26 am

    Thank you for a great article! I was just rereading an earlier piece that I’ve reworked a few times and noticed the “tone” change. It’s like watching baby take her first steps 🙂

    • #24 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 18, 2014 - 9:28 am

      ‘Baby steps’ – that’s a terrific way to describe it. I often look back at lines and think ‘aha, that’s before I realised x or y’. Thanks for commenting, Jan.

  10. #25 by TuiSnider on February 19, 2014 - 3:41 pm

    I ran into this issue while putting together my quirky travel guide, “Unexpected Texas.” I couldn’t just cut ‘n’ paste articles that I had written for various publications into a manuscript and call it a book. I had to decide what the tone should be and then make it match through out.

    It was too hard for me to see/hear-in-my-head to do all on my own, though. Having an editor read-through and point out places where the tone clashed was extremely helpful!

    • #26 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 19, 2014 - 7:17 pm

      Hi Tui – of course, the principle is easily extended to non-fiction. Thanks so much for contributing this example.

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