Why the Disabled Students Allowance does need to change

The Government has just confirmed major cuts to the Disabled Students Allowance, making it the responsibility of universities to support many aspects of their disabled students’ study.

As a dyslexic/dyspraxic student who received much needed support for all three of my degrees, I can speak to how important DSA is in helping make higher education more accessible. But I can also speak to how egregiously and systematically it has been misused and exploited at huge cost to the tax payer.

In every degree, I had to go for an assessment of my needs – each costing over £300, not to mention the cost to me of travel when the assessment wasn’t on campus or where I wasn’t living near the uni. The real problem wasn’t the need to jump through expensive hoops but the fact that my reports always recommended things that I didn’t need or want – and which cost at least 50% more than what I did want and need. Each time I lobbied my Local Education Authority directly, showing that the equipment that would be most beneficial to me was available through a reputable retailer (not the ‘specialist company’ that the assessor had recommended) at significantly less cost. In each case, I substantially upped the specs of the computer I ended up with – meaning I had a better machine that lasted for longer because it was more powerful and could run the newer software available as time passed.

For instance, during my first degree my LEA agreed that having a big monitor would help me deal with databases and grids as I could use a large font and still see large chunks of data and write long calculations. I also nearly doubled my RAM and hard-drive capacity as well as getting a better processor. My needs-assessor was furious and complained that I needed to use the ‘recommended supplier’ who would come and set it all up for me and make sure I could use it all. But the LEA sided with me and gave me the machine I asked for. It was perfect and made a huge difference. I lasted me through my degree and into the start of my Masters, until I could access DSA again.

During my PhD, the assessor listened a bit more but also ‘sold’ me on the idea of a small hand-held scanner that I could use to scan text from books so I didn’t have to write notes (an excrutiatingly slow and inaccurate process for me as my spelling is atrocious and my handwriting is worse). What they didn’t say was that the scanner couldn’t deal with most type-faces, quailed at italics and needed to be wielded with coordination not possible for a dyspraxic to muster. It was an expensive waste of money and my time trying my best to make this ‘miracle solution’ do what had been promised – and it was a huge blow to my confidence when I realised that there wasn’t a magic fix to my note-writing problems after all.

And that’s apart from the fact that at every assessment the assessors pretty much insisted that I take MindMapping software because ‘they were positive it would be brilliant once I tried it’. I never did because I was so busy struggling – as most dyslexics do – to keep up with my reading and attempts to take notes. Since mindmapping has never done anything for me on paper, I couldn’t see why doing it on the computer would be better so why would I spend invaluable reading time on another ‘snake oil’ solution?

Yes, students need help identifying the software, hardware and other forms of assistance that could be useful for them. There’s a lot out there and it changes all the time: a chat with an expert is important. But surely it could be a chat with a well-informed member of student-support. In that, I agree about passing the responsibility to universities.

And I also agree that there should be a cap on what is available – especially for students who don’t have a physical disability. When there is a cap, you have to prioritise what is really likely to help enough to make the money worthwhile… And, in that context, students are often the best placed to know what is really going to work for them, at least after a chat with well-informed support staff.

But I also think that the reduced, capped amount available to disabled students should come from the Government and not universities because, if it comes from universities, then students will end up being denied access to diagnostic tests – expensive in their own right – that would give them access to DSA funds.

Universities screen to determine if someone is likely to be dyslexic and so whether it is worth sending them for formal diagnosis. Screening tests are – at VERY best – 90% accurate and it’s often a lot less. I know this as a fact because I was project leader of a Cambridge University research unit examining how effective screening tests are for people with high IQs – and the answer is ‘not effective at all’. Things have improved, but they’d have to given that the statistics behind these tests showed they were actually better at identifying which students were in further education and which were in higher education than which were at identifying which were dyslexic and which weren’t. And that was the market leader screening test. If universities have to pay out for support as well as diagnosis, then the bar will be raised on how ‘dyslexic’ you need come out as on these not-very-reliable screening tests before you’re sent for diagnosis and, thus, more people who need and have a right to support will be denied it.

So, yes, there has been massive misuse of public money, but there must be support for disabled students. And let’s not forget that they are NOT the people who’ve been gaming the system. It’s the people who’re meant to be helping them who are at fault. Let’s take it out on them by cutting their jobs – and, thus, their access to public money – and put more power in the hands of students to decide where a smaller, capped amount of money would best be spent. I expect students would benefit more, despite there being less money available to them. I know that I did when I got the lower-cost support I knew would help me the most and not all the rest of the rubbish that other people insisted would help me but, if anything, complicated my life by diverting time into ‘solutions’ that were never going to solve anything for me.

So yes to reform, caps and giving some more responsibility to universities, but no for making almost all costs the responsibility of universities. It won’t work and it will penalise disabled students. We need to give them a system that does the most in a cost-effective way. But if we can penalise those who’ve been misusing the system in the process, and only them, that bit gets a big thumbs up from me.

 

Hopeful endings, vulnerable readers & research

The wonderful Michelle of Fluttering Butterflies has just published a post asking various YA authors (including me) the following thorny question: Do YA writers have a responsibility to provide hope at the end of their stories? Particularly when it concerns potentially vulnerable readers such as LGBT teenagers or those with mental illness? Read the full post here.

My answer got rather long, even before I tackled the second part of the question, so I decided to make it the subject of a blogpost where I could ramble at length without my contribution becoming a monograph. So here are my thoughts on  the issue of hopeful endings and the responsibilities of YA writers to vulnerable readers.

I think Literature should be inclusive so I fundamentally don’t believe that vulnerable young adults should be given stories with a different valance to their endings. There are lots of ways in which a person might be vulnerable – or not – and this often shifts with circumstances. Sometimes it is important to focus on someone’s vulnerability in order to provide assistance, but this can all too easily become an excuse for excluding people. Often the purported reason for this is to ‘protect’ vulnerable people, but few people need or want blanket protection from all things in all areas of life: it’s a short journey from there to marginalising vulnerable people even more.

I see no harm in having some system to help people avoid books with topics or approaches they aren’t comfortable with: an online database of trigger warnings that people can consult if they want to seems a simple solution. What more is needed in terms of protection? Do we really want to exclude vulnerable young people from stories that run the normal gamut from happy endings through hopeful ones to the odd bleak one? How will that help?

Surely vulnerable young people are hyper-aware of how often the world is grim and, at best, hopeful and sometimes not even that. Why would we even consider denying them a fictional representation of what may well be their experience of everyday life? Because they need an antidote? Perhaps, but if all they get is an antidote there’s a real danger that reading happy people getting happy endings will make them feel even more different, even further from supposedly normal people.

For me what is more important is to portray the truth of difficult circumstances.

Of course there is more than one ‘truth’ to every issue, but there are broad parameters within which the truth lies: that is the key to effective and responsible research regarding difficult things you’ve never experienced for yourself. Your character’s truth should fall within the parameters of what 99% of people in that difficult situation feel and think and experience. Because it’s a pretty wide field, getting it wrong is entirely avoidable and that means it’s also unacceptable.

Research failures should involve mistakes that aren’t easy to avoid: they should cover the tricky questions you don’t even know, from the outside, that you need to ask.

One of the things that is true for 99% of people in difficult situations is that one blow-up row, or one big revelation of trauma, does not fix things. It’s sometimes an important first step, but sometimes it’s a huge mistake. Either way, maybe it’s the start of things changing for good or bad, but it’s not going to be a simple, linear path from there to recovery. And the big thing is not going to go away. It may not control the person’s life in the future, but it won’t be gone. Nothing that big ever is. And that’s OK. That’s normal for 99% of people in the situation.

It’s so important that we tell people this: that we tell the vulnerable young adults who’re in the middle of a struggle and who think that success is 100% recovery or 100% happiness that it’s never going to happen, but that’s just fine. So long as life has happiness and things are better, it’s still a success. No one is 100% happy. No one is 100% OK with all of the things that have gone wrong in their life. In life, good enough really is more than good enough. We can reach for the stars, but if the message we’re getting is that anything less is no good, then we’re going to be pretty miserable spending our lives never achieving an unreachable goal.

Anorexics are never ex-anorexics even when they learn how to maintain a healthy weight, just as alcoholics are never ex-alcoholics even when they’ve been sober for forty years. It’s always there. But it’s not always there right at the front of everything. It’s not ruining your life and your relationships and your peace of mind all the time. Life’s happy and largely healthy and that is a huge achievement. It is more than enough. That is the goal, not the ‘perfect walk-off-into-the-sunset’ endings that too many books give us.

So if we’re going to have hope, it’s actually important that it’s not too hopeful: the hope needs to be realistic. It needs to be truthful. It needs to tell people that you don’t need all the hope in the world for your life to be good – you just need enough. All of this is just as important as trying to make sure that books are only bleak and nihilistic to a purpose.

Critically, this is true for all readers, vulnerable or not, young adult or adult. So I worry a lot less about whether my endings are happy/hopeful/bleak and more about whether they speak to a larger truth. Even in fiction, when we enjoy the ultra-happy ending, we tend feel uneasy. We know it’s not real. We know it’s not true. And the best fiction always make space for a truth beyond the story: a truth that speaks to what human beings are and what we can become. The truth is rarely out-and-out happy, but it’s also rarely without hope. Hope is the touchstone of the imagination: it’s where truth meets possibility, and surely that is what fiction is.

 

Author visits via Skype: Vignettes from Strothoff International School

In March I did my first ever author visit via Skype with the wonderful staff and students at Strothoff International School, Frankfurt, who I met last autumn as part of a series of events around the Frankfurt Book Fair and my shortlisting for the Deutsche Jugendliteraturpeis.

Our lesson focused on ‘showing’ versus ‘telling’ in writing descriptions as part of their ‘Snapshots’ unit of study. We talked about

  • using all of our senses.
  • how to convey social and cultural nuances of context through dynamic dialogue involving conflict.
  • using precise, specific language to convey more (e.g. through descriptive verbs).

The wonderful students who attended this class have kindly shared three of the beautiful vignettes they wrote following our session. Thank you so much to the whole class, the lovely teachers who assisted the session, and the parents who gave their permission for this work to be posted here. Please do comment below to share your feedback and appreciation for these incredibly talented young writers!


 


Don’t cross the line

Luca von Seydlitz


 

Where is it? Tension builds up as the clock prepares to take another spin. Time ticking. Threatening to run out. You have no choice. Time is an enemy that can’t be overcome, ruthless and unforgiving. 58. 59. 60. Another minute gone. Another opportunity lost. Another shortage of time. The place empties and your eyes dilate. You twitch. Can’t stay still anymore.

          Where is it? As time passes, tensions become concern. Concerns become fear. Time keeps ticking. Threatening to trip you.

          Where is it? The place darkens. You can’t wait. You walk up and down. Walking becomes rushing. You speed up.

          Where is it? You walk faster and faster and take bigger and bigger steps. You hear a bell. Where is it? A kid begins to cry. Your fear becomes superlative. They’re watching you.

          Where is it? Time runs out. With each passing minute they come closer. Fear becomes terror.

          Where is it? Where is it? You turn around. They are right there. You jump up. You run and then…You slip…You fall. And then it arrives…

…You have made it…


 


Walking Quickly

Eva Wedig

The first rule about being a girl in Morocco is that you have to walk quickly, and keep your head down.

Inside their houses the women yell at the characters on TV, and they tell anyone and everyone exactly what they think. They spend an hour in the bath, and another two on breakfast. They laugh when you try and pull your pajama shirt away from your chest, because they find your futile attempt at hiding your breasts adorable, and make it very clear that modesty is not a concept familiar in their household. They flaunt and they demand, never quiet, never timid.

But when they step outside, the layers pile up, and the women I know are gone. I see scarves sewing their mouths shut, the intricate swirls and colours suffocating them, the soft cloth wrapping around their hair and pushing their heads down. I see djellabas pushing them to the ground like weights on their shoulders, hiding their pride and confidence, extinguishing the fire that was once in their eyes. They are quiet, reserved, and careful.

They ignore the wolf whistles and the boys on the beach. They ignore the catcalls and the men slumped on the sidewalks. I learn to do the same.

I ignore.

I ignore, and walk quickly, and keep my head down.


 


Firsts

Mabrooka Kazi

Pud pud. Plod. Thud.

            Sounds that find their way underneath my toasty warm covers. The strange rhythms and alien melodies whisper in my ears, urging me to get up, look up, stand up.

Wake up and see what’s happening in the world around me.

            My breath leaves a trail of fog on the frosty surface of the window pane, obscuring and distorting the view beyond. The pixelated imagery makes it seem as if I am squinting through the depths of murky water. It takes a moment for my bleary, bewildered brain to remind me to wipe away the condensation and then I see.

            I stop breathing.

            This is not the world I closed my eyes to.

            Silver and ivory, part and whole, frozen and melting, diverse yet infinitely repetitive, a creaking underfoot and a soundlessness.

            An army of precious pearls paratroops downwards. Like silent thoughts, flitting in and out of the mind, snowflakes whirl away in a spiral of white. Falling and stumbling over every obstacle, yet making everything into one.

            Equal.

            The world stretched in front of me is white and white and white. Blanketed in snow, the difference between the neighbour’s immaculate lawn and ours is indistinguishable. Buried beneath this thick layer, the shiny newness of the latest car in the street is concealed just as effectively as the rusts and dents of the junkers.

            Everything is pristine and unmarred by time.

Dummkopf.

Blödel.

Doesn’t she know that this isn’t packing snow?

Hasn’t she ever seen it?

            I begin to shake in fury, my vision blurring until all I see is red. A biting insult takes shape in mouth and my lips part when suddenly I have a much cooler idea.

            Raking my hand through the powdery snow particles, I scoop a handful and wield my weapon carefully.

            Then I step back, take aim, and hurl my snowball at the retreating figures.    

 



 

I’m so looking forward to my next Skype lesson with the school later in May. I’ll be teaching a ‘Diploma Programme Language and Literature’ class about authorial voice as it relates to intention through reason versus intuition.

 

 

 

Happy UKYA Day: Why I love UKYA

Thanks to lovely Lucy Powrie for organising UKYA Day – and so many other UKYA things during the year. I absolutely love #UKYAchat: such a fantastic way to gather swathes of the community together to fill in the gaps between when we are in the same space! You’re a star, Lucy. I think we’re all blown away with how much you do. It’s incredible at any age: the fact that you have the known-how and dedication already is such a statement to what brilliant things lie ahead. Thank you for all you do for all of us. The support and positivity of the UKYA community is so important to so many people: a constant reminder that some corners of the world are full of enthusiasm, creativity and lovely people being lovely to each other.

It’s the UKYA community that inspired me to turn YA Shot from a little local event I was working on with Hillingdon Libraries into something much, *much* bigger. I knew there would be the support and enthusiasm to dream big because everyone would rally behind us and the fact that YA Shot will support all the libraries of the London Borough of Hillingdon. YA Shot is thriving because of your support: your interest, your RTs, your commitment to books and libraries… And the best is still to come. Join Lucy, George Lester, Holly Bourne, CJ Daugherty and me at 7pm on the #UKYADay live show for fun, bookish mayhem and the biggest YA Shot announcement yet. I hope you’ll agree that it captures what UKYA is all about. If you miss us, the news will be up on the website – www.yashot.co.uk – launching at the end of the #UKYAday celebrations (i.e. ~9pm 12 April 2015). Catch us on Twitter via the #YAShot hashtag.

As you’ve probably gathered, there are many reasons I love UKYA. A lot of them revolve around how wonderful the people are (which I wrote about in this post for the UKYABA), but an equal number centre on the books.

People disagree on whether YA is an age category or a genre. I’d put my flag firmly in the genre camp. One of the defining features of YA as a genre is that it can move across genre boundaries: it often sits on and in the ‘between’ spaces. It’s the perfect home for books that are lots of things at once. And I love that. I love that there’s a space on the bookshelf where Literary Contemporary can meet Fantasy and/or Magical Realism AND sit alongside Historical Fiction and Thrillers. Sometimes all in the same book.

Where UKYA has the edge is in the diversity not just of its subject matter but of the characters who people our pages. The UKYA community believes passionately that books and people are and should be diverse. We don’t always agree on exactly what that means or how to achieve a body of literature where diversity is as normal and natural as page numbers, but we all agree on the goal. UKYA authors and readers think and care about the issue: that is an incredibly important first step.

I also love that UKYA affords a particular edge in terms of moral implications. In general, UKYA is less dictatorial than, say, American YA (and I say that as a dual British-American citizen). UKYA often shows different people navigating different issues and situations in a ways that let the reader figure out whether they are doing it well or badly or somewhere in between.

There’s an argument that UKYA is more nuanced in general. Happiness and hope are generally not absolute in UKYA, just as they aren’t in the real world. That’s such an important message for people – tweens, teens or adults: that life can be good and happy and hopeful even when it could be more so. It doesn’t have to be picture perfect to be really pretty good.

In a lot of American YA (and MG) there’s a tendency to a ‘clear cut’ moral and an almost entirely happy ending for the main characters: there’s a lot more walking off into the sunset. I’ve never enjoyed that as a reader or as a writer. It’s not real and, for me, it doesn’t fulfil an emotional need because it’s so unreal. I like endings that are perhaps a little happier and a little more hopeful than real life tends to be, but I don’t want the Hollywood version. I want to see people happy with what someone in real life might get if a bad situation turned out really, really well.

I like complex, messy endings: endings that say that a life that is a qualified success, with a qualified level of happiness, is more than good enough. It doesn’t need to be rewritten to reach the 100% happy/successful mark that no one ever manages in reality to represent a satisfying ending. We don’t need the 100% version: it’s still a happy ending. UKYA excels at that message.

I also have a soft spot for the particular type of clever snarkiness mingled with outright silliness that only a Brit can deliver.

Three cheers for UKYA!

 

Talk to your audience: don’t read at them

Dominion theatre auditorium from stage

Events should almost always involves 2-way communication.

I had the great pleasure of doing my first ever author event with the AS English Literature and Language students at Uxbridge College. The thing that made this the perfect way to get started was that the College provided a brilliant, detailed brief.

I ended up not following the ‘script’ of my pointpower presentation, but I knew it was there: I had a plan in reserve that would please the College if I stumbled while trying to let the session run more organically.

Having a good backup plan meant that I could approach the session with confidence: I knew what the College wanted to get from the session, and that I had done solid preparation to ensure I could deliver. Which is not to say that there were no nerves on the day – of course there were – but they were manageable nerves: nerves I could channel into being energetic and excited about writing.

There’s a delicate balance to be struck between having a plan and turning up to deliver a scripted session verbatim and beat-for-beat.

Prepare – of course you need to prepare – but don’t let this lock you into thinking ‘This Is What I Am Going To Do, No Deviations Allowed’.

That way lies  one of the greatest sin in teaching, lecturing and public speaking: preparing something in writing and then reading it aloud exactly as written. Read poetry or prose if you’re going to make the act of reading meaningful – i.e. performative – but don’t just read.

Not only will you spend most of the session sounding stilted (and usually pompous), but you’ll have little time to look – to physically look – at the people who’ve come to see you. Eye contact – or at least the illusion of it if you’re speaking in a huge hall or arena – is important to an audience. That’s the whole point of doing things live and face-to-face rather than just posting an essay on the web or publishing it in a magazine or pre-taping a speech and putting it on youTube.

Events should be about giving people something they can only experience when you’re face-to-face and in real time. If you don’t do this, then you have failed your audience.

In events you should always respond to the audience. And by respond I don’t mean that if you’re scheduled to give a speech you have to take questions instead… But if you’re reading something you’ve prepared in advance word for word, it’s hard to respond to enthusiasm, to boredom, to curiosity. It’s hard to tailor and cut and chop and change.

So prepare. Make notes, script bits of your talk that are about complicated things, but don’t script whole passage to be read aloud. Instead, if you have a plan of what you’ll speak about, but you then just talk several magical things will happen.

Even if the audience doesn’t answer back verbally because it’s not that type of event, you will still be communicating rather than just presenting: it’ll stop being one way communication. Communication is not just what you say… it’s so much more.

If you talk, instead of reading aloud, the audience will take away the experience of watching and listening as you construct your understanding of the things you’re talking about: it becomes a form of conversation in that it becomes an act of creating a shared understanding of a topic. Which is not to say that you and the entire audience will be in agreement, just that the audience will see how you’ve reached your perspective. And this is far more convincing that a polished written speech that only delivers the conclusion of this process.

Conversation is a process: a script is a static, written object. Which would you rather go to see live?

So plan. Prepare to within an inch of your life. But don’t prepare to stand up and simply read at your audience. Prepare to the point where you can be flexible. Where you can respond to what the audience, as a specific group of individuals, want from you. Talk to them.

Why impatience is a GOOD thing

autumn leaves in pond

One of the criticisms commonly levelled against adults reading YA is that it is symbolic of a wider cultural problem: the fact that attention spans are getting progressively shorter and shorter. That a diet of skimming online has rendered us unable to devote the time and effort needed to appreciate deep, serious, proper Literature (note the capital).

And I agree entirely that our collective attention spans are altering and that this is having an impact on what we want from both art and entertainment.

Another criticism against YA that is often twinned with the first is that, as a collection of literature, it represents a ‘low culture’ form of entertainment for people who, because of their short attention spans, need instant gratification. Proper Literature (note the capital), conversely, requires patience – not to mention high-culture knowledge and skills – to be appreciated.

And I agree that sometimes art and entertainment are the polar opposites they’re often seen as. But I’ve never liked the snotty implications of dividing things into ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. I much prefer the more nuanced concept that people render the same objects ‘high culture’ or ‘low culture’ by their reaction to and interaction with them during both creation and reception. In one reader’s hands, Harry Potter is fluff. In another’s, it is the subject of quality scholarship.

More simply put, the world is what we make of it. Art is surely the zenith of this truism.

Our behaviour towards cultural objects is what renders them entertainment or art or, more commonly, a mix of the two. Do we spend time analysing a book? Do we read slowly, checking back to make connections? Do we relish the language? Do we think about the book after we’ve finished? Do we daydream our own stories from it? Do we think about the implications for the real world? Do we consider how and why a book works? Or do we simply read as quickly as possible to find out what happens so we can start a new book? Time allows us to elevate any cultural object. Time gives us the scope to think and, perhaps more importantly, imagine.

But do we have to be patient with the object itself for this to happen? It rather depends on the object. The idea that writers might want to make cultural objects as ‘efficient’ as possible is not antithetical to the idea of writing as an act of creating Literature. It takes precision and skill to edit out unnecessary material. Knowing what to take out is as important as knowing what to leave in.

One of the things I love about YA is the precision of the editing in so many of the books. The idea that our readers (teens or adults) may not want to dawdle unnecessarily or depart on pointless tangents pushes us to keep asking ‘What does this contribute?’ and ‘How can this scene do as many things as possible?’ and ‘How do we convey the max. with the least number of words?’ All of these things are as much about Literature (note the capital) as entertainment. The idea that baggy and long-winded books are necessarily more literary makes little sense.

And, yes, times and tastes have changed. I thought Middlemarch was fascinating but overly long. I would have got as much from it in terms of its literary value if there had been less to slog through – and it would have increased its value to me as entertainment at the same time.

After all, surely the ultimate goal is for people to take pleasure out of ‘quality’. Art and entertainment should, can and do go hand-in-hand – though only in the best books. Art and entertainment are not antithetical. And in this regard, sometimes impatience can drive Literature forwards, demanding that we do our best to make every word count, every page illuminate as well as entertain, not allowing us any slack.

The people who could read – and could afford books to read – used to almost exclusively be people with time on their hands: the idle rich. That was true from the birth of the novel until surprisingly recently. Cheap paperbacks and an increase in literacy changed things… Now lots of people read, but very few of them have the time to read as much as they’d like. There are so many demands on our attention, our time… and also myriad possibilities for entertainment. Not only are books competing with TV and computer games, but with other books. So is it any wonder that our patience is waning? We could be doing other things. We could be reading other things. Books can’t afford to ask us for any more patience than is strictly and absolutely necessary. And why should they?

If they do, why shouldn’t we turn to books that recognise that time is limited – that our lives are limited – and that, when we’re surrounded by such wonderful possibilities, we should be impatient to make the most of them. We should want to spend ourselves on the best books: those that give us the most with the least waste.

So let’s be impatient… to a point. Let’s all try to get the most out of life and the wonderfully diverse array of books that we can access (at least in the UK, where we have a brilliant, if threatened, library system). Let’s not waste our reading time on books premised on the idea that art and entertainment can’t and shouldn’t go hand in hand. Literature can and should be lots of things at once. That is the whole point. That is what makes it Literature with the capital. But we, as readers, are just as important as writers.

We need to be patient enough to read actively whenever we can. To be part of the act of creation. To collaborate with writers to bring Book-Worlds to life. Writers need to make their work open to this type of reading, but we’re the ones who have to follow through if a book is to become Literature.

We need to be active, not passive.

But we also need to be impatient when authors waste our time. We need to demand their best creativity in exchange for our own.

If that’s the type of impatience we’re exercising, how can it be bad? Isn’t it, rather, a refusal to waste ourselves and all the real and fictional possibilities before us?

YALC Developing Your Writing Voice

rowan_spray_yalc_lo_res_269

So, better late than never, right? Here, finally is the hand-out from my YALC ‘Develop Your Writing Voice’ workshop. Thank you so much to everyone who was there on the day and made the chaos so much fun! (Disclaimer: ‘cover’ image of the YALC authors by Rowan Spray.)

Developing a unique writing voice is not about trying to be different. It’s about recognising how you’re already different and unique, then harnessing that.

That was the core message of the workshop: it’s at the heart of discovering and developing your voice as a writer.

But what is voice? There’s no accepted definition, partly because it’s a somewhat woolly concept, but also because it’s so hard to pin down in theory – it’s much easier to identify aspects of a specific writer’s voice in practice. But that’s not how to discover your own.

Voice is partly about the things that make a piece of writing something only you could produce. But it’s also about the things that stay the same from one piece (or book) to another.

Cris Freese, in Writer’s Digest, says that voice is “not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre.”

When planning the workshop, I asked what people on Twitter thought I should cover. KM Lockwood suggested I should also discuss what voice *isn’t*, which is a really good way to go about firming up the whole concept.

Voice isn’t about book-specific stuff, current trends, or aping another writer. It’s the writer behind the text.

At the start of creative writing courses, some students think that being ‘unique’ means doing the opposite of what everyone else seems to be doing. But that’s not unique: that’s just contradictory.

Doing the opposite means you’re thinking inside a box someone else has built. Build your own box – and remember that it doesn’t have to be square.

And remember that just because developing your voice is about tapping into your own uniqueness, that doesn’t mean you can’t work on it. It isn’t something you’ve either ‘got’ or ‘lack’. Some people are naturals at tapping into their voice. Other people need to make more of a conscious effort. But training yourself to tap in more efficiently is always going to be good.

You can’t control your level of innate talent, only the amount of work you put into developing it.

So where do you start? With technique. When everything else in your creative toolbox lets you down, technique will help you get back on track. It’s like spells and runes: the method rather than the magic, but no less vital for it.

PD James says “Learn to write by doing it. Read widely and wisely. Increase your word power. Find your own individual voice through practicing constantly. Go through the world with your eyes and ears open and learn to express that experience in words.”

I start with aesthetics. It’s a fancy but useful word that can be used to mean a person’s ‘understanding of beauty’. But beauty in the sense of Art, which can be hideous at one level but so powerful it is fascinating to the point of beauty.

So forget ‘prettiness’, what do you find beautiful? What is lovely to you in an emotional sense? Figuring this out will help you figure out what to put into your work… and what to leave out.

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EXCERISE: Find things that are beautiful and try to capture them in photos. Critique your work. Have you really captured what you intended in the picture? Can you capture it in a picture? How could you capture it in words? If you can’t, why not? What are you trying to say and why?

In the workshop I talked a bit about how my aesthetics play out in The Bone Dragon. I focused on the importance of subtext. What do I put in? Just enough for people to see what questions I’m trying to ask. Just enough to follow the story. What do I leave out? Anything that dictates the reader’s response at a moral or emotional level.

The Bone Dragon book cover

Voice is not just about the sentence-level stuff or the type of words you use. It’s about all the choices you make as a writer. Most of all, it’s about drawing those choices together so that the small choices and the big choices all work together.

EXCERISE: Re-take a photo from the exercise above that didn’t come out right, thinking about why it wasn’t right – why it didn’t capture your aesthetic properly. Keep going until you’re happy. Why are you happy? Now try to take a photo of something else and see if you can get the perfect shot in fewer tries.

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever read was ‘write the book only you can write’. This applies at multiple levels.

  1. Concept-level: What is the most original story I have only I could have thought of? What makes it too much like other peoples’ stories? What would make it even more ‘me’ than it already is?
  2. Plot-level: How do I tell this story so it’s as ‘me-as-can-be’?
  3. Sentence-level: What would I notice if I were there, in the story? What am I seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching? What are the characters doing? How do they treat each other? How can I capture all this in a ‘me’ sort of way?

EXCERISE: Which picture would you choose to write from? Why? What does that say about your aesthetic?

magnolia tree and gate               gate with magnolia petals

 Neil Gaiman says, “Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Any starting writer starts out with other people’s voices. But as quickly as you can start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there will always be better writers than you and there will always be smarter writers than you, but you are the only you.”

In other words, read and write as much as possible, but do it thinking about your reading and writing aesthetics. The goal is to refine not just your understanding of your aesthetic, but your ability to capture it in words or images.

But it’s much easier to capture once you know what you’re chasing … and what you’re chasing is you. The truest, purest form of what is already unique and different in you and how you see the world.