voice

YALC Developing Your Writing Voice

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.

 IMG_1256

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.

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Garden path with steps and flowers

Bogged down at the beginning?

In books, as in essays, the beginning is sometimes the last thing you write – or at least the last thing you work on before finishing.

It’s not just that the beginning is, in some ways, the most important bit – if people don’t read on, it doesn’t matter how good the rest is; it’s also that you can’t write a good beginning until you know exactly what it’s the starting point for. No matter how carefully you plan, you never know exactly what will end up on the page and what, therefore, your beginning needs to offer your readers.

It’s easy to write a functional beginning. Surely, it’s just about the story starting in roughly the right place with the right people present, some interesting questions and Things Happening? Nope. Sorry. It’s not that simple.

The first thing to do is acknowledge that faint sense of unease about your beginning. It’s going to need work: a lot of work. Most beginnings do. But it’s equally important to acknowledge that until almost everything else is done, there’s only so far you’ll get with it, no matter how hard you try. And you should try: beginnings get better inch by inch, rarely all at once. That said, the main thing is to know that you will have to come back to it at the end. That’s when, if the rest of the book is ready, you’ll be able to fix the start.

New Book sold on the basis of a synopsis and give-or-take 50 pages. They weren’t terribly good pages. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there was some good writing and it was all very functional, but it wasn’t right. This weekend is when I need to fix it. The rest of the book feels happy. I am content and relaxed about it (to the extent I am ever relaxed about anything to do with writing). But the beginning is still bugging me. As it should, because it is just not right.

Though last night I started to really make inroads into fixing it. I worked on the first 3824 words. There are now 3304 words. In other words, 12 pages have become 10. Hopefully, I’ll get down to 8 or 9 but we’ll see.

The main thing I knew was wrong about the beginning was that it was slow. It wasn’t obviously slow – plenty of interesting, fairly important things happen to the main character internally and externally, and lots of questions are raised. But still it dragged. Even I wasn’t in a rush to read on when editing. This is a Very Bad Sign: writers ignore it at their peril.

I was also worried about the fact that one of the three characters we meet at the start will disappear and never reappear. There’s an important reason for his presence at the beginning of the book, but how much time do we want to spend with him? Isn’t it better to do what we need to but efficiently? Yes! Fewer pages with The Nobody!

What else? The writing. I knew it was clunky and had to grit my teeth to submit it: knowing your writing is clunky isn’t the same as fixing it and I know my own writing process enough to understand that no amount of time or effort (there had been a LOT of both) was going to get it further… until the rest of the book was done and heavily edited. I know why it’s clunky now, or at least I’m getting there with this understanding.

Point #1: At the beginning, when there is no book, clarity means spelling things out. There are no ‘next pages’ where little hints and questions get explained: there is no development so that the implicit may become explicit. There was far, far too much I’d said on the page that I didn’t need to with an entire book to come to do just that. Don’t be obviou: you only need to be reasonably clear about some things at the beginning. Other things can become obvious over time and do not need to be spelt out on page one event if they are very important.

Point #2: Don’t say things twice. At the beginning of the book, things are happening for the first time. It’s easy to worry that readers won’t see that they’re important unless you repeat yourself. There is a whole book to do that in – gradually and over time. As you edit, cut the repetition in the beginning. It is slowing you down and making your writing clunky and it is just Entirely Unnecessary.

Point #3: Don’t draw attention to things that don’t matter, unless they’re purposefully there as red herrings (or, as I prefer to call them, wanton fish – a lovely post-anaesthetic semantic leap into the absurd). My Nobody character is there to be a nobody. My beginning must make this clear then not dwell on it or him, otherwise I’m muddying the waters in ways that are unhelpful and boring.

Point #4: Is this absolutely necessary? Beginnings should contain only that which falls firmly into the ‘Yes’ category. Sometimes beauty and interest can make things necessary, but they must be very beautiful and/or interesting indeed for this to be the case.

Point #5: Beginnings are like an orchestra warming up. Every element must tune up to come into harmony with all the others. It’s a necessay part of the process of finding the voice not just of the characters but of the book: its particularly rhythmns, sounds, the little threads of language that will make it tight at the level of song. Once the rest of the book is singing, you can go back to the beginning and tune it all up properly so that it does too. Books shouldn’t start softly, with little mumbles of nervousness: they should belt from page one. Not belt in every sense, but in the lanuage sense – absolutely. You can only accomplish this when you have a whole book behind you to work with. That is the ‘score’ for your song: all the ornaments, the developments, the themes. How can you write a stonking beginning unless it references those things, perhaps slyly and shyly, but references them all the same?

So that’s where I am. New Book is almost done, though there is still work to come. But I have a good feeling about that. If only I can sort out this slow, clunky, out-of-tune beginning…

magenta and white tapestry rose

As good as it gets: writing romance is all about your understanding of love

A while ago someone asked if I could give some advice on writing romance. I sent a reply at the time, but I always planned to expand it into a full post. Here it is. (Of course, because I saved the original message in a safe place, I can’t find it. If you’re the person who inspired this post, please let me know! Also, thanks and hope you like it.)

For me, the key to writing successful romance – whether it’s a romantic novel or a romantic storyline in a thriller or fantasy novel – is thinking about what you, individually, find romantic.

Writers are told to forget the clichés, and this is especially important with romance. Do you find red roses romantic? Personally, I’d be far more touched by a man turning up with a wilting dandelion from the paving stone by his porch. Don’t get me wrong: I like roses, red or otherwise, but it’s not ‘as good as it gets’ for me. And romance in a story should be as good as it gets while still (for the most part) being give-or-take realistic.

So what would be better? Does the guy turn up with a whole rose bush because the girl or guy he’s trying to impress likes gardening? Does he bring a cutting from a bush he saw the object of his desires admiring? Does he bring a planter of different herbs because his love interest adores cooking? Or an orchid? Or plant feed because actually what the love interest wants is not to kill the plants he/she already has? Or perhaps he brings a plastic plant. Or a dried rose. Or his love interest has terrible allergies so he brings a DVD box-set instead.

Telling a good romantic story is like telling any other story: the characters are all-important. Who is the love interest? What sort of person is he/she? What would he/she experience as truly as-good-as-it-gets romantic?

BUT… you also have to think about the person bringing the flowers. Maybe this is a person who’s a player: if all he’s trying to do is make a grand gesture to get into the knickers of the object of his desire (because it’s desire not affection at stake) then maybe he’ll turn up with two dozen red roses after all, then treat this as payment for sex.

Or maybe he’s clueless. Maybe he’s never thought about romance and is just doing what he thinks he should and has seen in the movies. Or maybe he doesn’t know the object of his affections very well yet and buys tulips when all that does is make his love interest cry about a lost kitten.

So you may want your character to turn up with red roses. But if you do, your story will probably be fairly boring if the love-interest reacts with uncomplicated delight.

And here we’re into character = plot territory. What does Character A bring to Character B? Why? How does Character B react to the gift?

There’s one good cliché to remember when it comes to romance writing: “the course of true love never did run smooth”.

Maybe you’re writing about lust or temporary love rather than ‘true love’ – it doesn’t really matter. But if the course runs smooth you have no plot, no drama and no story. Or at least none that anyone’s going to care about reading.

What are the obstacles in the way? Maybe the roses are intended to help A get into B’s heart/knickers, but actually make that *less* likely than if he turned up empty handed. (BTW, I’m assuming A is male but that doesn’t have to be the case: I just don’t want to dodge two sets of pronouns in one post.)

Stories are all the better when Character A does something to achieve his goal, only for this to conflict with Character B’s goal… or at least Character B’s idea about how to reach that goal, if the goal is mutual. It’s even better if readers can see that what A is about to do is going to spectacularly misfire because they know that B will react badly. The gap between what the characters know and what readers know is critical to most good romance stories. A lot of the process of falling (or not falling) in love is about coming to understand the other person: when readers can see  misunderstandings coming before they happen on the page, the dramatic irony helps increase the pace and the level of conflict. It also helps readers emphasise with the characters. The urge to yell ‘Don’t do that! It’s totally going to backfire!’ can’t help but make us engage at a deeper level with the characters in question and the story as a whole.

So think about how your characters, as much as external forces, can stand in each other’s way. The best romance stories don’t see us wincing as Life and Fate and Other Things come between two people in love… the best stories occur when the two people in love (or in the process of falling in love) are their own obstacles.

So let’s come back to my key to writing romance: what makes romance ‘as good as it gets’ in your eyes? Just remember not to try too hard. Don’t sit there thinking ‘What is the weirdest thing Character A could bring Character B’ as a way to be different and unique. It might be a good way to be funny, but it isn’t a good way to the heart of romance.

Romance is ultimately about what you think the process of falling is love is. What really matters to you about falling in love and staying in love? What has experience taught you are the ways people succeed or fall down, and at what points? What are the secret highs and lows and joys and disappointments no one seems to talk about?

Everyone has their own secret list of beliefs about love – their own sense of hard-won wisdom – when it comes to love and romance. Use that as the heart of your story. What is the ‘as good as it gets’ version of that? How can you put obstacles in the path of that ‘as good as it gets’? How can you make your lovers their own obstacles? How can you show what you’ve learnt about love?

So forget the clichés. Think about what love and romance mean to you. Now write about that.

 

 

old brick bridge seen from below

Poetry by Chloe Armstrong

At an impromptu event for the Northern Children’s Book Festival in November, a lovely thing happened: after the formal Q&A bit, when I was sitting smiling nervously around at everyone and hoping someone there would want to talk to me, Chloe Armstrong came over and asked me if I’d listen to one of her poems. The moment she’d finished, I asked if I could read the other one I could see lurking behind the top print-out. Afterwards, I kept thinking about Chloe’s poems and how impressed I’d been by the way she’d talked about the inspiration behind them, what she’d been trying to do in each, and also by how clearly a very interesting, unique ‘voice’ came through.

The concept of a ‘writer’s voice’ is a funny one. It’s almost impossible to pin down what it means, so everyone defines it in different ways. Despite all this confusion, you know it when you hear it: when you’re reading and all of a sudden you can literally hear someone speaking from inside the words on the page. There’s a lot of really bad poetry out there – and tons of poetry I think is bad because I just don’t understand why it’s not just a bunch of words strung together in a vaguely pretty, it-sort-of-sounds-like-it-could-be-deep-and-wise way.

Chloe’s poems have what’s missing from so much of the poetry – published and unpublished – that I read and despair over: a natural voice that has something to say.

I do hope you like Chloe’s poems as much as I do. If you do, please take a moment or two to comment below to encourage Chloe to keep writing so we can all see more of her work soon.

First, a tiny bit of introduction. The first poems is inspired by ancient Egyptian death rituals and the second by the myths surrounding the constellations. Chloe explained it all extremely briefly and incredibly clearly to me. Below are my fumbling attempts to recap the most important points.

The poems below are (C) Copyright Chloe Armstrong 2013.

A quick intro to ‘Dear Thoth’: Thoth is an Egyptian God involved in judging the dead. Anubis or Osiris – chief God of Death at different times in history – weighs the hearts of the dead: if they weigh more than a feather (Thoth judges how the scales hang), they get given to demon Ammit to be eaten. The Fields of Iaru are the equivalent of paradise/the Elysian Fields.

Dear Thoth,

Please tell Osiris
I didn’t put the condom on Mrs. Green’s chair in Biology.
I didn’t eat my nephew’s Thornton’s Easter egg last night.
I certainly didn’t cheat at French bingo.

Oh Thoth please
Don’t tell I love Justin Beiber
Don’t tell I still watch Tweenies on Cbeebies
Don’t tell I crossed the road without looking
Don’t tell I stole my Mum’s ha tarts and blamed it on my brother.
Don’t tell I stole a mars bar from the corner shop.

And Thoth, by the way,
Anubis doesn’t need to know I dyed my hair pink.

Dear darling Thoth,
My heart would be as light as a feather
If only you would swear to never speak about the time
I maxed out my Mum’s credit card
Buying new lives on Candy Crush Saga.

I could sleep gracefully in the Fields of Hetep.
I could rest quietly in the Fields of Iaru.
If you balance the scales and protect my heart
from the snapping jaws of Ammit.

eternally yours

BFF Chloe

A quick intro to ‘Secrets of the Stars’: Lyra is the eagle/vulture – a very small constellation. Cassiopeia is both a constellation and a supernova remnant within the constellation; in Persian mythology Cassopeia was a queen who had a crescent-moon-tipped staff. Orion is famous as ‘The Hunter’. Draco, the dragon, was a Titan killed by Minerva and then turned into a constellation that guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides (the garden of the Hera, Queen of the Greek Gods). Cygnus is the swan. Cetus is a sea-monster/whale. Grus is the crane. Ursa Major is the Great Bear (of which the Plough/Big Dipper forms a part).

Secrets of the Stars

Lyra is the eyes of the night.
A constellation.

Cassiopeia is a child of the moon,
Clinging to the celestial North Pole.

Orion knows where you live.
Where the countryside begins and where it ends.
How snowmen hokey cokey in sheep dreams.

Draco knew where the secret treasure was
until Captain Cook discovered Australia.

Cygnus has been wished away
By a lazy cat sleeping in a barn.

Cetus travels the ocean as a misty reflection
On the back of a blue whale.

Grus likes being chased by chickens
across the night sky.

Ursa Major really is aeroplane traffic.

PS: Chloe’s 14. Yes, really. I cannot wait to read what she’s writing when she’s 18!

PPS: Big thanks to Chloe for letting me share her poems with everyone.

butterfly and lavender

Everyone should have a project editor

When is it? Ah… I see. It’s the very last day of July. And the universe (via Faber) has brought me a present for the new month: my very own project editor.  (Well, not brought in an I-now-own-this sort of way, but I have a project editor none the less.)

Everyone should have one. They’re wonderful. They organise things. Many, many things.

I have been especially lucky with my project editor, Lucie, who – [fast forwards a few weeks] – has arranged for the amazing Eleanor to copy-edit my book brilliantly and very, very quickly.

So, we’re… er… mid August? Yes, something like that. Somewhere in the second half of August and not only do I have a project editor and copy editor, I have a copy-edited manuscript.

Eleanor has cowed Microsoft Word into submission and made the formatting behave throughout the entire document. I am suitably impressed by this feat alone. But there’s more.

She’s also sorted out my hyphens. I didn’t realise how bad I was at hyphens. I swear it wasn’t quite this bad not so long ago. Perhaps it was. Or perhaps this is one of the things I ‘lost’ when I had the latest rib taken out. Every anaesthetic I lose a few very precise things from my memory (the time before it was Latin flower names and things to do with architecture). It’s not that I forget these things, they’re just gone: no memory trace whatsoever. Anyway, I don’t know quite whether to hope I ‘lost’ my hyphens or whether I was just rubbish at them all along. Perhaps I’ll compromise with myself and just say ‘it’s one of those things that’s hard to spot in your own work’. That seems like a happier way of putting it.

Eleanor has also found a horrid number of sentences with repeated words. I’m generally so good at spotting these when I edit for other people… how can I have missed quite so many in my own work? On the bright side, Eleanor has spotted them so I can now sort them out before quite so many people see.

Hm… typo… typo… Wow, how did I miss that one?

Interesting: a three page allergy to the definite article. (What was going on there? Perhaps I don’t want to know… moving along, moving along…)

Ah… I see how that might sound a little odd to other people. But I hear it like that. Maybe it’s some dyslexic-ness in terms of the weird way I perceive language rhythms, but that’s how that sentence sounds to me. Even if it is a little dyslexic-weird, maybe non-dyslexic people will find it interesting anyway. After all, that’s how I hear it: that’s part of my voice. And I am careful not to go overboard with my weird way of hearing things. The majority of sentences need to appeal to a wide array of readers: a writer should only keep the odd one that exactly represents the stranger bits of her inner voice. But this sentence is *me*. This represents exactly how I hear things. This one I get to keep.

An awkward sentence. Yes, it most definitely is. All change, please!

In or into… Should theoretically be in, but into is acceptable and I like how it conveys motion, whereas ‘in’ is static.

Tenses, tenses… Some tricky ones here. A recounted story that includes a note about a general personality characteristic of someone still alive. Should that be in the same tense as the rest of the story-within-the-book, or does it go in the tense of the main narrative because the character is still alive and still likes flowers? As for some of the others… the book deals a lot with the fact that the past and present aren’t always that separate… For me, that needs to bleed into the grammar. But making sure that the grammar serves the story and doesn’t confuse when there’s a slip in time, and so in tense, is not easy.

This bit of reported speech doesn’t repeat the original bit of dialogue… Nope. But it *is* intentionally different. The change in the reported version is quite telling. At least I hope it is.

With my Uncle Ben or with my uncle Ben? I’m a traditionalist. The former it is because the latter, for me, would require a comma before ‘Ben’ and I don’t like it like that.

What else? Oh… a flaw in the time line. A great big one.  I *knew* something wasn’t quite right there. Fixed. With surprisingly few changes.

A nice little bit of logical inconsistency. Possibly it’s not good for the soul. Let’s see if we can’t make that make sense.

Oh, and a nice dash of ambiguity…

And a nice little lack of clarity… Where are we in this scene? Oh, yes. There we are…

Hm… is this bit of dialogue forced? I think it won’t be if I just push a little harder here, make it clear to the reader that there’s meant to be some awkwardness by making it even more awkward. Yes, I think that works. And I love the characterisation of the bit-character now that I’ve brought all that awkwardness into the light.

Oh dear. People are spilling things left, right and centre. Or rather I’ve spilled lots of spillings into a single page. I’d better start cleaning up.

And now the manuscript is looking so clean and tidy! Hyphens all neatly in place. Repetitions scrubbed away… But there’s one change I just can’t even consider. It’s to one of my favourite lines in the whole book. And I *do* see how other people might find the phrasing a bit odd, but I love it. It  says exactly what I mean about something quite hard to describe. Sometimes it’s good to be able to say  ‘I am the author. I outrank you!’ Actually, I don’t say anything at all beyond ‘Please could I keep it!’ because I don’t have to… (and because I don’t know if Eleanor is familiar with The Producers, so don’t want to risk offending her if she doesn’t recognise this as a quotation.)

Every author is bound to find there are one or two changes that they just don’t want to make. The key is to know when something that might not work for all readers is important enough to you to assert your rights over. Think about it as having a handful of ‘free passes’ – a handful of times you can just say ‘no’, even when you acknowledge the merit of your editor/publisher’s comment. Often the comment is right in the broader sense of what will work best for the largest number of readers… But it’s still your book. If there are a few little things you love, and you haven’t been difficult about taking editorial advice, then no one will have a problem with it.

So what was my much-loved lined?

As soon as she says it, we both realise how unexpected the words are: oddly tender, wistful, as if she is lonely for kindness.

What do you think? Do you like it or are you with Eleanor, who would have preferred ‘hungry for kindness’?