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.

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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.

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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…

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’?