Thursday, 30 December 2010

The anti-social writer

It’s getting to me now. We have had ten staying over for Christmas. Every room in the house filled with people – my younger son even burst in while I was on the loo yesterday. Nowhere to hide. Don’t get me wrong: it’s been great seeing everyone, exchanging gifts, drinking, playing games; then after a few days my brain starts to suck at itself, seeking something to ingest. There’s a grating at my temples. These are the early signs of a craving to engage once more with ideas, with material, with writing, or at least thinking around the writing.

It is a need rather than a wish. The sloth in me simply wants the easy, flop-around-the-house style of living, but I have to write, like a heroin addict has to shoot up. I guess the addict has no relish for the needle, and I do not relish my return to the keyboard   - we are both drawn by the craving. It hurts if we try to resist it. And just as the addict slinks away to some hidden corner to get on with the business, so does the writer, equally furtive. I’d be embarrassed if someone walked in on me now, while we’re still officially festive.

Even the most gregarious of writers are anti-social for long periods. Some have to be forced into solitary – Dylan Thomas was famously locked in a BBC studio by a producer to finish a radio play, and again by his assistant Liz Reitell to complete a rewrite of Under Milkwood – while others have to tear themselves away: “Close the door, give out that you are not at home, and work” is what the French writer Joseph de Maistre advised.

Mostly though, it’s the craving that gets you here. I’m feeling easier already, writing this. As good as a glass of Christmas malt.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Write wit

For Christmas: some quotes and quips about writers and writing.
We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare.  Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.

The best way to become a successful writer is to read good writing, remember it, and then forget where you remember it from.
Gene Fowler

If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster.
Isaac Asimov

Write as if you are dying.
Annie Dillard

Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.
Jules Renard

The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.
John Steinbeck

Writing is no trouble: you just jot down ideas as they occur to you. The jotting is simplicity itself - it is the occurring which is difficult.
Stephen Leacock

A writer is someone for whom writing is much harder than it is for the others.
Ken Laws

I write when I am inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.
Peter de Vries

Having imagination, it takes you an hour to write a paragraph that, if you were unimaginative, would take you only a minute.  Or you might not write the paragraph at all.
Franklin P Adams

Writing is easy.  All you do is stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
Gene Fowler

There’s nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.
W W ‘Red’ Smith

What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of the window.
Burton Rascoe

What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.
Samuel Johnson

That writer does the most, who gives his reader the most knowledge, and takes from him the least time.
Charles Caleb Colton

Never use a big word where a diminutive one will suffice.
The waste basket is the writer’s best friend.

Editors don’t reject writers;  they reject pieces of paper that have been typed on.
Isaac Asimov

Writers should be read but not seen. Rarely are they a winsome sight.
Edna Ferber

When audiences come to see us authors lecture, it is largely in the hope that we'll be funnier to look at than read
Sinclair Lewis
Punctuation is the sound of your voice on paper.
Joseph Collignan

English spelling is weird...or is it wierd?
Irwin Hill

The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.
Anais Nin

What I like in a good author is not what he says, but what he whispers.
Logan Pearsall Smith

How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
Henry David Thoreau

The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.
Samuel Johnson

How do I know what I think until I see what I say?
E M Forster

There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write.
William Thackeray

He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas of any man I ever met.
Abraham Lincoln

It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by then I was too famous.
Robert Benchley

There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.
Flannery O’Connor

It is still an unending source of surprise for me how a few scribbles on a blackboard or on a piece of paper can change the course of human affairs.
Stanislaw Ulam

We do not write in order to be understood;  we write in order to understand.
Robert Cecil Day-Lewis

Any proper writer ought to be able to write anything from an Easter Day sermon to a sheep-dip handout.
Sir Kingsley Amis

To sum it all up, if you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling.  You must write every single day of your life, you must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next.  You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.  I wish for you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime.  I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you.  May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories.
Ray Bradbury

POSTSCRIPT: See also my April 2012 post: Write wit 2 and my December 2012 post Write wit 3.

Friday, 17 December 2010

The page of dreams

Tara’s comment on my last posting, where she told us that her dreams were an important source for her creative ideas, got me thinking about how dreams influence my own writing. I realised that I have waking dreams, edge of sleep dreams and deep sleep dreams, which all work their spells in different ways.

The waking dreams are those I get when I deliberately move away from my computer screen or blank sheet and lie down (usually on the floor) to steep some subject or story line in my head for a while. What I’m intending is to concentrate without distraction so that I can work something through, but what really happens seems to be the opposite of concentration; my mind drifts, not in an entirely uncontrolled fashion, but as if I’m taking a leisurely flying carpet ride over the world I’m imagining, without a known route or destination. I apprehend rather than ‘see’ what I come across along the way, and more often than not the journey ends with a start, like an abrupt waking. Sometimes it makes me literally jump, and within moments I’m back to the page with something new to say, some direction to go in, without having consciously ‘worked it out’. A magic carpet ride. 
Van Gogh's The Starry Night

I suppose what I’m experiencing is what Vincent Van Gogh meant when he said, I dream of painting and then I paint my dream. Judging by Van Gogh’s output (over 2,000 works), he must have put in a lot of dreaming. I put in a good deal of this kind of dreaming too; not nearly so much output, though I genuinely believe I do more writing when I’m not writing.

The edge of sleep dream I get at night in my bed, and almost always it’s a troubled dream that replays some problem or difficulty I am having in my writing. It nags at me like a toothache, and stops me from sleeping properly. At its worst, chillingly, it convinces me to give the whole thing up as a bad job. It’s no good. You’re no good. Blagh.  These edge of sleep dreams are worryingly frequent.

Fortunately, they are usually followed by the deep sleep dream. Without being aware of it, I find that whatever the problem was seems to have resolved itself by the time I’ve woken up. It’s as if I needed the nagging rehearsal of the worry so that the deep brain can process and work on it while the consciousness has a rest. Occasionally, a deep sleep dream is capable of delivering a whole story idea apparently without the collusion of the conscious mind – a Eureka moment that is rare and precious as a new-born (and more vulnerable; the mortality rate on Eureka moments is so high the World Health Organisation really should look into the matter).

Steven Spileberg
You could of course argue that everything a writer does is the product of dreaming; certainly that seems to hold for the fiction writer, and for the screen-writer – Steven Spielberg says he dreams for a living, and he has enshrined the idea in the name of his film studio, DreamWorks.  

I wrote a moment ago that I dream, then write, but, no, it’s not so clear-cut. I think every writer would agree, when the work is in full flow, there is a trance-like quality to the state we’re in; and we are in that world we are creating, unconscious of any other, as fully as we are in the deepest dream. The world is somehow already there for us. Our pen is like a torch beam revealing more, as we press on, of the roads, the turns, the travellers, the details on the page.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Where do you get your ideas from?

It’s the most common question asked at the end of a talk, and the most difficult to answer. Or rather, there are so many different answers.

·         An abiding memory or recollection (the starting-point of We Never Had It So Good)
·         Something heard or read that starts the mind turning (my interest in reading about the railway Stephenons would not have given me the urge to write a novel had I not been intrigued by the dramatic decision of young Robert to go off on a risky venture in Colombia only months after his father had installed him as managing director of their locomotive-building company – this became the main impetus for writing Mr Stephenson’s Regret).
·         A stray thought that occurs while doing something else, with some loose association (the inciting incident for 11:59 came from listening to a late night radio phone-in while driving, and thinking, ‘What if...?’).
·         A headline in a newspaper (started the sub-plot of 11:59).
·         An evocative word or phrase (the theme for the stories I’m currently writing emerged from thinking about the folk definition of a Geordie as one born within the smell of the Tyne).

There are a dozen more possibilties. I suppose most could be generally grouped under the notion, ‘Life happens: something sticks.’ The trick is to pin it down when it does. I have always kept an Ideas File, and I make a new entry when anything remotely promising occurs to me – I write a note in the form of a provisional title and anything from one sentence to three paragraphs about the appropriate casing for the idea (a story? a play? a novel? an article?) and how it might develop. 99% of these ideas will never go beyond those few sentences, but I get them down quickly before they disappear altogether, and because I never know which is the 1% that I may eventually husband and grow into a capable creative life form.

As with any gardening, some plants seem to start well, then unaccountably wither and die. Others, that you thought were flowers, turn out to be weeds. (How frustrating that is for the writer/gardener; all that labour spent.)To continue the metaphor, one flower does not a garden make. It is not enough to have one idea to sustain your piece of work; you must germinate others along the way. Some of them come from the scoping and planning before you get deep down into the soil, but I’m always amazed by how much takes root and spreads right there beneath your fingers as you work, nudging with impatience as you dig channels and clear paths trying to bring some sense of order, some coherence of colours.    

Stephen King, writing about writing, has also described the process as like digging, but he sees it less like a gardener than as an archaeologist slowly uncovering the bones of a huge fossil – dinosaur, or whatever – that is already there. It’s an interesting notion, that somehow the story is already there, waiting to be found. Where do you get your ideas from? The question seems to imply that there is a bank of ideas you can tap into, but what if King is right, that somewhere in our collective unconscious there are whole stories awaiting discovery? It would help explain the phenomenon descibed by many writers, and that I have experienced myself, of our characters telling us where we must go next, as if there were indeed some pre-determined track to follow.

Maybe the reason so many people seem to be fascinated by the source of ideas is that they have felt something there themselves, something tantalisingly out of reach as they have not the tools to excavate. Maybe the real answer to Where do you get your ideas from? is that they are universal, lying somewhere in all of us.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The thief of time

Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it is not the work one is supposed to be doing.

Three times this morning I have been out to clear snow from the drive and the car. If I didn’t work from home I wouldn’t be distracted from my deadlines in this way. Except of course I would not at the moment be at any office further than walking distance because the snow has us trapped in. So, you ask, why bother with all this snow-clearing if you can’t use the car anyway? Because I look out my window at the poetic blanket, and my response is an unpoetic Agh, get out of here and the snow is saying, oh yeah, you gonna make me? Also my neighbours are already out, digging in unison as if they were on a rescue mission or a chain gang, and I can’t be seen to let the side down. How can I get into a state of exploratory solitude to the sound of scraping shovels?

Later I know Paula is going to ask me to walk down the hill to the shops with her so I can act as a pack mule for the essentials. (Milk, potatoes – how come we’re only out of the heavy stuff?)  “Ah, but no, I see you’re busy – I’ll do it myself.” She sort of means it too, but she knows I’ll be going with her, just as soon as I’ve finished this.

And why am I doing this right now? This is isn’t work. (When Paula says, “I see you’re busy” she doesn’t mean this. This doesn’t come under her definition of busy. She imagines I’m writing a story for the new collection.) Yes, I know this is writing too, but not work writing; it’s... I don’t know what it is, reaching out, I guess.

Perhaps that’s my problem – too much reaching out, not enough reaching in. For example, I ‘wasted’ the best part of last Friday by going to the northern heat of the Kids’ Lit Quiz, not because I was being paid (I wasn’t) but because the organizers invited me to join an authors’ team that they hoped would add to the buzz of the event. I don’t know whether it did or not, but we authors certainly got a buzz out of licking the opposition (not the kids, the librarians’ team), and out of the infectious enthusiasm of the young people who came from all over the region to join in despite the difficult road conditions.

I enjoyed chatting with the founder and quiz master Wayne Mills, a New Zealander who takes unpaid leave of absence from his senior lecturing job at the University of Auckland  to compere his competition in the UK, Canada, China, South Africa and New Zealand at all the regional and national heats as well as at the World Final. He’s been doing it for twenty years, inspired by clear evidence that his simple, engaging idea has refreshed the motivation to read among the thousands of children who take part. I didn’t ask him if he ever regrets not devoting more attention to his ‘proper job’.

I don’t exactly regret my own distractions, but I sometimes feel guilty about pursuing the more pleasurable diversions, and more often frustrated about letting the mundane or trivial suck at the time I had intended for sustained creative writing. I do recognize that all experience is part of a creative writer’s constant research, that something will be retained osmotically which could well emerge again, suppose it be years later, as a dramatic incident or character, part of a story, an article, even a novel; but I do get bothered by a sense of hours ebbing away without visible production: worthwhile words on a page.

I feel I should try to adopt the approach of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov who said, “If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.”

Meanwhile I can hear subtle sounds of errand-preparation and contained impatience from downstairs. Outside, the snow has started to fall again, burying the shovel I left lying out in the garden.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Me and Mr Chekhov and his gun

Writing in my last post about MacGuffins reminded me of another plot principle, known as Chekhov’s Gun. I also remembered at least one occasion when I failed to follow that principle. In that case I didn’t realise what I had done (or hadn’t done) until someone pointed it out at a reading.

The law of Chekhov’s Gun states that if you introduce some object or element into a story that you don’t make use of at the time, then you must make use of it later, or there is no point in it being there at all.

You won’t be surprised to hear that it was the writer Anton Chekhov himself who first stated the principle. In a letter to a friend he said of writing drama:

If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there.

Chekhov follows his own advice in Uncle Vanya where a pistol is introduced early as an apparently irrelevant prop; toward the end of the play Vanya grabs it and tries to use it as a murder weapon.

Chekhov’s Gun is a pithy reminder that everything in a story should have a purpose, and points up the usefulness of slipping in elements that may not become significant until the audience or reader amost forgets they are there.

My example of failing to follow the principle is not classic Chekhov’s Gun in that the element introduced is a piece of information rather than an object, and it is introduced in the middle of the story not near the start; but it needed to be dealt with, and I didn’t quite do so.

The information comes into Head Down, the final story in my collection We Never Had It So Good, which is about growing up in northern England in the late 1950s. In this story my central character, an eleven-year-old boy, is about to discover whether he has passed his eleven-plus examination to enter the local Grammar School. Mr Carrick the headmaster sweeps into class and proudly announces, “Only three boys in the whole of 4A have failed the test. Only three.”

As the result slips are placed face down on everyone’s desk, the boy looks anxiously around his classmates, afraid to learn his fate. He knows already that Willie Mordue, the boy with the glass eye, will be one of the three failures – he is only in 4A to protect him from bullies in the lower stream. Who are the other two?

I do nothing for a few seconds, too weak to move. At last I manage to gulp some air into my lungs and reach out, then hesitate, caught by the sight of Grant Stevens in Row B. He’s further forward than me and I can just see the right side of his face and his head down towards the paper that’s turned print side up on his desk. Grant Stevens is crying. From now on every person in this class will remember Grant Stevens as the lad that cried when he found out he’d failed his eleven-plus.

So now he knows, and we know, that there is just one more failure to come to light. Everywhere around him the boy can see only signs of jubilation. He turns his paper over to find... that he has passed. Sorry to give you that spoiler, but the boy passing  his exam is not really the key point of the story, so I persuade myself I haven’t really spoiled it for you.

I read Head Down as part of a series of talks I did at Woodhorn Colliery Museum not long after the book launch. The reading went very well, and I was delighted by the audience reaction. Immediately afterwards, one woman came rushing up the front to meet me, and I smiled, expecting at least a compliment and with luck another book sale. Instead, she said to me in real earnest, “Who was the other boy?”


“The other boy who failed. I was waiting all the way through to find out. I was sure it must be his friend Chiz, but then you said he’d passed as well. So who was the third boy that failed?”

In that moment, I realised that there were three bullets in Chekhov’s Gun, and I’d fired only two. By any other measure the name of the third failure was irrelevant – it made no difference whatsoever to the story. But I had set up an expectation, at least in this woman’s mind (to be fair, no-one else has ever asked me that question), and I had failed to deliver.

Roy Peter Clark (he of the Writing Tools I mentioned in a recent post) has a slightly different take on it from Chekhov, but his point is apposite also. His prescription, which comes from advice given to reporters at the St Petersburg Times is: “Get the name of the dog.”

I hope I haven’t confused you by mixing metaphors here. If anyone picks up Chekhov’s Gun and shoots that dog, I’ll know I have.    

Monday, 22 November 2010

My MacGuffins

Until I heard the word used on the radio the other day, I’d forgotten about Alfred Hitchcock’s MacGuffin. When I started thinking about it, I realised that I have been using MacGuffins of my own without putting a name to them.

I don’t think Hitchcock invented the term, but he certainly popularised it and, in his typical mischievous style, stirred some confusion when he was asked to clarify what a MacGuffin was. The story he told went like this:

It might be a Scotttish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man asks, "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?" and the other answers, "Oh that's a McGuffin." The first one asks, "What's a McGuffin?" "Well", the other man says, "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands," and the other one answers, "Well, then that's no McGuffin!" So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.

That ‘explanation’ was made in 1966, but about thirty years earlier Hitch had offered a slightly more straightforward definition:

"[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin'. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers".

You could call it the object of interest, or the object of desire, except it isn’t always an object at all. Here’s a simple quiz. What are the MacGuffins in the following films and books? (For the answers, hit the Show/hide button at the end of the list.)

1. Pulp Fiction
2. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
3. The Usual Suspects
4. Rebecca
5. Citizen Kane

An important point that Hitchcock makes gnomically in his story of the parcel in the baggage rack is that the MacGuffin may turn out to be ‘nothing at all’. In the simplest case it could be a red herring, put there to distract from something that will emerge as important later; alternatively, it could appear for a long time to be something that it is not, as in the wonderfully macabre Don’t Look Now where the MacGuffin seems to be a little girl in a red duffel coat; and sometimes the MacGuffin, which seems so important at first, fades away, for its purpose of giving the characters a reason to be, or a reason to be there, has been served, and the story/characters/relationships take their own flight.

In my novel 11:59 the MacGuffin is a character called Hassan Malik, whom we hear but do not see in the first few pages, and who may or may not be dead. The mystery of Hassan and his corporeal status are what drives the central plot of the novel, provides the starting-point for much of the character interaction, and helps to twist the strands of the sub-plots too. But is Hassan ‘nothing at all’? You will have to read the book to find out.

The MacGuffin may be relatively easy to identify in a thriller, but what about in a historical novel? I would say that the MacGuffin in my (not yet published) Mr Stephenson’s Regret is the title. I want the reader to be asking, which Mr Stephenson and what is his regret? There are two candidates for the first answer, George and his son Robert; and there are a fair few regrets to choose from in both cases. I do hope, however, that before the end you will have worked out what precisely the title is referring to. Just to give a little hint: apart from the title I use the word regret only once among 117,000 others in the book. I wouldn’t want you to miss my MacGuffin.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Words out of time

Browsing through the letters page of next week’s Radio Times I see that some correspondents are objecting to the anachronistic language in the recent series of the period drama Downton Abbey. Examples quoted include ‘allergy’, ‘hung parliament’ and colloquial expressions such as ‘Papa will hit the roof’, ‘The suspense is killing me’ and ‘just so I know’.

I guess these are accidental, unlike the deliberately modern style affected by youth-oriented period stuff like Robin Hood and Merlin. Should we get worked about it? I ask, having spent over two years on the ms of Mr Stephenson’s Regret, my novel about the Northumbrian railway pioneers. Leaving the research aside, I took longer on the actual writing process than I have ever done on previous work, not least because of my constant etymological checking; I wanted to avoid being faux-Georgian or faux-Victorian, but at the same time I challenged myself to use only vocabulary that would have been available at the time.

There is, of course, no sense in being a stickler for linguistic accuracy if by doing so you put your narrative in a strait-jacket or make your dialogue seem stilted even allowing for the restrained conventions of the time. Perhaps the risk is greater in these days when the classics are generally accessed through the modernising medium of television rather than through the words of the original novelists. The nineteenth century seems and perhaps sounds a long way away for many of today’s audience. For the contemporary author writing in a historical context, there is a delicate balance to be found between past and present, and it’s hard not to fall between the cracks.

I have reproduced the first few pages of my draft Stephenson novel below (just push the Show/hide button to reveal it). I would welcome any feedback on the sample.

Extract from Mr Stephenson's Regret

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Roy's writing tools

I was commenting on a writer's sample yestrday, and I referred him to some advice from a book I have found extremely useful, so I thought I would mention it here.

The book is called Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark, and I would recommend it as much for the established writer as the novice.

I came to this book via Roy's audio programmes on iTunes U (which are also excellent, and free to download). I had never heard of him before, but was so impressed by the extracts that I bought the book - which is even better. Very accessible, yet not at all superficial, each tool is illustrated by hit-the-mark examples. This is a practical guide that will improve any writer's work, at any level or genre - I know it has improved mine.

If you want to know more about Roy, his book and his podcasts, your best bet is to start with Roy's site at the Poynter Institute.

Friday, 12 November 2010

There’s no magic key, but don’t neglect the keyboard

I appeared at the Books on Tyne Festival in Newcastle last weekend – congratulations to Anna Flowers and the rest of the team for organizing this excellent event.

As well as my own spot I was part of a panel of authors and publishers asked to conduct an advisory session for aspiring writers looking for a publisher. I was struck by how much interest there was – the room was packed out. Is it the recession, or have there always been so many people desperate to see their book in print? We tried to be helpful but honest about the current situation, and I’m sure we must have disappointed some of those hoping we would show them how to unlock the entry to the world of publishing.

In truth, not only is there no magic key, the doors are fewer every year, and the entries to those that remain seem narrower. The posh places have closed their tradesman’s entrance, and the concierge at the front is trained to scan for well-known names. Only celebrities have an automatic right of entry, not just for their ghost-written autobiographies now, but for their ‘novels’ and their lifestyle… stuff. Meanwhile libraries close, bookshops go to the wall, and those that survive do so on, well, the celebrity flim-flam, mostly.

At this point, we should stand up and applaud the small independent publisher struggling against the odds to produce real books. I honestly believe (and said so at the festival) they are helping to preserve literature in our age, and without them regional writing would no longer be seen in bound format. Their job is getting even harder now as writers spurned by the big publishers add to the mountain of manuscripts dropping through their letter box, and the bookshops struggle to find space for their titles among the tables and shelves laid out with 3-for-2 promotions. How long can these overworked independents keep going on zero profits?

If there is one light of optimism to hold out in the gloom, it is coming from our computer screens. While I acknowledge that the on-line-retailing revolution has played a large part in the decline of the high street bookshop, and in driving down prices to the detriment of author and publisher, for the aspiring writer there is more to cheer than fear from what is now available to them at fingertip reach on the internet. They can get constructive feedback, good advice, and a chance to move away from the closed doors of the traditional publishers to a new window of opportunity.

Many new writers are buoyed by the reaction of family and friends to their efforts. ‘This is really good – you should try and get it published.’ But what is the objective value of an appraisal by someone bound to us by love and loyalty? And how far can we trust their critical judgement? By joining a writer’s forum on the internet (there are several, easily found) a writer gains access to a network of new ‘friends’ with a mutual interest in sharing feedback. They will not be held back by considerations of love and loyalty from expressing a genuine opinion, often better-informed than those close to us because they usually are or have been in a similar position to the writer. There is a lot of experience and wisdom out there. A word of warning to the thin-skinned: objective criticism can be painful, though forum etiquette will normally keep conversations civil. Feedback from these quarters is usually very constructive, there is also a good deal of general advice on these sites, and they can act as signposts to opportunity.

One site which is garnering favourable reviews (though I have no direct experience of it) is authonomy, which I believe is sponsored by Harper Collins. Here, writers are encouraged to post up drafts of their complete or incomplete manuscripts for others to review. The most popular are listed as top-rated. There are writing tips and other advice to be found on the site. authonomy is visited not only by would-be authors but (allegedly) by agents and publishers too. Certainly there have been instances of authors being published as a consequence of their work appearing first at this site.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the e-book revolution, and specifically publishing in the Kindle format courtesy of Amazon’s digital text platform. For some writers, self-publishing is their preferred route, or the only one left available to them after rejection by the publishers. Always risky, this has proved very costly in the past; but what if all the costs of setting and printing are taken away by the chance of self-publishing an e-book? This is exactly what the Amazon digital text platform does. That completed novel of yours could be available and on sale world-wide within days at no expense but a little time and attention spent converting the manuscript to Kindle format. Amazon does the final conversion, but the careful writer will read the technical guidelines diligently first, and get advice from yet another forum connected to the site.

So there are reasons to be cheerful even in these pressed times. Good luck with your efforts, whether you are going to take your chances down the traditional route, showcase yourself on authonomy, or try self-publishing to Kindle. Remember, though, especially if you are self-publishing, making your book available to buy is only half of it; just when you’re thinking you have unlocked the door at last, you find yourself in a long, dark tunnel. You know your readers are in there somewhere, but how can you find them? More importantly, how can they find you? We have already discovered there is no magic key. Is there a magic lamp labelled ‘sales and marketing’? Er, no. Or if there is, it takes an awful lot of rubbing to make it work.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The writer's voice

Every fiction writer has to find a particular ‘voice’ for his or her story. There may be several ‘voices’ in the book (most often carried in the dialogue) but there is usually one prevailing voice that carries the narrative.

(An exception that proves the rule: I have just written a short story that alternates between two prevailing voices, but that is fairly unusual.)

More often than not, the ‘voice’ comes from the central character or protagonist of the story. That is especially true (or especially noticeable) if the novel is written in the first person; usually narrated by the central character. Not only do we understand the story is to be told by that character, but is also to be seen through their eyes. (Which can make it awkward when it comes to key scenes where they may not be around, or if it strains credulity that they are around – read Wuthering Heights for some particularly awkward examples.)

But a story that is written in the third person will also usually have a prevailing voice, either one of the characters or a consistent ‘authorial’ voice.

I give myself a challenge with the material I write, because I like to experiment with different genres and different ways of telling stories. So my ‘writer’s voice’ is always changing.

I want to illustrate this by extracts from three very different books of mine. Including the extracts could make this post excessively long, so I have used a show/hide button for each one. If you would like to read or even glance at the extract just click the button and it will appear - click again to hide it. Or you can skip altogether if you prefer.


These stories are written from the point of view of a junior school boy growing up in a northern mining town in the late 1950s. Here's a further ‘voice’ complication: the stories actually come from the narrative voice of a grown man remembering his childhood emotions and experiences. As I'm writing this post on November 5th I have chosen an appropriately seasonal extract.

Extract from Uncle Barney’s Box

Here are some points to note about the 'voice' I use for this extract: it is written in the first person (the same voice is used for all the stories in this collection}; the past tense is used for what we might term 'the set-up' and switches to present tense for describing the action, which should provide more immediacy for the reader; the vocabulary generally avoids dialect terms, except for the use of the odd word, phrase, filler or shortened form (that say ‘North East’ and ‘child’) to colour the ‘voice’ in the narrative as well as the dialogue; all these complexities of voice are designed to work naturally on the audience's inner ear even in silent reading. On this last point, I do a lot of public readings of my work, and this helps to assure me that the 'voice' is coming through, as do the read-alouds I sometimes offer to myself as part of the writing process.

(finished, but not yet published)

This is a historical novel about the railway pioneers George and Robert Stephenson. It is written in the past tense and in the third person, but the prevailing ‘voice’ throughout the novel is Robert (very occasionally and in specific circumstances the 'voice' shifts, along with the point of view, to one of the other characters). A challenge I gave myself in this book, in trying to provide a sense of the times, was to use only vocabulary that was available at the time, though I have tried not to be faux-Georgian or faux-Victorian.

Briefly the context of this extract is: Robert Stephenson, George’s son, is only 19 here. He is in London, shortly before he leaves to go to South America (early 1820s). He has met a fairly well-off and well-educated but decidedly rakish chap called Travis, who is about to introduce him to the delights of an opium den run by a Mr Chung. (It’s a historical fact that Robert smoked opium for most of his adulthood.)

Extract from Mr Stephenson’s Regret

Here are some points to note about the 'voice' I use for this extract: the writing is in the third person, but the reader experiences the scene through the mind and eyes of Robert; past tense is used throughout, but here it might be described as active past tense as the action seems to unfold more or less in real time (no historical summary in this extract); in contrast to the first extract, here we have sentence structure which is much more formal and standardised, even in dialogue; the long, flowing descriptive sentences near the end of the extract are there to aid the sense of Robert's dreaminess.


Another contrast in style, this is my newly-published novel, a contemporary thriller set in an unnamed city in the North East of England. It is written in the first person and mostly in the present tense. The 'voice’ of 11:59 is the central protagonist, Marc Niven, an educated Northerner who is a late night phone-in host on a local commercial radio station.

My challenge in this book was to find a style and language that not only fitted the character, but was appropriate for a story that reaches at times into the city’s underworld. Elsewhere in the novel there are some fairly graphic sex scenes, there are some pretty nasty characters, and (without being gratuitous) the language and attitudes had to fit. (Perhaps appropriately this posting is written in the month that sees the 50th anniversary of the landmark trial of Penguin Books for publishing the allegedly obscene Lady Chatterley's Lover, but relax, there is nothing shocking in the extracts I've chosen.

I am going to provide two extracts from 11:59. First, the opening couple of pages, set in the studio just before midnight. The ‘inciting incident’ occurs here; watch out for it. We also begin to get the measure of the type of character Marc is, or at least we think we do.

Extract I from 11:59: The Opening Scene

Here are some points to note about the 'voice' I use for this extract: we are firmly in the mind of central character Marc, first person present tense; the vocabulary is casual, informal, a tiny bit of technical language to establish the radio studio context and his familiarity with it, some DJ-speak; incomplete sentences; very importantly, lots of internal monologue - we live a lot in Marc's head in this novel, and it's not always an attractive place to be - emphasing his egoism, his sexual preoccupations, underlying sexism, slight coarseness. Did you get the 'inciting incident’? Have I managed to make it credible that Marc missed it while he is distracted with Marni? We later find that his former studio assistant Sam was his former partner, who has left him for a reason left unexplained until much later.

Here is some brief context to the second extract from 11:59: as a consequence of his failure to react to what Hassan says, and because he subsequently tries to cover it up, Marc is suspended, and the story gets into the local paper. Totally disillusioned, he seeks solace in drink in a city centre dive of a pub called The George. In this extract we should recognise he is getting steadily drunker – the language also deteriorates.

Extract 2 from 11:59: Marc gets drunk in The George

The main challenge here was to put across a sense of Marc’s drunknness, not only in his direct speech, but increasingly as the scene unfolds in his descriptions, and his perceptions of what is happening – at the same time, I am tipping the wink to the reader that Marc’s interpretation is (I hope comically) at odds with reality.

It has been my intention, with the help of these extracts from three very different products of my wandering muse, to try and make some sense of what I mean 'the writer's voice'. Let me know if I have succeeded in any degree.