Develop Your Voice
Develop Your Voice
Need some help deciding how to tell your story? Stella Duffy, author of Eating Cake and Immaculate Conceit, provides a whistle-stop guide to the process of finding your own personal writing style. In this session you’ll cover:
Style: The Voices Within
Genre: The Voices Without
Pitching Your Voice
Building Your Repetoire
Publishing: Getting Your Voice Heard
Finding Your Voice
Style: The Voices Within
First thing. Ask yourself; is there something you actually want to say? A story you’re burning to tell? Or are you writing because it might be a nice career move and you want a job where you don’t have to get the train into work every morning? It’s way harder to write if you just fancy a different life. Having a story you really want to tell makes it so much easier when you get to the boring bits. (And there are always boring bits, no matter what your occupation!) Ok, let’s assume you do and decide how that story needs to come out.
Second thing. What do you like reading, watching, listening to? Honestly. Not what do you think you ought to like, but what do you really like? Often when I’m teaching people say they want to write literary fiction but what they actually read is crime fiction or chick-lit. If you can’t get over your genre snobbery, you can’t expect your audience to do so.
Next up. Book? Movie or TV script? Play script? Poem? Radio 4 Afternoon Play? Article? Short story? Some ideas are better suited to one form than another, some forms may fulfil a function others don’t. If you want to write the true story of your uncle’s escape from Colditz then you’re looking at a non-fiction piece, article maybe, or full non-fiction book. But maybe you want to embellish the story, intercut it with a modern story that underlines some of themes of your uncle’s true story. So that’s a novel then, or a short story if you don’t think there’s that much material. Or maybe it’s a movie? I can’t tell you which form is right for your idea. No-one can. What I can tell you is that the first form you think of may not be the easiest for you to work in, or the easiest for you to write.
Play around with form: experiment. Do you prefer to write dialogue (TV/play) or narrative (book/story)? Do you see the idea purely in pictures (movie) or totally in recorded accounts (non-fiction radio maybe). The best thing you can do is be open to where your idea may take you. And if you always watch TV and haven’t picked up a book since you were at school, then maybe the novel form isn’t for you at the moment. Maybe you’re better suited to writing a TV idea, because at least you know what that looks like!
People often decide to start with a short story. They think because it’s shorter it’s automatically easier, which is not necessarily so. Good short stories work specifically because they contain so much in such a small space. Because with deftness and precision the author creates a mood, a feeling, a situation, and conveys both action and emotion in the sparest possible manner. They are also, at the moment in Britain, very hard to sell. Many of the traditional women’s magazine markets have closed down and few publishers are willing to try to market a short story collection. Just something to think about when choosing your form – more on selling it later.
Genre: The Voices Without
Here’s my theory. (And it’s only a theory and it’s only mine so it’s not going to do you much good quoting it in a thesis, but …) I think fiction can generally be divided into three branches:
1. Genre fiction (crime, romance, historical, etc…) anything where the reader more or less knows the tone of the piece they’re buying into before they start reading. In genre fiction the plot is generally the most important aspect. What happens, how it happens, when it happens. The writer may take the traditional genre and subvert it in various ways – telling the reader ‘whodunit’ at the start and then spending the novel revealing ‘whydunit’ (I’ve done this in two of my crime novels) – but there’s always a ‘dunit’.
2. Commercial fiction (chick-lit, lad-lit, mummy-lit) – basically anything the newspaper book pages have labelled ‘lit’. In commercial fiction the character is the guiding light. Character journey, character flaws, character attributes are what carry the reader these novels. And yes, Bridget Jones is probably the best example. Though Tom Jones (the novel, not the singer!) is a pretty good example too.
3. Literary fiction (the ‘posh’ books on the Booker and Orange and Whitbread long lists) where writing style is as important as content.
Of course there are crossovers. A good novel writer needs to have elements of each of the three attributes listed above. The most successful crime novelists (Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham for example) take their writing style as seriously as they do their plots. The best chick-lit novels (Lisa Jewell, Jenny Colgan, Sophie Kinsella) combine clear and compelling characters with fine individual style. And some of the most successful recent literary novels have taut ‘genre’ plots – Ian McEwans’ Atonement can be read as a crime novel and a romance, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith is both crime and historical in genre terms.
What’s really useful is to know what you think you’re writing. How the piece is seen in the writer’s head is often very different to how it’s perceived once it’s sold. Wuthering Heights may well be a prime example of fine British literary fiction, but with the right cover and embossed gold lettering it’s also a sexy, bonkbuster, historical, bodice-ripping romance. And a ghost story. And a revenge tragedy. Once the marketing and sales people have got their hands on it, once the designer has given you a cover, and once the reviewers have firmly placed you in whatever category their pages allow, your book may not be the one you always thought you were writing. But at least making some decisions about it before you start gives you something to hold on to during those long dark nights of re-writing…
Pitching Your Voice
Who is your reader or your audience? Are they you? It probably helps if they are – but if not, how well do you know your reader? Who do you want to read your book? You might not know the answer to these questions when you start the book, but hopefully by the time you’ve completed your first draft you’ll know a little more about what you’re working on, what story you’re really telling. Then you’ll know if you want to go back and look at the language and style you’re using. Sometimes it takes finishing and starting again to know what you’re doing. Other times you just get lucky and it all comes out perfectly first time around. The only way you’ll know though, is to get on with it, right?
Who’s telling the story (i.e., the voice of a character/anonymous narrator vs. your own authorial voice)? You’re writing it, but are you telling it, too? Unless you’re Will Self or Julie Burchill there’s a good chance the reader simply wants to read your story – not your opinions. Self and Burchill have columns for that sort of thing anyway! Of course you need to find your own authentic voice and you will have strong feelings about your subjects, but above all you have a duty to tell a story. We’re human beings, we love stories. Let your authorial voice intrude all you want, but know that every time you do so, your reader will wonder why you’re there. You’ll need to have brought a good point with you. Otherwise stay out of it and let the story speak for itself. As theatre director Lee Simpson succinctly puts it: ‘Include feeling, exclude opinion.’
How long is a book? Pieces of string spring to mind, but the average novel is somewhere between two and three hundred pages. Though publishers tend to count in words not pages. So that’s somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 words: double or 1.5 spaced, A4 pages, most importantly, typed!!!
Even if you were writing rubbish, it takes time to write out the 70,000 words of a novel or 120 pages of film script. Which is why you need to care about your subject, not just want to do it because you’ve read about all those huge advances. I don’t mean care as in believe with your heart and soul (though that might be nice), I mean care as in enjoy what you’re doing. You must want to keep doing it – even if you do have a full time job and three kids and can only get to a borrowed laptop two hours a week. In fact, if this is you, you’re probably ideal writer material – the person who writes despite all the things in the way is much more likely to be able to do it when there aren’t all those excuses available!
Building Your Repertoire
When you’re bored, tired, worried you can’t finish, scared you can’t start, quite often the only way to write is just by getting on with it. Sometimes it is gloriously easy and I write 1000 or even 2000 words in what feels like no time at all. And sometimes I write 200 words in a day. And it takes all day. I don’t believe in writer’s block and I don’t believe in talent. I do believe in the craft of writing and keeping going.
Writing every single one of those 85,000 or so words is also why you need to give yourself time to do it. I don’t mean take three months off to write a novel. Almost everyone I know who is now a writer started by doing it in their spare time – after work, at the weekend, at five in the morning before the kids got up for school. Taking time off to write (especially for a first piece with no commission as yet) only increases the pressure on yourself. You run the risk of being unable to achieve anything once you realise the delights of sitting at home and afternoon TV! Whereas if you give yourself permission to write 400 words or a new scene per night after work, not even looking at it on Saturdays or Sundays, you’ll have finished a first draft within a year. Then you can begin to make it better.
Some people love editing and re-writing, some people hate it. For me it is more than half of the process. But it’s a rare writer who can say, honestly, that their first draft couldn’t do with some improvement.
Some writers write long and detailed outlines before they start work. Some don’t. The one time I tried it, the novel turned out entirely different in the end. Though it was a useful exercise. The process is full of useful exercises – take any one of those plans/plot structures/how-to-write-in-ten-easy-steps lessons in the hundreds of books and courses on the subject. But what they won’t do for you is write the actual words. That’s the bit you always have to do for yourself. Yes, it is like homework and yes, sometimes you will bore yourself. Get over it. Get on with it.
And then at the end, hopefully, you think it’s good. Though truthfully, most writers I know get to a stage in their novel/manuscript/story that they just can’t tell any more. It’s time to ask around. Give your piece to a trusted friend, a mentor maybe. Ask them for their opinion – and then listen to what they have to say. Practice not being defensive. You may not agree with everything they say, but if you fight all their suggestions they’re not going to be eager to help a second time!
Don’t give it to too many people. They will likely all have different views and you’ll only get confused. You could consider sending it to one of the many companies, usually advertised in writing magazines, who will critique your piece for a fee. The only company I know of personally is Cornerstones, so that’s the only one I’m willing to recommend, but I’m sure there are plenty of others, just as good. I’m also sure there are plenty of charlatans. These things are very subjective. Probably your best bet is to show it to a trusted friend first. Be brave, get it out there. And again, be prepared to re-work!
Publishing: Getting Your Voice Heard
Now you’re done, what do you do? Get hold of a copy of the Writers and Artists Yearbook or the Writers’ Handbook (if you don’t want to buy one most libraries will have a copy, and if they don’t ask them to get one!) All the agents are listed in these books. Write to them. Ask if they’d like to see your three chapters and synopsis, or your movie idea, your radio play, etc. Keep it short – no-one has time to read a ten-page synopsis. One page is good, two pages will do, three if you must. Work on the synopsis, don’t just dash it off in half an hour. This is your only pitch.
Fortunately most agents will get back to you and say they would like to see your work, for all they know you might be the Next Big Thing. Have your work ready to send. If they like the taster chapters and synopsis they’ll probably ask to see the rest of the book – so you might want to finish the book (or at least a first draft) before you start writing to agents. Yes, some people sell their first book on the strength of three chapters. Sometimes they sell that first book for loads of money. I personally know someone who did. And I know about another fifty or so writers – all published and well respected – who didn’t.
If you’re lucky and if you’re good, you will then be taken on by an agent and they’ll have the job of selling your book. Yes you do need an agent – unless your Dad’s the MD of a major publishing house. This all works in the same vein if you’re trying to sell a non-fiction piece, an article, a story, a play, etc.
There are just too many would-be writers and not enough people in publishing with the spare time to read through the ‘slush pile’ of unsolicited manuscripts. An agent will get your work seen. To get a good agent, ask them about themselves. Ask them who their clients are, ask the publisher who represents your favourite author, be pro-active, make phone calls. I’d say eighty-five percent of authors go into publishing knowing little or nothing about it. Like any other career, you learn more on the job than you do from classes or courses, and you learn fastest from your mistakes. Things will go wrong. And, surprisingly, they’ll go right.
Runners run, knitters knit, writers write. But then writers send the work out to agents who send it to editors who decide if they want to help you publish it or not. If you’re only writing for your own pleasure that’s fine. But if you do want people to read your work – then you have to get it out to them. And you owe it to yourself to get it out in the best form possible. Editors are very busy. (All those lunches are ever so exhausting!) If the first page doesn’t grab them, you’ve lost your chance.
Don’t depend on editors to help you make it better. They will – if they buy it – but they need to want to work with you in the first place. Publishing is a business – a huge, multi-national business – which suffers like any business does, from downturns in the economy to swift and painful staff cutbacks. You think your book is your life and your art. Publishers, quite rightly given the price of books, see it as product. Somewhere in between is where the magic happens. Don’t be too fast, don’t be too hasty, do the work, work on the work and then send it out.
Finding Your Voice
In my opinion writing is a craft not an art. You’ll get better with practice. And so will your manuscript. Which is not to say you should re-write it endlessly. Eventually the time comes when you just have to send it out and risk rejection. Failure is part of the game. Whoever achieved greatness without risking some public humiliation in the process?
You will fail. You will make mistakes. You may well write half – or even all – of a book and throw it out and start again. Don’t throw it out really though, not properly deleted-never-to-be-retrieved thrown out. In a few years time, with a little more experience, you might suddenly understand exactly how to re-work those useless 300 pages! That’s what files and cupboards and attics are for. To store the maybe-gold dross!
The thing is, unless you try, unless you give it a truly best shot, with self-editing and re-writing and keeping going and maybe showing a chapter or two to a trusted and wise friend and even actually finishing the thing before you decide you know all about it… well, you’re never going to know, are you?
You might be one of the lucky ones who writes a first book in three months, sells it for loads of money, bangs out one per year thereafter, ideally from a Tuscan villa. Or you might be one of the rest. You don’t know until you’ve tried, but in my opinion it’s way easier to try – and keep trying – because you have a story you want to tell, than because you have a lifestyle you’d like to lead. The fact is you might not sell your book. Lots of people don’t. Not first time round anyway. (Even Harry Potter got rejection slips.) If you’re only in it for the money there’s every chance you’ll be disappointed. If what you want to do is write a book/script/story, then simply finishing it is going to give you a warm glow of satisfaction. And if you’d like to make your living at it, to have a happy medium between wanting to write and wanting to get paid for doing it, then practice in keeping going is incredibly useful.