aesthetic

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.

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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 and 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.

 

 

 

 

 

bluebell wood

Write where you know

Part of writing ‘what you know’ is writing ‘where you know’.

You can accomplish a huge amount via distance research, but there is no substitute for visiting the place you want to write about. If a place is too far (out of your wallet), then try to visit somewhere similar. You might miss small local nuances but there are quite a lot of similarities between one beech wood and another, or between one heathland marsh and another. Research may be enough to fill in the gaps, provided you have a sense of what facts you need to check.

On fieldtrips, I don’t make many notes about the places I go. Sometimes I draw little (bad) maps. But mostly I take photos. For me, photos are the best form of notes about places, not just in terms of what I saw when I was there but also in terms of what I felt and smelt and heard. With a little thought and practice, it’s quite easy to figure out how to take photos that will trigger your other senses. Just don’t get caught up in taking pretty holiday snaps. Fieldtrip photos are there as a record. Their purpose is to jog your memory. Pretty pictures are great but they’re a separate thing. Make sure you take both when you’re on a fieldtrip. Also, remember to take both close-up detail and long-shots so you have a sense of the lay out and where things are in relation to each other.

The Bone Dragon is set on the Cambridgeshire fens. Roughly. Give or take. Thereabouts. It’s not set in a particular village or town: the place isn’t even given a name. But it is somewhere that could exist. And it’s clearly roughly where it would be if it did.

I lived in Cambridge for more than four years, studying and working, so I know the town very well. Of course Cambridge isn’t the fens, but it’s geographically very close and it has the Backs and a canal stretch and lots of things I have very vivid memories of that are just the same as out in the fens.

Now, I have never spent much time in the fens themselves, but I have visited various parts of them so I know which aspects of Cambridge are the same as out in the wilds. Also, spent a lot of my teens imposing upon my lovely long-suffering auntie and uncle who live in the bit of Essex right by Cambridge (so on the edge of fen country). The areas are relatively similar, especially when you get out into the wetter, wilder places – which I did, since I’ve always loved walking… and exploring every possible path. (What a lovely sewage works I discovered on one such foray!)

When I was writing The Bone Dragon and needed some fresh inspiration, but didn’t have a lot of time, there were two forests nearby with marshy heathland that I could squelch about in. So between my memories of Cambridge, my memories of the Essex wilds near the fens, trips to the fens themselves, and heathland squelchings, I felt I could conjure the ‘where’ of The Bone Dragon into being in my study any time I needed. To what extent I succeeded, I invite you to see for yourself by reading my book (subliminal message: buy my book! buy my book!).

So when I say ‘write where you know’, I don’t mean you can only write about the place you live (or places you’ve lived), but think carefully about whether you would write better if you set your story somewhere you know or somewhere like a place you know. If you’ve no real life experience of a similar place, it will be very hard to build a realistic sense just from research. You probably won’t be able to say very much about the place or you’ll risk straining the reader’s credulity if it’s somewhere they know or like somewhere they know. The tricky thing is cities: many are far more different than first thought would suggest.

If the ‘where’ of your story doesn’t matter very much, it’s easy to write believably so long as you don’t go into much detail. But it’s a pity to lose the depth that setting can bring to a story. If you’ve got believable characters walking around in a grey, blurry world, readers aren’t going to engage as much. And it entirely rules out the possibility of establishing a setting that is almost a character in its own right – something that’s important to me as a writer.

So when you’re starting out with a new idea have a think. Where do you know? Chances are there are a lot of wheres you could write about. Why not pick one of them, or somewhere similar, rather a place/type of place you have no lived experience of at all?

There’s always the temptation to just invent your where, as I did with The Bone Dragon. And that’s fine, but your where has to be plausible for its rough, give-or-take, hereabouts setting. The where of The Bone Dragon may exist only in my head, but if I put a lot of cacti in it I’d have a problem even so. As it is, I couldn’t take you to the specific places Evie and the Dragon visit at night, but I could take you to lots of places that would do just as well. And knowing that gives me a different sense, when I’m in the World of the Book, of actually being in a real place: a place I can step into (if only in my head) and look around for inspiration. It’s a place I can explore whenever I want to because in my head there is a full three-dimensional fenland village that supplies all the sensory input I could possibly need without my having to build it in afresh every time I sit down at my computer.

My new book is set in Cambridge, but down the line there will be books set in a beech wood and books set in a version of rural Italy and books set in London… I have a lot of wheres to draw on. If you think about it, you’ll probably find that you do too.

 

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Photography and Creative Writing

Hopefully I’ll be able to share my super-exciting (at least to me) news about The Bone Dragon soon, but in the meantime I thought I’d do a post on a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot recently: whenever I plan a writing workshop, I often start thinking about how to use images… This may seem completely counter-intuitive but, for me, makes perfect sense.

I think it’s because I’m a very visual writer. I write books as if I’m creating a film, which is probably why I’m finding the transition into writing screenplay treatments far easier than I thought it would be (though, to be fair, it’s early days!).

Writing, for me, is about immersing myself in the world so that I actually *see* the place where the characters are around me. I can touch what is around them. The weather is their weather, the season their season. I write dialogue by being inside the character who is speaking and seeing what comes out (or what doesn’t when the writing is going badly). That’s just how it is for me. The ‘words’ bit comes in as I try to put down the most important parts of experiencing the world and life of the story.

You could write a whole book about what people think, feel, see, smell, etc. in one minute of one day. It might well be an enormously boring book, but you probably wouldn’t run short of content. Experience is so enormous… Which means that writing is very much a filtering and selecting process. I write as if I’m in a movie but, just like when filming, what I’m really capturing is a series of still images running one after the other. Individually, each is like a photograph.

So how do I decide what to put into words? It’s probably easiest to talk about description in this regard as this is where the process simplest. When writing description, I try to put down an image-in-words that captures my aesthetic: what I think is beautiful and interesting. I don’t try to be unique, though I do try to focus on what is different from my aesthetic and other people’s.

I also think about both what could be captured better in a photo and what can’t be captured in a still image at all. If a picture would say it better, should you really try to write 1000 words that won’t be as compelling? Why not look for the thing within the story that couldn’t be captured effectively as an image? Let the reader imagine the photograph stills that work as pure images: let them see their own version. Instead, write the images that don’t work as photographic still: those are the ones readers can’t come to for themselves. Those are the ones that you, as the writer, must give them.

Ultimately, the reason I start thinking of images when planning a writing workshop is that they give people an insight into their own aesthetic that is simpler to break down than 1000 words of their own prose or poetry. This, in turn, gives a window into thinking about voice and all the things that make writers unique.

Voice isn’t just a matter of narrative style or vocabularly… It should imbue every aspect of a book. But that’s a pretty tall order for any writing workshop. Starting from images lets people focus on the still photographs that make up the ‘movie’ of the book that runs in the reader’s imagination. It let’s you take things step by step and part by part. And that’s always a good place to start when learning.