author events

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Old brick bridge seen from below

Poetry by Chloe Armstrong

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

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

Chloe’s poems have what’s missing from so much of the poetry – published and unpublished – that I read and despair over: a natural voice that has something to say.

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

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

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

 

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

Dear Thoth,

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

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

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

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

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

eternally yours
BFF Chloe

 

 

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

 

Secrets of the Stars

Lyra is the eyes of the night.
A constellation.

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

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

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

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

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

Grus likes being chased by chickens
across the night sky.

Ursa Major really is aeroplane traffic.

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

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

Church dome w/ circle skylight

Writing and teaching: a series of resources

 Over on www.alexiacasale.com I’m starting a new project to create a collection of free online resources, involving a range of authors, about the links between writing and teaching. The initial focus will be on author visits to schools, but I’d like to expand eventually to include creative writing and teaching at university level, and also in more informal circumstances, like workshop series in libraries and so forth. I’ve decided to publish the introduction to the series here as well in case anyone’s interested, but the rest will be over on the sister blog, so do check it out if you’re curious!

If you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch (via Twitter @AlexiaCasale or a comment on any part of either blog) if you’d be interested in doing a guest post (more info below).

If you’re a teacher who regularly works with authors, I’d be also be very interested to hear from you: it would be great to gather some guest posts from the other side of the equation.

So there did this all come from and why is it A Good Thing?

Last week I did my first ever school visit as an author. Huge thanks to Uxbridge College (my old school) for having me back to do an AS English Lang. & Lit. lecture!

When I frantically set about researching how author visits work, I quickly realised how little free material is available. There’s not very much for newbies trying to learn the basics: what do I do? What do authors usually do? How do I avoid the PANIC?! There’s also very little for authors who have done school visits but then think, ‘You know, a bit of professional development would be good: I’d like to learn about how other people do it to see if I can get some new ideas to refine my practice.’

There are seminars (NAWE recently had one that sounded brilliant). And there are resources (again, NAWE have a long list) BUT most you have to pay for, with no opportunity to ‘see inside’ to check whether the advice is going to be worth it. And most are written by a single author, so at best you know you’ll be buying one point of view. There are also some good individual posts on individual author websites.  

BTW, do let me know about your favourite existing resources! I’d love to collect some links.

What I have yet to find is a collection of free resources that explores different perspectives. I think this is a pity.

I find this lack particularly surprising as, having spent three years working part-time to qualify as a teacher (PGCHEP – the university-teaching equivalent of a PGCE) and Higher Education Academy Fellow, I was hugely impressed by the central role professional development is accorded in teaching programmes. These programmes aren’t just about qualifying but understanding that you can always improve – and should strive to do so. That’s very attractive to me as a writer as the same principles apply: there is no end point where a writer has perfect mastery of the craft, no matter how brilliant he or she may be.

Just because authors don’t have to be qualified to do school visits – or, indeed, to teach at university or in libraries or other circumstances – doesn’t mean they aren’t committed to doing a good job… and that they don’t need or want opportunities for professional development. And, at the very least, a decent selection of free resources to start with.

(BTW, I am not suggesting here that authors should have to get a qualification to do the sorts of teaching I’m referring to: it wouldn’t be feasible, though I’m sure many would love there to be more courses to go on both to meet others in the same boat and to learn teaching basics. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that most authors feel a responsibility to do their level best at events and it’s important for them to find some help and support without having to pay – at least for the basics.)

Anyway, the plan here is to try to create what I think is missing.

If you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch if you’d be interested in doing a guest post. I am particularly interested to hear from authors who are also school teachers or university tutors/lecturers. As I said above, I’d also love to explore the other side of the coin with some guest posts from the perspective of teachers who regularly work with authors.

Most of the post will fall broadly into the following four broad categories

  • ‘teaching’ events for authors: what authors should know about how books are taught
  • ‘teaching’ events for authors: good practice examples and pratical advice
  • authors who also teach: how your own writing inspires/advances your teaching skills and how your teaching inspires/advances your writing skills
  • authors who also teach: innovative approaches to using professional creative practice in teaching and learning

So that’s the plan and the reasoning behind it!

First post coming soon. The lovely Emma Carroll, author of forthcoming Frost Hollow Hall (Faber & Faber, 3 October 2013), offers a brilliant workshop outline for teaching an English Literature creative writing class on how to write like a Victorian. Fantastic fodder for discussing classics from the Victorian age versus modern historical fiction, as well as getting your students to start dabbling in their own creative historical projects.