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.

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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.

frosted leaves

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.