Sitting down today to start a series of blogs on elements of writing, I struggled to know what to label it. I thought about ‘writing advice’ or ‘writing tips’ but those terms didn’t sit comfortably with me. I thought about why this was and decided it’s because I don’t see myself as a writing ‘expert’ and nor, I imagine, shall I ever do. Writing for me is always a struggle (a hugely fulfilling one, but still a struggle!) If I don’t feel like I’m struggling as I write, then I know I’m probably not doing the best writing I’m capable of. I’ve written five novels now – six if you count the one I had to ditch at about 60,000 words because it wasn’t working (couldn’t get the voice!) And at no point have I felt like, this is getting easier, I’ve so got the hang of this now! It’s more that you just get used to how it feels, you’re expecting The Fear when it comes to grab you around the throat at about 40,000 words in; you’re not surprised by it anymore, by what an almighty slog it all is.
So, in this vein, I invite you to think of anything I write about in this blog, on this website whether that be me writing about structuring a novel, creating characters or how I do stuff, as me sharing my experience (usually an incredibly messy and organic one) of finding what works for me.
Most writers I know (including myself) can’t get enough of hearing about other writers’ processes – it’s kind of a fetish we share (oooh, you use post it notes like that? Oooh, you write the ending first?) It makes us feel less alone in our daily word-wrangling, so if you only get that from this, then that’s something.
If I had to choose one element of the writing craft that’s most important to me, that gives me, as a writer and a reader, the most returns, then it would have to be voice. Whether that be the narrator’s voice, or the characters’ voices (intertwined and possibly interchangeable, I shall get onto this later), I think voice is what gives energy, personality and memorability to a book; it’s what elevates the reading experience (whether reading back words I’ve written or those of another author) from a flat one, to a kind of 3D visceral one, so that I’m not just seeing the words and story unfold, but hearing them, watching them, feeling them. I can tell within a paragraph whether I’m going to engage with the voice of the narrator in a book I’m reading, and I try to bear this in mind, when writing myself.
People talk of ‘developing your voice as a writer’ but is this the voice of you, the storyteller, or that of the characters? I would argue that they’re intertwined. The characters you choose and are drawn to (for me it seems to be northern women on the edge – say no more!) and the versions of the world that you choose to reveal through their eyes, all come from YOU at the end of the day, so they all make up your writing ‘voice’. Finding my writing voice involved a lot of experimentation; of writing lots and lots to see what situations I was naturally drawn to, what stories I wanted to tell, what things my characters found funny or interesting or sad, what kind of worlds I ended up painting with words. What my fiction felt like, to write and read. A word of encouragement then: Even though every time I begin a new book, it feels as hard and overwhelming as the first time I did it, one thing I AM gaining more confidence in, is my voice. I know it may take time, but that it will come through in the end. If I can just – in the words of Wilson Phillips – hold on.
The other reason voice is so important to me, and why I spend such a long time working on the voices of my characters to make them as unique and distinct as I can, is that it makes my job so much easier when I’ve got them. Before I can hear a character’s voice in my head, and I mean literally the accent, the tone, the cadence and the speed at which they talk – then I can’t write them. It’ doesn’t flow. Nothing sticks. I could be copying the words out of a dictionary. Basically before I can hear their voice, I can’t be sure of their wants and desires, their moods and motivations – probably because without their distinct voice talking to me, inside my head, they’re not real to me.
I think I’ve developed a kind of process; a process I follow that leads me to that voice, and provides a ‘way in’ to that character and their story. Occasionally, it does just arrive in my head one day and that’s wonderful, but rare. Usually, I have to excavate it, investigate, experiment, write lots, think lots and eventually it’s like – aha! That’s what he / she sounds like; that’s who they are.
That process, very loosely, is this:
- At the beginning, I have a rough idea of what part the character needs to play in (a very rough!) storyline. This is usually about the ‘message’ I need them to deliver – the point of them, if you like. Their purpose. For example, in the book I am just finishing now, I have a 10 year old boy character, whom I knew from the outset, needed to show the adult characters around him, the way forward; he needed, through a child’s eyes, to teach them something about how to live.
- Once I know this, then I start to imagine what someone like this, with these qualities and this purpose in (my book’s) life they might look like.
- Often the face and appearance come before the sound of their voice, but mostly they emerge at the same time. It’s a bit like: blurry face + muffled voice, plus lots of experimenting with writing scenes, slowly becomes clear face and crisp, pitch-perfect voice that when I close my eyes, I can hear. (I often write with earplugs in – no music – just so I can tune into the voices of my characters as much as possible, and out of the world around me, as much as possible.)
- I find it really helpful to literally choose a face – maybe an actor that I’d cast in that role, or a friend’s face, or more often than not, a total stranger’s face – some friend of a friend of a friend on Facebook (sorry) that for me, epitomizes my character and put that picture on my desktop.
You’d probably be alarmed and bemused to see the selection of faces on my desktop right now – maybe yours is there! (Joking. Sort of). It may be weird but I don’t really care, because this technique helps me immeasurably. When I look at my character’s face, I can immediately hear their voice and am able to write much more authentically and fluidly, so that the struggle is still a struggle, but a much more enjoyable one!