Posts Tagged narrative voice
How much should a writer’s personality show in a book? Some authors keep themselves out of the narrative voice, even in a personal book such as a memoir. Others colour every page with their sensibilities and personality, even if they’re writing fiction. This is just one of the questions I’m discussing today in the literary magazine Rain Taxi.
You might recognise my interviewer – Garry Craig Powell, who has been a guest on The Undercover Soundtrack (he put Phil Collins songs to unforgettable and cheeky use). Garry has also taught creative writing at university level, so that’s another discussion we have – are these courses useful, necessary, a hindrance, something else? What about journalism – when is that a good start for a fiction author?
And then there’s Englishness. What is that? Well, it could be a quality of restraint – when saying less means more. It might also be a sense of Elysian yearning for an emblematically romantic world, including the tradition of stories about remarkable houses. We’re trying to thrash it out. Do come over, and bring tea.
I used to take singing lessons. I’d always loved belting out a tune, and being rather a perfectionist I wanted to do it well. I sailed through the basics and was sent to an advanced teacher. Then the trouble started. She had been a child prodigy and had been coached, much like a Russian gymnast, to do nothing but her art. So she was entirely intolerant of imperfection.
I’d open my mouth and she’d say ‘your tongue’s in the wrong place’. And I hadn’t even made a sound. Tongues, by the way, are not just the flappy thing you can see. They go all the way down your throat and have to be kept flat. Pretty soon I was so bamboozled by the invisible anatomy that had to be under conscious control that I couldn’t sing at all. Not even a good holler in the bath, because I had a weight of bad habits to eradicate. What used to be so natural became impossible.
I stopped. Gradually the desire to sing came back. I started experimenting with the techniques she’d tried to din into me. I built a singing technique for myself, enjoyed making musical noise again, fortified (and amplified) with what I understood. Now, as friends will attest, just don’t let me start.
The uncomfortable second age
I meet a lot of writers who are flailing in that uncomfortable middle area. They began with ideas to express, stories to tell and a joy of playing on the page. Then they learned how many undesirable habits they had and how much they needed to unlearn. Making a scene instead of summarising. Structuring properly. Making our heroes heroic and believable. Not using adverbs. Thousands of criticisms that tell them they know nothing about the activity that used to bring them joy. Pretty soon, they aren’t trusting any of their instincts – or even letting them speak at all. Or they’ve lost faith in the book they’re writing.
It’s no wonder we hear people worrying that by learning craft they’re becoming robots obeying a formula.
The third age
But if we carry on, we come out into the third stage. One day, we find we’re kicking back and writing as ourselves again. We’re not thinking about rules any more. They’re not strictures into which we are trying to fit. They are tools we are going to use in our own way to make our individual novels. We know them as well as we know our mother tongue.
And, tongues notwithstanding, we’re singing on the page again.
Thank you, pink_fish13, for the picture.
I’ve said there are three stages to becoming a writer. Perhaps there are more. What do you think?
What makes good writing? Victoria Mixon and I are fearlessly grappling with this question in this week’s editor chat, over at her wood-panelled lacy writing nest. Highlight? Victoria threatens to shave her head and move to Tibet Om your way over and see if you can stop her…
Two weeks ago I dotted the last pixel on my novel Lifeform Three and now it’s got an agent who loves it. Phew.
A few months ago no one would have loved this book. Not even me. Although occasionally scenes and characters would flash a winning smile, there was so much that remained wrong with it. And I’d already been working on it for much of the year.
I have had to drill virtually to the Earth’s core to find out what the story in this idea was. Then I had to work out the very best way it should be told. I have pulled it and punched it until it has revealed its themes and I have sweated over how to explore all that without bludgeoning the reader, being saccharine or vastly obscure.
I have refined every metaphor, analysed every action and reaction, listened to every niggling symptom that something is not right. I have put that book on the psychiatrist’s couch and had endless discussions with it about what needs to change, whether characters are pulling their weight, whether we should let go of a scene I’d always cherished. I have been prodded back to the drawing board by every good film I’ve seen or great book I’ve read. Even the bad books seemed to be doing a better job than I was. The beginning has had more corrective surgery than Michael Jackson.
Finding the right voice was an ordeal all of its own. I’ve gritted my teeth at every respected blogger who said don’t use present tense, because for this book present tense always felt the most natural way to tell the story. I’ve gritted at every post that warned about intruding narrators. I’ve needed a narrator who could place a cosy humanity around bleak events and get away with jokes that the main character would never be able to make himself.
For more than a year it seemed as though Lifeform Three was born damaged and has had to be nurtured, massaged, corrected, restrained, disciplined, until it was fit to stand up on its own, walk into an agent’s inbox and say ‘read me’. Of course, there are still a few notes to come about niggles and clarifications, but it substantially does exactly what I wanted when the idea first grabbed me. And more.
And do you know what? This is what it takes to get a novel right. This is normal.
This is why writing is not just about the first draft. It’s why revising is not just correcting your spellings or twiddling with your literary expressions. This is why the hard work is the ruthless and endless rewriting, the questions we ask about what we are really writing about, the demands we make of ourselves to do better. This is why it takes so long.
And now, I start another. I write this post to help me through the storms ahead and for anyone else currently trapped by a difficult book. This is what it takes to do the job.
Where are you with your WIP? First draft, second, umpteenth?