Posts Tagged narrative voice

The writer’s persona in the narrative, MFA courses and Englishness – interview at Rain Taxi

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.

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Nail Your Novel – the DH Lawrence way

‘Try to nail something down in a novel,’ said DH Lawrence, ‘and you either kill the novel or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail.’

(This is the first time I’ve come across a quote that put the words ‘nail’ and ‘novel’ together, so I thought it was worth a mention.)

Lawrence was talking about the influence of a story’s narrative voice, and how it has to be deployed with feints and subtlety. By coincidence, I’d just read his short story The Lovely Lady and badly wanted an excuse to talk through why I like it so much. So as the gods seem to be hinting, here we go.

(If you haven’t read it already, it’s here. It’s not that long and I’ll wait for you.)

Ready?

How’s this for an opening?

The Lovely Lady is Pauline. ‘At seventy-two… sometimes mistaken, in the half-light, for thirty…. Only her big grey eyes were a tiny bit prominent… the bluish lids were heavy, as if they ached sometimes with the strain of keeping the eyes beneath them arch and bright.’

Pauline lives with her son, Robert, and her unmarried and distinctly less favoured niece Cecilia: ‘perhaps the only person in the world who …. consciously watched the eyes go haggard and old and tired….. until Robert came home. Then ping! … She really had the secret of everlasting youth… could don her youth again like an eagle.’ How interesting that she only turns this magnetism on for Robert. Never Cecilia. And how creepy.

Here we have characters we recognise by their familiar vanities – and an off-kilter situation. And it’s all accomplished through simple description. First, we’re shown Pauline (most frequently referred to as ‘the lovely lady’) in a way that lets us know how she sees herself. Then we see Cecilia’s view of her. There’s a lot of unrest here; an unstable situation that can’t last. Simple and masterful.

Characters

We don’t get Robert’s point of view. He is a mute adorer of his mother. And anyway this is going to be Cecilia’s story. Cecilia, by the way, is very quickly abbreviated to Ciss, or perhaps I should say reduced as the narrator informs us the diminutive is ‘like a cat spitting’. Tiny details that reinforce her true place. (But we want this to change.)

They all live in a house that is ‘ideal for Aunt Pauline’ – but living death for the other two. That is just as well because they don’t have the confidence to leave. Cecilia is ugly and tongue tied, and Robert, a barrister, is secretly mortified that he can’t earn more than £100 a year, in spite of his best efforts. (Notice the ‘showing’, not ‘telling’ – we don’t get a sentence saying Robert’s an underachiever. We’re shown what that means and how it makes Robert feel.) By day he is at work. When he comes home at night, the old lady keeps him in awe of her beauty and gay conversation.

It doesn’t help that Robert is ‘almost speechless’. Dwell on those words for a moment: ‘almost speechless’. They reach so much further than ‘quiet’.

Psychological hold

The language drums out the unnatural state of this triangle. Ciss intuits that Robert is never comfortable ‘like a soul that has got into the wrong body’. The lovely lady is only seen by candlelight, when she is radiant in antique shawls. She made her fortune dealing in antiques from exotic countries. Are we treading into vampire territory here? Perhaps, but not literally; this is a psychological hold. The lovely lady steals Robert’s youth to keep up the illusion of her own. Meanwhile Ciss is always sent to bed early and can see the confusion seething in his soul.

Longing

‘Every character should want something,’ said Kurt Vonnegut. Ciss wants to marry Robert, but can’t see how to prise him away and fears her dazzling aunt will live for ever – or at least until Robert is a broken husk. Nudging the vampire idea again, but so obliquely. (And she’s Ciss now; never Cecilia. Her status is so insignificant that the narrator doesn’t use her proper name.)

This talk of the supernatural is also storytelling sleight of hand – seeding suggestions for what comes next. One day, Ciss learns something that may give her a means of escape.

From here, the old woman is no longer ‘the lovely lady’, a legendary and exquisite presence. She is Pauline. Not even Aunt Pauline. Ciss has glimpsed the reedy old woman under the brocades.

The relationships thicken

Ciss’s relationship with Robert deepens and she becomes Cecilia again – although he will not break away from his mother.

The final solution is bizarre, poignant and funny, but it works beautifully because of the structures and influences the author has been weaving while we looked the other way. The nailing that was done with the lightest touch.

Thanks for the pic Editor B  

Your turn – let’s talk about The Lovely Lady – or is there another short story you’d like to give an honourable mention to?

The first edition of my newsletter is out now, including useful links and snippets about the next Nail Your Novel book!  You can read it here. And you can find out more about Nail Your Novel, original flavour, here.

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The three ages of becoming a writer

Was writing so easy when you started? If you’re bogged down by all the techniques you don’t know and it’s squashing the life out of your writing, this post is for you

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?

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Pretty, precious, purple – talking prose with Victoria

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…

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Have faith – there is a book at the end of the tunnel

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?

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