Posts Tagged writing style

How to find your author voice – interview with Joanna Penn

author voiceHello! I’m slightly late posting this week because I knew I had this waiting. Joanna Penn invited me back to her podcast to thrash out a thorny topic – how to find your author voice.

We discuss what voice is, how to develop it, how character dialogue differs from narrative voice, how authors might adapt their style for different kinds of book, voice considerations for non-fiction, the value of experimenting and – that perennial favourite – why literary fiction might take so darn long to write. Plus side helpings of Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater, so bring a picnic.

You can get it on video, audio download or written transcript – it’s all here.

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Three steps to a smoother writing style

317528561_6f008366a3_zThis week Joanna Penn invited me to her podcast to talk about writing style and voice, which you can see in a few weeks’ time. We got so involved in the subject that we didn’t finish her question list and this point didn’t make the cut. So I thought it would make a useful post.

Joanna asked me to pinpoint a few easy style fixes – so here they are.

1 Ditch the filler words

Look at this:

Paul had told me on the phone during our initial contact that he had been swindled several years before by a man who he had considered to be a friend.

Quite a mouthful for such a simple point. Give me my red pen.

What worries me here is the number of syllables. They slow the sentence in the reader’s mind. Sometimes that’s good, but sometimes those syllables are unnecessary speed bumps. Here goes.

Paul had [told me] said

Yes, there’s a difference between ‘told me’ and ‘said’. But is it important here? I don’t think it is, and I want to get to the main meat about the swindling friend. ‘Said’ will do that faster.

[during] at

No need to say ‘during’. ‘At’ is fine. One syllable saved.

our [initial] first contact

Wow, three syllables in ‘initial’. ‘First’ is just one. But ‘initial’ might fit better with the personality of the writer, character or narrative, so that’s an optional change.

 that [he had] he’d been swindled several years before

Your high school English teacher probably told you contractions had no place in printable English. Ignore her.

by a man [who] he had considered [to be] a friend.

Two more little words that didn’t have to be there.

2 Prune unnecessary detail

[on the phone]

Does it matter whether the statement was made on the phone or in person? Probably not. In any case, this detail is not really noticed when handled like this. If it’s important that the conversation was on the phone, I’d make the point in a separate sentence. So I’m stripping it out of here.

And so we have:

Paul had said at our first contact that he’d been swindled several years before by a man he had considered a friend.

What didn’t I get rid of? The first ‘had’ – as the tense might be relevant. And the ‘that’. Although you can often remove a ‘that’, sometimes they are necessary for the sense. As this one is.

Paul had said at our first contact that he’d been swindled several years before by a man he had considered a friend.

See how much smoother it is? Now you can see the important stuff – about Paul being swindled.

Step 3 –jazz up your verbs

Verbs are your propellant. I was coaching a thriller writer and his main style problem was slow sentences. I showed him this passage from one of his favourite writers, Stephen White. This is from Kill Me. (I’ve emphasised the verbs):

He was leaning forward and gazing over the westbound lanes, his elbows resting on a fence, his right hand pressing a mobile phone to his ear….

Slick verbs can make a long sentence effortless…

I downshifted into third as I zoomed past him and shot toward the upcoming climb with a fresh boost of torque and enough raw power and confidence to soar past anybody or anything that might be blocking my way on the curving ascent ahead.

That’s interesting, isn’t it? Many writers think a fast style comes from short sentences. But long sentences can read speedily too. The verbs drive it.

Notice also that there aren’t any adverbs in these passages. Adverbs aren’t forbidden, but there’s usually a slicker way. If you use an adverb, you add a second step to the thought. Sometimes you want that emphasis, but usually you’re better finding a dynamite verb.

Those 3 steps in summary

1 Cut the unnecessary syllables. Listen to the beat of the sentence. Make every syllable count.

2 Remove unnecessary detail so the point of the sentence can shine.

3 Rock your verbs.

Thanks for the pic, Nicholas A Tonelli on Flickr

Anything to add? Are there any style ‘rules’ you think are useful and any you think are questionable? Are there any you’ve had to ‘unlearn’?

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I wish I’d written… Five novels that make me raise my game

Sometimes I put a book down and am left a tad envious. These are books that, although I finished them several months ago, still make my green eyes … greener.


Night Work Nail Your NovelNight Work by Thomas Glavinic, translated by John Brownjohn
Jonas wakes up one morning to find he is the last person left alive. There are no bodies. No animals or birdsong. He is completely alone. He searches the city, leaves messages everywhere, dials stored numbers in the phones of offices and shops, gets drunk a lot, develops forms of madness and strategies to stop himself feeling so alone.

A lot of people on Goodreads didn’t like it, and I can appreciate their reasons. Basically it’s a book where hardly anything happens. I usually don’t like that either, but this kept me intrigued. I wanted to see what the author would do with the idea, so perhaps my curiosity was metafictional. I found it to be like a dream, an unravelling of everyday life and what could happen if the world breaks. And this is where I think it really works – not as a story, more as an environment to run in your mind. Next time you’re pleasantly alone in a wood, imagine there is only you. Anyway, my review is here.

The Long View Nail Your NovelThe Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard
The portrait of a marriage in five sections. I was drawn to it by when Hilary Mantel said Elizabeth Jane Howard was the novelist she recommends most frequently. I found Howard’s style too muddled for my tastes, especially in the early sections. Infuriatingly so. But there were two things I liked it for very much.

First, the structure. The five eras of the marriage are not presented chronologically, but backwards. I’ve long been a fan of backwards narratives (Ray In Reverse by Daniel Wallace,  The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer ) ever since I read about Peter Ustinov’s play The Banbury Nose, which is the story of an English upper-class family written backwards in time. I’m intrigued by the poignant possibilities of characters growing younger, and perhaps more or less themselves.

In The Long View, Elizabeth Jane Howard uses the backwards narrative to increase the story pressure. Her characters become more accepting with age, but if you wind them backwards they are more raw.
The second reason I’ll forgive her is her central male characters – two immaculately selfish cads who are explored in fine detail and have left many reviewers hopping with indignation. I galloped through the final part, mesmerised by them. My review is here.

Angel - Nail Your NovelAngel by Elizabeth Taylor (not THAT Elizabeth Taylor)
The story of a romantic novelist who is wildly successful but a horror in person (long before Fay Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil. I was drawn to it by a poor film adaptation that made me suspect the original might have a lot more nuance. I was not disappointed. Not only is there nuance, but Elizabeth Taylor is a complete master of pace and tone – able to be humorous, tragic, tender and keep you riveted to the page. It’s also a fun look at the publishing industry (which is why Peter Snell and I devoted one of our radio shows to it ). Here’s my review.


Round The Bend by Nevil Shute
Read the intro on Goodreads and you have a good example of a blurb that smothers the book at birth:round

Okay, here’s what it really is. A beguiling story of love, faith, loss and missed opportunities, told in exquisitely controlled prose. The narration is cool, but somehow agitates you to turbulent emotion. The main setting suits the subject matter like a stage backdrop. It is an airstrip in Bahrain – a stripped-down place of sand, hangars and engines. The main characters hop between the continents, delivering goods, setting up more export bases, leaving behind personnel who spread the influence of their engineer friend Connie Shaklin, who has become a religious guru. Shute would never be so clumsy as to make the comparison with angels, these people who spend so much time in the sky in their machines, but you are drawn to entertain the idea. My review is here.

MASH Nail Your NovelMASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker
You think you know MASH from the film and the movie? Join me in a chorus of ‘the book is better’. Read it for the tone. Richard Hooker has created a style that allows his world to be both hilarious and haunted – the characters are raising hell, but also repairing the sad ravages of it.
My review is here.

Over to you. What books (fiction or non-fiction) have you recently read that challenge you to do better?

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How to write well in a language that isn’t your mother tongue

I’ve had this interesting email:

Since January this year, I’ve been attending writing workshops, and my novel is progressing well. But English isn’t my first language, and I don’t do any creative writing in my day job. I feel I’m struggling. My priority is quality, and I think I need expert help. Should I get an editor? What do you advise? Maria.

babel fish

It’s clear that Maria can express herself fluently – to the extent that she can work in a foreign country. (Certainly not something I could do.) So what’s missing?

I think Maria has already intuited it, which is why she feels stuck. She doesn’t yet have the flair that a fiction reader will be looking for.

Skills, craft and style

I think Maria’s off to a good start, developing her critical skills and craft at writing workshops. But this probably isn’t addressing her writing style.

Funnily enough, she’s in the opposite situation of most writers. The majority concentrate on honing their language and sentences, and have to be taught about the invisible mechanisms that make a novel work – characters, structure, pace etc. Here’s a post about that from my Guardian masterclasses.

It’s as if the machinery of a book and its language belong in separate mental departments. Indeed, I once had a ghostwriting assignment to rewrite a memoir by an expat who could no longer express herself in her original tongue. My role was to restore her to publishable English.

So, Maria, I wouldn’t worry about getting an editor yet. I think you could do a lot if you read authors in your chosen genre and study their styles. Develop your ear and your eye; notice how word choice and sentence structure makes you feel excitement, or tension, or fear or tenderness. The authors aren’t just writing what happens; they are performing the story with every syllable.

Spend a few months with this as your mission. Then go back to your manuscript – and you’re sure to find ways to express the story more stylishly. You could also try writing in your original language and translate as a separate revision phase. This might let you explore finer nuances, which you can then search for in English.

Not just literary

Are you wondering if language is a consideration only for literary fiction? Not so. The best genre writers also have to be deft and dazzling. Look at the verve in the verbs of a thriller writer. Look at the meaning and menace in the sparse dialogue of a noir. Look at the warmth and propriety in a cosy mystery.

Also beware

Here’s another set of alerts. Notice which words and sentence constructions may be funny, or push the reader away. Use them only if you intend that effect. Writers who are still learning to control their voice often produce passages that sound unfortunately humorous, ponderous, melodramatic or detached. Even when their native language is English.


This method I’m proposing is not fast, but it will get Maria to a good place eventually. Here are some other posts that will help.
Reading like a writer, and a discussion on the same topic in an episode of my radio show.
How to develop something special in your writing.
Maria also mentions that her day job doesn’t give her much opportunity for creative writing, but there probably isn’t a day job that would give you the style you need to write fiction well. Here’s a post where I talk about that a little more.

Babel fish pic from Hitch Hiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, courtesy of Jonathan Davies on Flickr

What would you say to Maria? Are you writing in a language that isn’t your mother tongue? Whether you are or you aren’t, how have you developed your style?

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Quirky tales and the difficulty of leaving a book behind: My Memories of a Future Life featured at Triskele Books

triskeleJW Hicks collects writers of quirky books, and I’m honoured she’s chosen me for her collection on the fab blog of the Triskele Books collective. (You might recognise Jane as a recent guest on The Undercover Soundtrack with her novel Rats.) She’s prised me out of my writing cage to answer questions on whether I start with characters or plot, what ghostwriting does to your writing style, how I keep track of ideas, and whether I worry the ideas will dry up. (In fact, I confess to acute separation anxiety when I finish a book. I don’t want to leave it. Does anyone else get that?)

Anyway, it’s all there at Triskele – you can get there with a hop, a skip or a tricycle .… or you could ask a soothing voice to guide you there in a dreamy state. At your own risk, of course.

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Novels aren’t movies – how to handle passage of time in prose

nail your novel passage of timeDo you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Many of us do. While certain principles translate well between the two story media, others don’t.

I’ve already discussed a few general points in a previous post – scenes with a lot of characters and shifting point of view  , dialogue   and description. Today I’m going to look at passage of time (modelled here by Dave).

When is it?

One of the key questions when we come into any scene is this: when is it happening?

Movies and prose handle this in different ways.

Suppose your story features a man who’s refurbishing a derelict bar. In a movie, it’s shown with a sequence of scenes. In one, he is getting to work, pulling old cupboards off the walls and uprooting obsolete appliances. In the next scene, it’s clean, the floorboards are sanded and he’s opening for business.

Because film is an external storytelling medium (we watch it from the outside) we accept that this cut is telling us several days or weeks have passed. We know we don’t stay with the characters for every second of their experience.

But in prose, a cut like this might feel too abrupt. Because prose is internal, and we walk in the characters’ shoes, a sudden jump in time can feel like too much of a lurch. We need a linking sentence or two to ease the way, drawing attention to what’s changed. Many writers who are weaned on movies leave these details out.

A sense of time

As well as evidence that time has passed, we also need a sense of it passing. If you have other characters or storylines, you can cut away to them, then return to your bar, which is now finished. This might create the gap you need.

But if your story follows just one character, you need to create the passage of time in your narration.

If we watch a movie we’ll do this ourselves. We’ll assume the character spent a week or a month working on the bar non stop. In prose, we need you to add this element, even if it’s only two lines, saying ‘I had no time to worry about anything. I was sanding, sawing, painting, ordering crockery. I flopped into bed at night and rose with the dawn.’ Indeed this is the prose version of the movie technique of condensing a sequence of events into a montage. (See, there are some techniques that translate well!)

Filling gaps

Prose fiction has to fill more gaps than a movie does. In prose, we need to keep the connection with the reader’s mind, rather than chopping the experience into pieces.

What examples of passage of time have you liked – both in movies and in prose? Let’s discuss!

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Novels aren’t movies – how to write great description in prose

5825834776_163ed4881c_bDo you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Many of us do. While certain principles can be learned well from both media, others can’t.
I’ve already discussed a few points in previous posts – scenes with a lot of characters, short, choppy scenes and point of view and dialogue. Today I’m going to look at description.

Description in prose aims to give the reader an experience. It fills in the specifics. Description in scripts or screenplays – and novels by writers who don’t read a lot of prose – is often labels or generics. Let me show you what I mean.

The writer who is more tuned to movies might describe ‘1970s furniture’, or ‘a battered car’. But a great description in prose will talk about the chair shaped like a giant egg, the Toyota with a mismatched door and an unlevel fender.

The movie-fan’s description of a person might be ‘a man in his 60s’, or ‘a well-preserved lady’.

But what does that look like? In prose, it’s the writer’s job to show us – and not just the physical basics of blue eyes, age or a dapper dress sense.

A great piece of prose description will put the person in the room with you, with expressions and impressions that give them life.
Here’s John le Carre from A Small Town in Germany:
Bradfield was a hard-built, self-denying man, thin-boned and well preserved, of that age and generation which can do with very little sleep. *

A writer who doesn’t get a steady diet of prose tends to describe a street as ‘rough’ or ‘average-looking’ or ‘smart’. They might use place names, such as ‘Fenchurch Street’ or ‘Friedrichstrasse’. These names do add a certain atmosphere, but they are little more than labels. They don’t create the experience for the reader.

You need to identify what you want the reader to conclude about the street – and supply the specific details that will let them conclude it. The rough street might have overturned dustbins or litter on a balding patch of grass. The smart one might have front doors painted in expensive shades of sludge. If you want an ‘average’ street, decide what makes the street average and describe that.

That doesn’t mean you can’t also observe that it is ‘average’ – indeed, it might suit the personality of the narrative to add a judgement. But you have to qualify what ‘average’ is. My idea of average won’t be the same as yours – and might not suit your narrative at all.

Versatility of prose
And indeed, prose description can do more than just tell us what’s there. If you’re showing the weather, you can use it to add atmosphere – it can be like music to underline a mood. If you’re writing a description of a person from a character’s point of view, show what jumps out at them, and use it to illuminate their personality or situation. Perhaps he is meeting his girlfriend again after spending time away. Is it like seeing a tunnel back to their old life? Is she less glamorous than he imagined because he’s now moved on? Is she a poignant blast of comfort, showing how lost he now feels?

What’s in your head? Put that on the page
Many writers who make this mistake usually have an impression in their mind’s eye. So you have to make sure to put it into the reader’s imagination. Examine what you want them to see, and write it.

nyn2 2014 sml*There’s a longer discussion of this point in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2
Thanks for the pic Daniela Vladimirova

Let’s discuss! do you find it tricky to write good description? Do you have any tips that helped you?

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Find the style that fits the story – Jose Saramago’s Blindness

blindnessI’m reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness, and its style is rather striking. It’s an omniscient narrator hopping between a lot of heads. The dialogue is run into the rest of the prose, with no punctuation to distinguish it from the rest of the prose. Yes, no quote marks. Not even a dash. Sometimes the dialogue has no tags to tell us who’s speaking – or indeed that it is speech. When the characters speak, it’s not even presented in separate sentences, let alone paragraphed.

A typical spread looks like this

blin2 001

Dense, long paragraphs. Rather offputting, isn’t it? It looks like the book will be a horrendous muddle and heavy going. Dave – who will give most styles a fair crack – tossed it down in disgust, muttering about pretentious gimmicks.

It’s certainly risky to mess with the conventions of dialogue. I frequently see novice manuscripts where all the dialogue is reported. This creates a distanced effect, as if no one in the book is really alive. It also creates a dense block of text that – as you can see – looks forbidding to the eye (although not many writers take it to the lengths Saramago has). But Blindness is enhanced by this style. Let’s look at why.

The society is the focus While there are certain characters who are central, Saramago’s interest is an event that breaks the normal structures of civilisation. The omniscient view and the technique of running the dialogue together in long sentences builds on this. It means they are part of a bigger picture. The focus can be on anyone – the person whose actions are the most interesting or urgent to watch at a given moment.

The main characters become more vulnerable There are key characters, and this style creates a sense that they are more fragile. In any story that follows just a few viewpoints, we’re aware that most of them must continue as consciousnesses until the end of the book. In the dangerous world of this story, anyone could vanish and the world will go on being narrated. So the threat to them is more real.

Nothing is confusing Despite the unconventional presentation, you can usually tell who’s talking. Where you can’t, it’s either not important – or the point is to experience confusion.

41L5A0POlkL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU02_It’s set up carefully All stories have to introduce the reader to the rules of the world, and any quirks of the style. Saramago starts as he means to go on, tuning you in so you look carefully at the prose to see if someone’s talking and who it is.

He doesn’t throw us into this many-voiced chorus straight away. The first few chapters follow a limited cast, so we get to know them. This gives us figures who are anchors in the later chapters – if they survive. He assembles a large cast quite quickly, but they are connected with these originals by the establishing scenes so it’s easy to remember who’s who.

There is also a consistency of style, although this may not consciously be noticed by the reader. One paragraph – which may go on for many pages – is a scene.

The story has momentum The style may be unorthodox, but he’s keeping the story moving. Curiosity pulls us along. The stakes keep building, the situation is running further out of control. We keep reading to find where it is going.

I haven’t read very far so I’m looking forward to even more interesting effects, but my final point is this. The run-on presentation with few traditional markers is like hearing a lot of voices and being unable to tell who is who. Isn’t that like being struck blind? It is also panicky, as though things are happening too fast to take proper note of them. It feels out of control (although the writer is tightly in command). You might even say it’s breaking convention as the society of the book is disintegrating. It makes the characters disturbingly into a herd, stripping them of individuality. This clever style choice reflects the experience of the sighted people, who have quarantined the blind people for fear they will catch it. We are at once seeing the story two ways.

This style is creating and amplifying the experience of the world. Wow.

No spoilers, please, as I want to discover the book’s surprises in the proper way… but let’s talk about styles. Have you read a novel with an apparently challenging style that enhances the material?

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Five tips for writing good prose – post at Multi-Story

multiWhatever kind of fiction we write, most of us want to give our prose that extra flair and sparkle. How do we learn to do that? How casual can we be while still looking ‘correct’? When is prose powerfully poetic and when is it purple, stodgy and even ridiculous?

Today I’m at, exploring what makes an effective prose style – and the knots we can get ourselves into as we try to develop it. Do come over.


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How do I develop something special in my writing?

special in writingI’ve had this great question from Lindsey Maguire:

I’m a 15-year-old high school student whose biggest dream is to be a writer. I’m a good writer, but there’s nothing special about my writing. I was wondering how I could start to practise my skills and to become better over time? How did you start off? Also, I have absolutely no idea how to start a novel, even though I’ve tried for years🙂

What a lovely question. Let’s tackle it in stages.

It can’t be rushed

First of all, don’t be in a hurry. Styles don’t develop overnight. They soak into you from your reading. Which leads me to…

What are you reading?

You also mentioned in your email that you read a lot, but how varied is your diet? Are you sticking to just a few genres, eras, styles of writing? These will colour the way you express yourself and may limit you if you don’t cast the net as wide as possible.

As well as fiction, read poetry, and notice how words are more than just their literal meaning. Become fussy about nuance, moods, resonances, flavours; the mischief in ‘twinkle’ versus the hard edge of its cousin ‘glitter’. Relish the variety our language gives you.

Learn what you are made of

So how will you be distinctive?

Like analysing a compound in a chemistry lab, we learn what we’re made of from the things we react to.

What are the styles you like and why do you like them? Ditto for themes, characters, settings. Do you like the unconventional? Is there a genre that pushes your buttons (I’ll include literary fiction here for the sake of argument)? These will become part of your writerly signature.

When you’re with friends, notice what’s distinctive about the way they talk and think. How is that different from you?

Here’s another point. What do you want to do to readers? Unsettle them, amuse them, tie their brains in knots, awaken their political awareness, warm their hearts, chill their marrow, stir them with ambiguities, distil the human experience, resolve their troubles? All of these? These intentions – whether in an article, short story or a book – will be a hallmark of your style.

Try lots of ideas

Every now and again you’ll discover someone who blows a hole through your idea of what good writing is. Let it tenderise you to new influences; soak it up and see what it shows you. Try to emulate it, if you’re so inclined. It doesn’t mean you were wrong until this moment. Mimic their rhythms, their sentence structure, the types of things they would notice. Enjoy the workout. After a while your new passion will wear off and you’ll regain a sense of proportion. That doesn’t mean you’re lost again. You’ll have added a few genes to your writerly DNA.

How long does it take?

Our style develops through our lives. Some writers become distinctive early. Others blossom later.

Most of us don’t stop wishing we were a bit more special, or perfect. Every year, we might think we’ve finally ‘found it’ and chafe at the work we can’t undo.  Evelyn Waugh often said he thought Brideshead Revisited was gluttonously overwrought.

le moulin 286Yours truly: how did I start off?

I started by apeing other writers I adored. As a teenager, any good book would send me scurrying to my room to try a new voice or story style. My typewriter got a lot of exercise. After college, I began to try novels and I went through a very visible (to me) Graham Greene phase, then Vita Sackville West, then Jack Vance, then Gavin Maxwell. When I read those writers I could think of no more perfect way to express a story.

One day I realised I didn’t feel I had to imitate any more. I could write as me and that was okay. That doesn’t mean I am no longer poleaxed by Graham, Gavin, Jack or Vita, or all the other thousands of writers in whose company I take pleasure. I still learn from them, all the time. But I no longer feel the need to eradicate and start again.


This is personal, but for me, special writers have a quality of honesty on the page. It makes me comfortable in their company; willing to travel with them, to accept their voice as the companion to my own thoughts. Read good non-fiction and notice how authors do this, how they burrow for the truth even while they amplify, assert or exaggerate. Three of my favourites for this are Verlyn Klinkenborg, David Sedaris and Gavin Maxwell (I told you I liked him). Aim for that candid quality in your own work, even when you’re trying on other tics and techniques.

nyn soloAnd finally… how do you start a novel?

Some people just plunge in and write, muddle their way along. Clearly that hasn’t worked for you. In which case, are you looking to prepare material before you write? I have a book that will guide you through… (all together now…): Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence… (now recommended by university creative writing departments, which is nice)


What would you tell Lindsey? Let’s discuss!

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