Finding your writing voice – Novel writing course

This week our Writing a Novel  tutor James Bradley talked about creating a strong authorial voice.

James Bradley

James Bradley, author of Wrack, The Deep Field, The Resurrectionist and forthcoming Clade published by Penquin

Firstly he covered ways to inspire your voice. Both I and another student noticed there was a connection here with Margo Lanagan’s previous session where she looks at her scrapbook of images before writing each time. This helps ensure her novels have a consistent mood and texture. James told us what worked for him: listening to certain pieces of classical music, selected poems and listening to other authors’novels we admired – perceiving the rhythm in the text and considering the rhythm in our writing. James explained that these methods, which I will call ‘mood-shifters’, are ways to get our minds out of the buzz of everyday life – these are frequently in the way when we sit down to write.

He stressed that writers often don’t have a strong voice when beginning the first draft of a novel. They “discover”it as they “write themselves into the book”. When James tutors us on writing, I keep noticing that he impresses upon us being open to the unfixed nature of creativity and not to hem ourselves in with rules of our own or other’s making. Exploration and discovery are essential to the process of creating an interesting book. He compared writing with jazz “you can break the established rhythms and make a melody fresh again. Every generation of writers creates a new way.”

He talked about the “organic logic”inside writing. I took this to mean the way I have felt when my book developed well and I feltin the zone.“The book is smarter than you are…it is something that you find”he said (and then made us laugh by telling us that most writers are not nearly as intelligent as their books.)

In the past I have spoken to friends about what I call the alchemy of writing which is what I think he means by organic logic. That what you are in sum is not what ends up finally on the page: our own self/mind contributes to it, is the basis for it, but the result is more than the sum of its parts. It goes beyond the ideas each writer had in the first place. It has occurred to me (perhaps crazily) that, as it is beyond the writer (our own subjective selves), it has the capacity to be universal and therefore relevant to a lot of people. So from very personal beginnings comes something bigger than us which can be received by people in the world we had no previous connection with.

Now James had covered the art side of creating voice (creativity & inspiration) he moved on to discuss the craft side of creating voice. He showed us the tools writers deploy to do this: meaningful selection of words, punctuation choices and varying length of sentences. He guided our analysis of the opening pages of John Banville’s The Sea and Tim Winton’s story ‘Big World’ from The Turning. I felt he was opening up the hood of the writing car, so to speak, and showing us the parts of the engine and their function. I don’t think I would have noticed this without James’tutoring. His exercise for this week is designed to foster this. He asked us to find our favourite book and try to write a page of our book in the way that author wrote theirs.

On a personal note here, I am in a bit of a panic now because my novel is in the third person and, after James prompting us to look again at our favourite novels, I just (!) realised that they are all in the first person — all that is except A.S. Byatt’s Possession (which let’s face it is unlikely to be a useful model for my young adult book).

My path as a writer is relevant here – once upon a time I was an academic and learnt how to write like one: detached, commanding. Is it a coincidence that A.S. Byatt (a literature professor) is one of my favourite authors? And yet I write young adult fiction. I enjoy not being academic: for me that means I do not feel I must be in command of all the facts and that maybe, just maybe, what is in my imagination might be worth something by itself. I was so devoted to Byatt in my twenties because of the virtuosity with which she combines her academic and imaginative skills. I re-read Possession a couple of years back, and felt initially very cold towards it (as I think I did the first time I read it – the first quarter is not that engaging) but it won both my heart and mind once again and I think I like it even more now! I may have changed a lot but the book is eternally brilliant.

I asked James about the relationship between point of view and voice. James said that there was no room for an omnipresent narrator in current fiction as there was, for example, in the nineteenth century – current readers won’t accept that kind of voice (Byatt’s Possession coincidentally has parallel story lines in the nineteenth and late twentieth centuries). James’s comment linked this with the use of third person point of view. “The writing must be alive”he said and I knew what he meant. It is something that keeps jumping out at me in first person point of view books. Does this mean then we should not write in the third person anymore? No, James explained that third person is fine, but it is wise to avoid an omniscient third person narration and that we would explore this more in our next Saturday session. [Postscript: I learnt in that later session, to my relief, that I have in fact written my novel in third person multiple not third person omniscient so there’s hope for me yet…clearly I really needed to do this course because I did not understand the difference!]

Sometimes you can only touch on an issue in a single session. That is why a six-month evening course (plus some Saturdays) is necessary. Writing is complex and works differently for each writer, though there is so much in common to learn from. Thoughts are the fuel of our writing, and the most valuable insights are not instantly gained. There needs to be time to absorb the information, more discussion with someone who knows what they’re talking about and discussion with peers. There is no off-the-shelf option when it comes to learning how to write better. Writing better cannot be bought: it requires the students to work at it, not just the tutor.
More detail from this session is below:

James explained there is a danger in becoming too fine a craftsman of voice. Your writing can become “mannered”and thus predictable in its style. James referred to the constituent parts of our prose, as the ‘nuts and bolts’of writing and encouraged us to examine them closely in our own writing and in experienced writers.

We use words, sentences, rhythm and punctuation to give character to our writing, he told us, and that is why we must read our work out loud: to identify how they are working for us and how we might consider changing them for greater effect. When we revise/edit our draft we should consider if there is a more effective word we could use. This might be a word that does the same thing but carries a larger meaning that works well in terms of the themes of the book.

He showed us how John Banville did this in The Sea’s opening page, where certain words are unexpected in their context and thus loaded with symbolism. This related to the topic that the book explored. He drew our attention to how this was continued into the book after the exquisite opening page but in a more subtle, less dramatic way. The opening page of The Sea is stunning, but he said the reader was unlikely to digest that all the way through. This made me feel a little relieved as I could imagine, possibly, some day far away, being able to craft such a beauty as Banville’s opening page but never to manage it for an entire book. The importance of poetic craft occurred to me which resonating with James’s earlier point about reading poetry to inspire voice. Poets are skilled with using words to symbolise and create lucid images in the mind. When I see it in prose I am excited by the aesthetic beauty of it.

While I absorbed James’words, it came to me that the metaphor for what he was talking about, which suits me best, is the idea of the book as a stage. The choice of descriptive words I see as theatre props which are chosen for what they convey, not just their functionality. This adds so much to the script and the actors – when cleverly done in an actual theatre performance I find it fascinating to observe how the props herald the content of the play and that is what James was talking about with Banville’s The Sea – how Banville’s choice of words in the first page, heralds the cancer that the protagonist has, in what is a visual description of a coastal landscape. James said Banville was “initiating the reader into how the book will sound”and, boy, was that first page sonorous. James showed that to us so we could really hear it for ourselves.


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