Voice Workshop, 14 March 2015


Find Your Voice is one of the great myths of creative writing; you have a voice already, so let’s find ways to turn it into writing.

That is the summary form of this workshop at Saturday’s Getting Published Day, where we discussed how the natural speaking voice is one of the greatest gifts for any writer. It’s authentic, it’s fresh. It’s usually direct and economical and uncluttered, with relatively few adjectives or adverbs. And best of all (if you’re lazy, like me), the natural speaking voice is accessible and instinctive. It’s easy to use. Why make life hard?

We talked about overwriting, and writing that tries too hard. Fiction has the purpose of telling a story, and anything that gets in the way of moving that story forward might need to be pruned; as my teacher and friend Bobbie Louise Hawkins used to say: ‘Tell it fast, honey, tell it fast!’ We also thought about tone as an aspect of voice that brings emotion into our work, and we considered voice as an aspect of the style or personality of a piece of writing.

I didn’t get time to specifically introduce the idea of persona, but we can also think about the way in which a voice can shape and reflect character – Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues are a great example of this, and they also (as we did manage to discuss) provide fantastic examples of the ways in which everyday voices make characters and stories come to life. Look some of them up and listen to them. We did manage to listen to Nina Stibbe read the opening of her memoir Love, Nina, which is based on her letters home from London; handwritten letters are perhaps the closest we get to the natural speaking voice instinctively working on a page, and the ones in this book have a beautiful, fresh voice full of warmth and concrete observations. Strong and simple verbs, strong and simple nouns. We also read aloud part of Joe Brainard’s ‘I Remember’, which also lacks self-consciousness while possessing personality in spades.

We focused on first-person narration, though, as I said, this can present limits within the larger scheme of a novel. But practising your own writing by using the first-person can be a fabulous way of growing your own strong voice, and at certain points in your career as a writer it makes sense to invest time in practice rather than being so outcome-oriented. So here are some previously posted writing experiments relative to voice:

Voice 1: Listening
Voice 2: Tone
Voice 3: Passion and Purpose
Voice 4: Other Voices
Variations on the Form of ‘I Remember’
Dear Diaries

Try some of these exercises yourself. Even, perhaps, take some time away from your major project in order simply to experiment with voice in writing. E.g., instead of NaNoWriMo, why not write a different ‘I Remember’ every day for a month (I Remember School Holidays, I Remember My First Job, I Remember Dogs). Give yourself a month-long boot camp in which you exercise the muscle of that natural speaking voice on the page. Your voice will become stronger, I’m sure.

And my post Tell Me A Story might offer further ideas for how voice informs narration more broadly (including the importance of third-person narrators). The natural speaking voice often needs adapting, but it is a strong foundation for writing, particularly at the start of a project.

This workshop also addressed how achieving that natural speaking voice in writing might require us to learn how to write all over again. Maybe that is just a matter of shaking off other forms of writing that have captured our voices for other purposes. Here are the examples I read out in class of voices that have, for whatever reason, become garbled, cluttered, opaque or meaningless. First, some academic writing (which I confess to nicking from the Bad Writing Contest once run by the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature):

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

An example of pasty writing of a different kind (a thinner paste, less goopy) came from a university selling one of its courses (I borrowed this from Constance Hale’s excellent Sin and Syntax):

The programme will be of interest to graduates as well as professionals working in these areas … It will be of relevance to those desirous of adding legal understandings to these perspectives. It will also be of interest to students wishing to proceed to a doctorate in the anthropology of human rights and related areas.

Publishers are not immune from garbled stodge, either, as this bit of a recent press release shows:

Immersing oneself anew in the rhythms and cadences of Harper Lee’s rich prose and meeting Scout fully grown makes for an irresistible read which also casts new light on one of the most popular classics of modern literature.

Styles of writing found in commercial or business contexts can also creep into fiction:

World-famous toggler and man about town Linus Walping entered his spacious, well-appointed apartment and walked to the handcrafted artisanal windows, where he basked in the breathtaking and unparalleled vistas of the magnificent Lavish River awaiting his gaze. Just returned from a first-class whirlwind vacation with his girlfriend, the glamorous model/actress Rain Weste, at the luxurious playground of the upper crust, the deluxe five-star Splendide Hotel in the heart of metropolitan Darien’s top-notch nightlife and luxury shopping, Reginald looked forward to a delicious, mouth-watering repast, sure to rival his wildest dream.

This example of slick writing laden with info dumps is taken from How Not to Write a Novel, and, being practical rather than bitchy about bad writing, I read out a wise observation from its authors: ‘Advertising copywriters are faced with a very different task than you, the novelist. They generally have only a few lines to get their message across – only seconds of the reader’s attention – and they have for this reason developed a concentrated and artificial form of language, very different from what we general think of in writing.’

So: what is the purpose of the writing you are doing, and what sort of voice does it need? Fiction and narrative nonfiction often use connotation and suggestion to create mood and energy, unlike other types of writing that explain or describe things in more explicit detail as they primarily need to convey information or ideas without ambiguity. Stories need to bring worlds of feeling to life. Stories sometimes need to embody life’s great mysteries.

Apologies (again) for tech hitches – I think I’m just going to *not* rely on technology at all in future! But I think we managed okay in the end. And apologies for not covering so many other things we could have touched upon. There’s only so much we can cover in an hour (Tell it fast, honey, tell it fast!).

But the last two things I want to stress:

* Listen to audiobooks, even if it’s just occasionally. And preferably only listen to the good recordings – memorable ones for me include Brokeback Mountain read by Campbell Scott, the third Harry Potter read by Jim Dale on a road trip to Las Vegas, and On the Road read by Matt Dillon, which is utterly utterly magical. Do share any of your own favourites in comments below.

Listening is another aspect of reading, after all, and it can be an immersive and transformative experience that will soak into your writing bones.

* Read your own work aloud. It’s a great test when revising and editing. If you stumble, might something need changing? Maybe read your own work aloud to someone else. If their eyes glass over, maybe you need to do something to make the writing less boring. If their eyes light up, you’re doing something right: return to that later, and bottle it.

(Though, of course, know that some writing is destined to be read quietly and alone in acts of contemplation, rather than read aloud. There are always exceptions in the creative arts. In this instance, I’m saying that reading aloud is a useful tool, even if not the final intended outcome.)

A third thing (me and my voice, I can’t stop talking, excess is my weakness). Thinking of eyes glassing over, there is an exception to the idea there are no rules in writing. There is one and only one rule in writing:

* Don’t be boring.

Getting Published Day 2015: Voice Workshop And Book Doctoring


On Saturday I took part in the Getting Published Day at Regents College, London. As always, with Writers’ Workshop events, it was a lot of fun: meeting writers, making friends, talking books, having a laugh. Good spirits all round. I led a seminar on voice and also did some book doctoring, and I’m posting some follow-up notes on both below.

Book Doctoring

I read some good samples this time, and made various editorial suggestions for further drafts: tightening and brightening the prose style and voice; avoiding too much explanation that gets in the way; worrying not so much about fashions in writing but instead writing a book so good that it stands out as a timeless story (though some agents or editors might tell you otherwise); thinking about the narrative focus and the dramatic stakes (and the dramatic focus and the narrative stakes); not being too subtle; considering the single outstanding thing that this book might be, and trying to make that thing stand out on every page, every line (an impossible feat, I know, but it’s the striving that matters).

Oh, and importantly: paginate your manuscripts, even for short submissions such as the ones we used on Saturday. Do follow any specific guidelines, of course. But page numbers are probably essential for any reader – pages get printed, dropped, jumbled, need referring to consistently (there were a few places where I wanted to refer to something on, e.g., page 3, but I had to write in the page numbers myself first). A lack of pagination can seem a bit sloppy or thoughtless. And hey, if it’s your unpaginated manuscript that gets knocked off the edge of a desk, maybe it won’t get read.

In short: be professional by making life easy for your readers.

Reading recommendations included 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias, Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale, On Writing by Stephen King, and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. I also recommended the Writers’ Workshop online course on self-editing your novel taught by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin several times a year; it could be a structured and informative way to guide your book through another draft.

And if a book doctor session leaves you a bit confused or frazzled, you might find it useful to read an earlier post on working with feedback on your writing.

Voice Workshop

Find Your Voice is one of the great myths of creative writing; you have a voice already, so let’s find ways to turn it into writing. That’s the idea – I’ve put some notes into another post: Voice Workshop.

Till the next time?

Thanks again to the lovely people of the Writers’ Workshop for inviting me along (yes, that is a plug too, but I like and trust them a lot). And also thanks to all the writers I met – it’s a real pleasure to share in other people’s inspiration and creativity, and to listen to their stories.

And maybe I’ll see some of you at one of the London Literary Salons run by the Writers’ Workshop at Waterstones Piccadilly over the coming months? I’m co-teaching one on revising and editing with Debi Alper on 31 July.


Friday Writing Experiment No. 58: Spring Clean-up


The first day of spring, yay! According to my own logic, the first day of spring is that day when the first of the bulbs you planted in the autumn comes into flower. A daffodil opened in the window box on Thursday – see attached.  (We do have other blooms in the garden, but they were narcissi we got from the pound shop to jump the gun for a bit of yellow.)

And Friday was very sunny, and I had finished other work, so I finally started my late winter/early spring pruning and mulching. Of course, because I tend to do things arse about tit, I set about mulching first, then pruning afterwards. But how could I resist slitting open those bags of rich, claybusting bracken and scattering scoops on our beds of claggy soil, dumping and raking and levelling and mounding? And first of all I had managed to repot some heathers, which I’d put on top of tulips in the autumn, not thinking that heathers like acid soil or knowing that tulips like alkaline, so now the heathers are doing their own thing in pots of their own, while tulips are topped with heucheras and hart’s tongue ferns and maidenhair ferns.

So this got me thinking about writing and processes in writing in terms of gardening analogies. I find that making changes in the garden comes much more easily than cutting and making changes in writing – to my own work, or someone else’s work I’m editing. Maybe it’s because I’m new to much about gardening, and freer about taking risks, even foolhardy. Maybe it’s simply that I am not overthinking it.

And I also found it so much easier to do the work that had to be done this year, now that I’m gardening more seriously and have a proper garden to play with (first things first: have something to work with). For example, I’ve always been cautious about pruning in the past in my half-hearted containers, just trimming the straggly bits while preserving old growth, but I’ve now looked up the requirements of different roses and clematises and perennials, and (though I am yet to see if this all goes to plan) I noted that some things need pruning hard, even right to the ground; the life is still there, in the roots, of course, and sometimes things need cutting back in order to flourish later on.

And what’s the worst that can happen?! I murdered several acers last year, so am restarting the survivors and new ones in pots that I can dot around in sun or shade to see whether I can avoid the leaves turning to a crisp this year. (It’s a mystery whether this was sunburn, over- or under watering. The ones I’d grown in pots in the past always flourished.)

For this writing experiment: Take any piece of writing you’ve already done (a story, a chapter, a poem, a whole novel), and imagine how you’d work on this if it were your garden at the start of spring. By this, I mean that we should really be thinking about the physical work we do as gardeners, and translating that into the things we do as writers (who too often get stuck in their own heads). Some things (e.g., cutting) will be obvious, while other things will not, but sometimes it’s the striving that really forces us to bring on the work in fresh ways.

Think and work symbolically. I’m not going to relate these examples to writing, because you can do that for yourself, but hold these ideas in your mind – and body – as you look over the writing.

Pruning: What can be cut? What might be diseased, damaged, or dead? Which crossing shoots are clashing or crowding each other, and need thinning out? What needs pruning as it’s heading in the wrong direction? What growth needs encouraging? When is a plant pretty much done in terms of size?

Potting and repotting: What needs to be moved? What is growing in an unsuitable container, and what might be more fitting for both container and contents? What suits any planting as a bedmate – compatible, pleasantly surprising company, a clash of personalities? Do different needs require their separation? Does it make more sense to experiment with growing some things in pots, before planting right into the ground? Pots can, of course, be moved around as needed. (Though I wasn’t going to butt in with writing parallels: might it be worth experimenting with short fiction rather than running the marathon of a novel?)

Mulching: What layers of mulch (compost? bark? manure? gravel? grit? leaf mould?) can be added to amend and enrich what you already have?

Landscaping and remodelling: Do the larger structure and design need greater thought? Another flower bed here, a raised bed? How can needs of light, shade, water, drainage be negotiated: is it really possible to create a garden full of sunlovers when you get so much shade in the summer? Are different plantings needed or desirable? And what shrubs or architectural plants can be used to created accents? Could boundaries and borders be made more debfined? Can more light be brought in by cutting down a tree, or even just an overhanging vine? And is it really worth all that time and money and space trying to grow vegetables when Waitrose is just a five-minute walk away?

Roots: What lies beneath, within in the roots? What has yet to show itself, but can be fed for fresh growth?

Variations: If you’re not a gardener, consider the work you do instinctively or nonverbally in other areas – cooking, or yoga, or mechanics, or football. How would you take stock of a project in that field with the aim of improvement? The point of this is to get beyond the usual words we use to think about writing and to work symbolically instead. Really feel – as a physical instinct – what the writing needs in terms of what you do as a gardener, cook, or football player. Try to get beyond thinking. 

Method: Hack away at a printout of a manuscript of your writing. You probably need to do this in a physical reality, rather than on screen. I really do think writing is a somatic process, and we have to force ourselves out of our screens/headspace/neuroses at least every now and then. You can use a pencil or pen rather than secateurs. Or you could do a bit of planning: maybe write yourself some notes in the form of a memo answering some of the questions above, as well as questions of your own creation. One definite outcome: a fresh draft in a month’s time. Though allow yourself till summer if you really want things to bloom.

Btw, be sure to paginate your manuscript. This will be useful for yourself, and make life easy for any readers you try this out on. Just saying.

Further reading: If you want a serious guide for pruning and other tasks in the garden, to help you continue with these analogies and others, you can consult the Royal Horticultural Society’s many resources.


Friday Writing Experiment No. 57: Off Your Chest


In another blog post this week, I write about shame – not so much a personal shame but a cultural one. It could just be wishy-washy liberal guilt, but writing (and sharing) this got something off my chest.

For this week’s writing experiment: get something off your chest. Consider something that gets you mad, makes you feel shame (either personally or politically), arouses your passions. An injustice, a cause, something political, something you give a shit about. Then get it off your chest.

Maybe try to avoid opining. Oh wait: maybe that’s not possible! Maybe just try to avoid whining, and micro-aggressions?!

Don’t worry about forming a coherent argument. I found it useful to use that form of a list of numbered points, joining them as dots.

Or you could write it as a letter.

Fire away!


What Words Can You Use?


I’m connecting a few dots here.

1. When I ran a workshop on the Four Elements at York last year, a few writers in the audience at one talk seemed a bit surprised when, in discussing ‘The Colonel’ by Carolyn Forché, I asked them how their work was political. Because, I said, just about all writing has a political dimension. Even if it is ignoring the world around us, that could make it prop up the status quo.

2. On Wednesday morning, I read this news report about Chelsea fans indulging in racial aggression on the Paris métro last night. I know these thugs have nothing in common with me really, but it FILLS ME WITH SHAME. SHAME TO BE ENGLISH. SHAME TO BE WHITE. I know it’s not my fault. I know I am not the person standing on a train hectoring strangers, but. This is little short of monstrous. And it FILLS ME WITH SHAME to see these white English pigs abusing a black man on public transport in the capital city of another European country.

3. I hate the witless (straight male?) cult of banter. (I just realised: I don’t feel the shame of being male, as I really don’t relate to many of what might be regarded as conventions of being male.) I imagine Chelsea fans, at least some of them, must feel VERY VERY ashamed to be associated with such louts.

4. I tend to shy away from such overt opinions on this blog (though not in other places). ‘Opinion is the death of thinking’ – David Malouf. I don’t like to risk offence. This goes beyond opinion into passion (and fire, that element prompting discussion in the workshop of Carolyn Forché’s politics). But sometimes you cannot be silent. Sometimes you have to stop being a pussy.

5. I’ve just finally started reading Alexandra Fuller’s memoir Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight, subtitled ‘An African Childhood’. It is FANTASTIC, and I’m only a fraction of the way in. Early on we get a potted history of Rhodesia, where Fuller grew up:

Between 1889 and 1893, British settlers moving up from South Africa, under the steely, acquiring eye of Cecil John Rhodes, had been … What word can I use? I suppose it depends on who you are. I could say: Taking? Stealing? Settling? Homesteading? Appropriating? Whatever the word is, they had been doing it to a swath of country they now called Rhodesia. Before that, the land had been movable, shifting under the feet of whatever victorious tribe now danced on its soil, taking on new names and freshly stolen cattle, absorbing the blood and bodies of whoever was living, breathing, birthing, dying upon it. The land itself, of course, was careless of its name. It still is. You can call it what you like, fight all the wars you want in its name. Change its name altogether if you like. The land is still unblinking under the African sky. It will absorb white man’s blood and the blood of African men, it will absorb blood from slaughtered cattle and the blood from a woman’s birthing with equal thirst. It doesn’t care.

6. I am taken back to a mobile classroom at King Edward VI College in Stourbridge in the early 1980s. A-level history with Mr Peacock. Grey skies, blusters of rain, half a dozen pastel shades of chalk outlining battlefields and tactics. The Falklands War was taking place as we sat lower-sixth exams, writing essays about the Boer Wars and William Gladstone. I learned facts in those two years – facts about the Scramble for Africa, the Russian Revolution, the rise of fascism in the 20s and 30s, the birth of the welfare state, the Spanish Civil War. A-level history (British and European, 1870-1945) probably forged my political awareness more than anything else. You can interpret, but some of these facts are inarguable.

7. As a sixth-former, I remembered the death of Franco in a headline in the News of the World a few years before. This wasn’t just history.

8. Not all history is well taught. Not all facts are respected. Classrooms should be free of politicians, such as Republicans in Oklahoma, who want to prevent what’s bad about America being taught in advanced-placement classes. Politicians are not often good at nuance in the UK either.

8. Other (nuanced, thoughtful) reads of influence: Exterminate All The Brutes! and Desert Divers by Sven Lindqvist. The Rings Of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Ban En Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil (more on that another time). The Secret River and Searching For The Secret River by Kate Grenville.

9. Yes, the EU might need reforming, and yes, this is a small island, and yes, resources are limited.

But. But but but. It is election season, and there is a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the air. A lot of anti-other, a lot of bullshit, a lot of populist dribble that lacks compassion and is unable to listen or engage, and seems to love to play the victim and talk over and talk down, rather than find complex solutions to complex problems.

I do think it is important to find ways to talk about race, and gender, and sexuality, and many other issues – and ways that don’t just get contrary positions dismissed as racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or rely too much on terms such as ‘micro-aggressions’, which can feel aggressive in their own accusation and create unhelpful victimologies. Because things are rarely black and white, and knee-jerk claims can be just as unlistening or disengaged. Sometimes we really do have to locate our senses of humour, or not let ourselves be offended. Dwelling on ‘micro-aggressions’ really can feel like engaging with excuses for resentment. Sometimes it is better to laugh things off, don’t you think?

10. But but but. History lessons. Consequences. Do As You Would Be Done By. This post was written in a state of emotion, or passion, and our old English teacher Mrs Blakemore always told us never to post letters written in emotion or passion. Leave it overnight. So I shall. (And I did. And I didn’t change anything.)

11. How can writing make us listen? Make us think? Again, David Malouf: ‘Opinion is the death of thinking’. One of my favourite aphorisms.

12. Too much of the way we are taught writing forces us to value opining. Thesis statements in freshman compositions and positions defended in debate club are just a hop from columns written by hacks in tabloid newspapers. And slagging off immigrants in one of those columns is just a skip from proudly announcing your own racism as you push a man off a train on the métro in Paris.

13. The Buddhist idea of Right Speech.

14. Frank Bruni’s column this week, which makes a case for studying poetry as a bulwark against ‘rushed thinking and glibness’. Let’s devote ourselves to developing the ‘muscle of thoughtfulness’.

15. How will you use your own muscle of thoughtfulness to remove the shame, and restore pride in yourself? How are you going to find ways to write about things that matter to you?

16. What does matter to you?

17. Poetry, fiction, memoir, creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, biography: these are forms that often embrace and explore complexities, and in doing so help to make the world a better place.

18. What word can I use? asks Alexandra Fuller before naming colonialism for what it is. Taking. Stealing.

19. What words can you use?