I was at the Writers’ Workshop Getting Published day as a book doctor on Saturday. I met a number of writers to give them feedback on sample material for their proposed submissions to agents, and I also led a workshop on voice, in which I talked about the value of the natural speaking voice. It was a lot of fun, as it always is when you get to meet writers directly. And as ever the Writers’ Workshop people were fun and well organised and direct in addressing the needs of writers: thanks to Harry, Laura, Nikki, Deborah, Lydia, John, and everyone else involved, and it was great to meet the other book doctors again or for the first time.
Here are a few notes to follow up, including some of the resources mentioned during the day.
* To start, we discussed the idea of trusting the natural speaking VOICE as a vehicle for your writing, and considered how TONE in writing particularly concerns itself with introducing an emotional quality.
* We looked at some examples of professional writing for the structures and patterns we often use in business or academic contexts (e.g., an objective tone; lots of subordinating clauses). Such voices often lack personality, and intentionally. But in fiction or more creative forms, a neutral voice can feel colourless, and fiction can start to feel cluttered by certain forms of syntax that let us pack in or even bury information when we need it. Yet very often, these have become the ways we write – our natural way of writing.
* By contrast, thinking about the NATURAL SPEAKING VOICE (and thinking and remembering voice), we read a selection from Joe Brainard’s ‘I Remember’, and wrote our own versions and then read them aloud. This form is natural and easy to use, and it is notable how it relies on simple sentence structures (okay, we’re going to introduce sentence variety later). It also has the strength of instinctively focusing our writing on concrete and specific words, especially nouns and verbs (adjectives and adverbs are so rarely needed, even if they do add a certain something).
* I read aloud the opening from Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, and noted not only its gossipy quality, but how every sentence in that first paragraph is directed towards the idea of STORYTELLING or NARRATION. (And what is gossip, if not storytelling?!) We also noted that the voice and tone here belong to a specific PERSONA (in this case, judgemental and even bitchy), and this can enrich the CHARACTERISATION in our work (this being the persona, not the bitchiness – though maybe that too!).
* We also looked at and listened to Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’ as an example of writing that takes a particular tone, again a judgemental one. I wish I’d had a bit more time to discuss tone, so I’ll mention it briefly here: there are specific ways we can vary the tone in terms of not only form (e.g., word choices, using different parts of speech, sentence lengths, modes of address), but also content (the narrative ingredients selected for observation and inclusion).
Something I did not mention in the workshop was this great statement on simplicity in writing from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well:
the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.
That might sound a bit extreme, especially if you’re working in a more literary mode. But this emphasis on simplicity – the simplicity found in the natural speaking voice – is perhaps one of the best foundations for most good writing.
It was interesting that the writer whose voice I thought most striking and fresh from her submission turned out not to be a native speaker of English. Which perhaps accounted for the number of slips in spelling! But even those sorts of slips just go to show that a good voice shines through anyway. And also that there are differing definitions of perfection – after all, we need to keep some work for the copyeditors. Anyway, I’d never have guessed she was not a native English speaker; a particular name, in fact, made me think she was an English woman of a certain age, and that was what I was expecting. Wow. To do that in a language you weren’t born into; puts most of us native English speakers to shame.
In addition, this writer comes from a part of the world that might bring a fresh perspective to an established genre, and I encouraged her to think about introducing more of that into the writing too. Good luck to her!
Some of the things that came up in other samples: writing that packs too much in too soon; various other issues of pacing; developing a narrative focus, and letting unfolding action tell the story; overwriting, especially overexplaining (fiction can suggest, be allusive); using point of view to give a story an edge; prose style needing more life, texture, and colour (specific and concrete imagery often add a spike of energy, as do well-selected verbs and nouns).
It’s also a good idea to know your genre, and what might be expected of it – everything from conventions you can use, to trends, to word lengths. This knowledge can grow your own instinct in writing. It’s worth paying a visit to a larger or specialist bookshop, maybe during the morning when you might be able to chat with a bookseller about trends and popular writers. Pick up some recommended books, if you have not read them already, and sample them for what you can bring to your own work.
And beyond the writing, writers often need to think about the profile and platform that might help an agent or publisher promote your work. Even in fiction. In fact, personal experience can often inform the writing in good, instinctive ways, lending it depth and authority. Though of course we must always allow for flights of fancy and imagination, too.
Finally, don’t forget that publishing is something of a lottery. I tend to think that the best books eventually find a home, though whether they sell once published is another matter. And of course some not so great books get published and become roaring successes – but that is usually because they connect with something or other among a readership. What is that thing in your writing that might connect?
Regardless of the genre you’re working in, these are some of the most useful books on writing. And yes, you probably can gain from doing a bit of studying of this sort, either on your own or in a creative writing class. Understanding techniques in writing will just add depth to your work.
Sin and Syntax, by Constance Hale
Steering the Craft, by Ursula Le Guin
The Making of a Story, by Alice LaPlante
How to Write, by Harry Bingham
On Writing, by Stephen King
The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner
The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler
20 Master Plots, by Ronald Tobias
Memoirists might also find useful:
Old Friend From Far Away, by Natalie Goldberg
The Arvon Book of Life Writing, by Sally Cline and Carole Angier
my own notes on writing a nonfiction book proposal
And for revising your work:
The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell
Thanks again to the Writers’ Workshop, and it was great to meet everyone else there too.