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Wednesday 18 February 2009


I hope you are sitting comfortably, and that you have your most studious faces on because today we are going to get serious. Here begins a series of pieces about the most common things that stop a potentially publishable book being as good as it needs to be. Or as good as you think it is.

Let's assume you can organise words in a better order than a drunken monkey given unwise access to a keyboard, and that your book actually does sound pretty damned fine when you describe it pithily, using a well-crafted hook. Perhaps you've got to the stage of sending off your submission and you've swottily followed all my rules about approaching agents/publishers - including not putting toffee (or even chocolate, even Green and Blacks, in answer to the plaintive but valid question by "Emerging Writer") in the envelope. So, we're saying you really have been a perfect student, that you have even stretched yourself to being polite, charming and modest, and that a quietly intelligent potential emanates from the page of your crystalline covering letter.

Let's suppose that despite all this, a terse rejection letter wings its way all too speedily back. Because it usually does. It may give you very little information, other than the "not right for our List" variety. Yaw-n. Or, if you're lucky, it may tell you a tiny bit more, like "has some merits, but ultimately we did not feel sufficiently strongly about it." Now, that is only a tiny bit more but it's quite an important tiny bit more, because it does actually mean that there were some merits. They're not going to tell you what the merits are, oh no - because that would be foolish of them, opening the door to the torrent of your eager follow-up* letter: "Oh merits, THANK YOU so much for noticing my merits - could you now list those merits, in writing, and preferably capital letters and then I will use them to entice other unwary agents and publishers with the fact that you, O glorious one, think I am utterly brilliant?" And you would then be doing your well-known impression of agog, blushing in anticipation of the glowing praise you about to receive.

(* NO! No follow-up letter! Just crawl back into your hole, lick your wounds, and prepare to try again.)

And no again because what your book's merits are is irrelevant, except as a panadol for your bruised ego. You need to know its crucial rubbishnesses, not its merits. Trust me, you do, even if you don't think you do. You must find its faults, somehow, or you will languish in a state of toe-curling unpublishedness for so long that your toenails will have grown into something like those slinky springs that used to keep me amused for 15 seconds when I was a child.

Them "not feeling strongly" means that the book is not (yet?) good enough in some secret masonic aspect which will not be revealed to you. Because if it was, they'd have to kill you. So, let's begin to extract the answer, which we will do by guesswork because they have offered no clue. Given that you can string some better-than-monkey sentences together and that the hook was so damned brilliant, there are, thankfully, only a small number of things it could be.

The first one of these is Voice.
I'm starting with voice because I hadn't a clue about this when I first wrote a book with a damned good hook that actually did end up being published. One of the early conversations with my agent, as she was signing me on the basis of the first draft of a very imperfect novel, went something like this:

A: Of course, we'll have to deal with those voice slippages.
NM: Oh yeah, right, of COURSE. (Exit far left to find nearest access to Google).

(At this point you may legitimately be asking, "Huh, so how come your rubbish voice control still got you published? How come that agent saw through your huge faults but agents and publishers are rejecting me in their droves?" Well, I can only think that voice was maybe the only mistake I was making and that the agent could see that it would only take a little bit of work to put the slippages right. Agents don't expect you to get everything first time but they have to see potential, and potential can shine through a thin haze but not through a swirling fog.)

A few things about voice:
  • When you know about voice it's obvious. It's one of the easiest faults to correct in your writing, if you really have control over your words - all you need to do is LISTEN. And I mean that literally. Read it aloud.
  • When you make a mistake with voice, it's incredibly obvious to the reader. It jars. It stops the reader engaging with the story because the reader starts to hear you the author, which is not** what he/she is there for, unless it's your mother ...
  • Being able to use voice skilfully is one of the things that can mark you as a special or interesting writer.
  • But it is also possible to do nothing at all clever with it, and still tell a perfectly good story.
  • Voice is equally important in non-fiction. Same rules, same techniques.
  • ** I said that the reader doesn't want to hear the author's voice - I don't mean that an author can't develop his/her own distinctive voice that shines through each book, especially the books of a series. I mean that the author's own voice mustn't suddenly slip in incongruously - it's the voice of the book that comes first, foremost and only.
  • Well what the hell IS it? Aren't you going to tell us?
Yes, voice is just that: voice. Take me - not in that sense: I'm happily married - and you. When you and I speak, our voices sound different and our friends recognise them. We use different words and phrases for a start, but they also sound like no one else except ourselves. The only time my voice might change is when I've got a sore throat or I've mistaken the wine for Ribena. Sometimes (rarely, darling husband) my voice is angry; sometimes (often) it's tired; and sometimes (most of the time) it's really crying out for unparalleled adulation. But whatever my mood, it's my voice.

A book has a voice too. The narrative voice. And this is what we're talking about, over and above the more obvious different voices of each character within the book. It may have several narrative voices if you want and if you follow certain rules. But it will only have several voices for a reason and the writer will control those voices so brilliantly that the reader will instantly know which voice he's listening to and why. A reader, even a reader who knows nothing technical at all, will notice if you make a mistake with voice, even with one word or phrase. So, voice slipping is highly likely to be something that the agent/editor who has just rejected you has noticed, meaning that he loses confidence in you and loses touch with the story. Imagine you're watching an actor on stage and he keeps slipping out of character - you'd be tense and you'd stop focusing on the story. Then you might start to rustle your sweet wrappers or throw eggs.

Let's look (or listen) in a bit more detail. Some books have very distinctive voices. Distinctive voices are the hardest to do - hardest to keep consistent and hardest not to annoy the reader. My current WIP (work in progress) uses a very distinctive voice, which I have to be extremely careful with: it's present tense, 3rd person, letting the reader entirely into its confidence; it's sardonic, ironic and philosophical, occasionally deliberately pretentiously so. Those are all major things to deal with, and to keep it going for the whole novel without becoming irritating or overdoing it. All of my redrafting is focused on controlling and honing the voice.

A novel that comes out this June (shameless double plug alert - it's called Deathwatch) mixes voices: three times we have a chapter where the main character is seen through the eyes of the adult stalker, and at those times it's present tense, slightly off-kilter, slightly obscured, very dark. Most of the rest of the time it's a straightforward*** 3rd person narrative, with more of a modern teenage feel, since the main character is a teenager.

In another novel, Sleepwalking, (crikey, that's three shameless plugs - I am excelling myself today and surely deserve an advance-rise) sometimes I slipped (deliberately, of course) into an internal conversation in an angry girl's head. To make it crystal clear, I used italics for those parts. You can't do that too much - either italics or internal angry dialogue - it gets boring for the reader.

*** But nothing is EVER "straightforward narrative"
Every narrator has a voice too, even if the narrator isn't an actual character in the book. And that's the tricky point about voice: your narrator, even if never identified, exists. In fact, this narrator is what most gives the book its voice. So, when you say "It was a dark and stormy night", (even though you don't, unless you're being ironic, because it's a cliché) you the writer must be aware of who is telling us it's a dark and stormy night. What is the voice of that narrator? Is the narrator on the side of the reader or one character or several characters? Does the narrative voice take the reader into its confidence, speaking to the reader, or is it more detached? How old do we think the narrator is? If you were to do a study of the narrator (even when 3rd person and invisible), what would the characteristics be?

When you read a published book, you won't be thinking of any of this, because you don't get voice slippages in properly-edited published books. (You do in self-published books because self-published authors almost never pay for proper editing, which is absolutely the most stupid omission.) But where you mostly get voice slippages is on the slush-pile. The slush-pile is a veritable morass of voices oozing and sliding all over the flipping place. And there you will languish amongst all the other greasy spaghetti.

How deliberate should my choice of voice be?
Sometimes, when you start a book, the voice doesn't come immediately. It's not easy to begin a new voice, unless it's been in your head for a while. Sometimes it comes naturally, which is the best way, as it will be easiest to maintain. Often, the voice that comes when you start your book is quite different from what you expected. In that case, you have to decide whether to go with it or change it and start again. Often when a new book feels as though it's sticking, it's because you haven't got the voice right. I have an idea for a novel now and I have loads of the characters in my head, several scenes and a whole load of detail, but it has no voice yet, and so it can't even be started. I have no desire to start until a voice is bursting to get out.

In the Passionflower Massacre - omigodIdon'tbelieveit: another plug? - the voice came out exactly as I'd visualised it. Every single other novel I've written has come out differently from the voice that had been speaking in my head. That doesn't matter, as long as it works and is consistent from beginning to end (except, in those places where you have chosen a new voice for a good reason.)

Now, some exercises for you. See, this is not your average blog that merely asks for comments - this is SERIOUS WORK. Oh, and by the way, mark them yourselves, class. I'm on my coffee break.

1. Take the book you are reading and the book you are writing. For each, analyse the voice(s). You may need to start by taking just a couple of paragraphs in Chapter 1. Ask: is it one voice or several and, if several, what tells me when they change? Why do they change? How would I describe the narrator's character simply from the tone of the narration? How old is the narrator? Which of these words apply: light, serious, chatty, modern, fresh, cheeky, sardonic, pessimistic, optimistic, damaged, hurting, survivor, angry ...? Is the narrator my friend? Can I trust him/her? Does the narrator know everything or only some things? (This is partly a matter of POV - Point of View - which is somewhat but not totally different.)

2. Pick one of these characters: tired old lady, bereaved man, baby, toddler in buggy, grumpy man/woman, harrassed teacher, school truant, homeless person, bench/seat, road-sweeper, pigeon, cat, mother with three children, lost child. Then imagine yourself in a crowded place and write a single paragraph in the voice of that person, without actually describing yourself or giving obvious clues as to who you are. Give your piece of writing to a friend and see if they can say what your character is.

3. Now, look again at your WIP - and examine it minutely for voice slippages. If you find any, be for ever in my debt, because that could indeed be at least a major part of why the editor/agent "didn't feel strongly enough". In fact, maybe the rejection letter is a less messy way of throwing eggs.

Later, we'll do the other things that stop a novel being as good as it needs to be. Meanwhile, that has been such a very serious lesson that I really do plan that the next post will be that story of hilarious ineptitude. Well done and give yourself a round of applause!

Meanwhile, a smaller funny story to end on, though an irrelevant one.
I had an email from a teenage reader once, saying, "Dear Nicola, I'm reading the Passionflower Massacre and really enjoying it, even though it's not what I was expecting because I actually thought the title was the Passionflower Mascara." Yeah, and the title is really quite important, in that there is no mascara but quite a substantial amount of massacring ...

Oh, and another one from a school visit, and this identical thing has happened to me TWICE, because I'm stupid and don't learn:

Nice Girl: I really love your books.
NM (swelling with pride as this doesn't happen often): Oh really? Thank you. Which one do you like best?
Nice Girl: Sorry?
NM: Which one do you like best?
Nice Girl: Er, I don't know really. I don't really mind that much.
NM (realising that actually the girl was just being kind and hasn't really read any of them): Well, do you like Fleshmarket or Blame My Brain or ... ? (That's six plugs in one blog.)
Nice Girl (Looking at me as though I'm a total idiot): NO, I like your BOOTS.

Can you believe this happened twice?

Mind you, this is Scotland and we obviously can't speak like normal people. And here are the boots in question.