Today I’m the guest of The Vine Leaves Literary Journal.
Talking about The Craft of Voice – theory and practical exercises designed to help you discover yours.
Part two coming next month. Check it out.
September 9, 2014
Today I’m the guest of The Vine Leaves Literary Journal.
Talking about The Craft of Voice – theory and practical exercises designed to help you discover yours.
Part two coming next month. Check it out.
August 25, 2014
An issue I’ve wrestled with for some time, especially when it comes to characters’ voices.
Several recent books irritated me enormously with an excess of signposts as to speech style. Every utterance written semi-phonetically was boring and hard work. An excess of ‘local colour’ turned character into caricature before the story even began. Every single person in a broad cast using the same vocabulary but with different adverbs equalled monotony.
The reason the books above failed is for exactly the same reason writers should show, not tell.
Leave space for the reader’s imagination. Inference is a powerful and natural phenomenon.
Do not tell. Do not shout. Whisper and let us follow the clues. We may end up in different places. That is our prerogative.
The complexity of rendering voices, accents, speech impediments or verbal tics on paper while not getting on the reader’s wick is both tricky and simple. I often write characters who speak other languages than English. How close to native speaker should they sound? Would adding mistakes in English add authenticity or distract? A key character has a peculiarity of expression – should I explain or risk incomprehension?
Differentiation of voices is one of my basics – and a keystone of character development . So I did a little research on how other writers put sounds to paper with enough quiet space for the reader’s interpretation.
Monique Roffey’s memorable book The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, immerses the reader in the spoken sounds of Trinidad from the outset.
‘Oh Gyaaaad,’ Sabine complained loudly. ‘The heat! Jennifer, I cyan take it.’ She lifted up her voluminous house dress and fanned it up to her face, exposing her pink cotton knickers.
‘Phhhhhut!’ She made a loud hissing sound, fanning herself. ‘C’est un fourneau.’
Jennifer shook her head. ‘Take cyare Mr Harwood ent come in and ketch a fright.’
Why does this work? Roffey hints at the musicality of Trinidadian speech, nails the key features and allows the reader to do the rest.
Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda. In the latter part of the book, the MC, Dan, meets a relative who has problems speaking. The first few exchanges are painful and awkward and not easy to read.
‘Ya ya. She – she is. Is. Dha-dha-dha-dha-ng.’ His words were a blur of hard consonants and slithering sibilants that made no sense to Dan.
‘Sorry mate, I didn’t get that.’
Dennis angrily wiped spit from the sides of his mouth. He looked flushed, embarrassed, as though he was furious at Dan. ‘I-I wi-wish sh-sh-she wouwad. Wad. Wad. Wad dj dj djusshtd die.’
Dan grows attuned to the way Dennis speaks and Tsiolkas drops the literal rendering in a couple of pages. It works perfectly. For Dan and for the reader, the difficulty fades away as the person emerges.
Quirks of expression can become iconic, when done with real skill. The gnomic syntax of Yoda. The fluidity of thought of Joyce’s Molly Bloom to Eimear McBride’s narrator in A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Each of the creatures in The Wind in the Willows or Winnie the Pooh. Jane Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, drew five provincial country spinsters with extraordinary distinction. When it comes to depicting detail on an epic canvas, read Charles Dickens.
Finally, and I may have said this before, but Dylan Thomas is rarely bettered for character through idiolect than in Under Milk Wood.
Know Your Character’s Voice
Many authors answers character questions – what paper does he read? If she was a cocktail… that sort of thing.
Take the time to craft your characters’ speech. Know who would say sports car and who’d say Maserati. Decide who swears, what slang each person uses, the imagery they use and their cultural references in speech. Know what they sound like and why.
Write it all down and use about five percent of that information.
Respect your readers’ intelligence. Spell nothing out. Hint and suggest, but never tell the reader how to read.
Show, not tell.
Whisper, don’t shout.
Image by Timothy Brown
August 1, 2014
A guest post by Barbara Scott Emmett
Like most writers I scribbled from an early age – poems and stories, homemade magazines for which I was the sole contributor – you know the sort of thing. You would think therefore that I was set on a brilliant writing career before I was out of junior school. Alas, like all hero(in)es my journey was beset by obstacles. Many were the byways I lost myself in before I found my One True Path. The Trolls of Indecision and The Lure of Other Artistic Outlets had to be conquered before I could reach my goal.
It started with The Jezzebels – note the two zeds. This was a girl group I set up with a couple of schoolmates, Sylvia and Hazel. Sylvia changed her name to Cilla, I called myself Bob, or Apples, (don’t ask – it really isn’t worth it) and Hazel sensibly stuck to her own name.
Oh how we entertained the neighbours – Hazel plinking away at my mother’s piano, me on my ten bob guitar and Cilla doing a Mick Jagger impression with the maraccas my brother brought back from British Guiana. Occasionally the brass candlesticks would be deployed – makes a satisfying chink, does brass.
Growing up and other life experiences got in the way of our glittering career. The Jezzebels faded from memory.
Travel, education and some failed relationships later, I took up Art. With Art I could mooch around moodily in paint-spattered jeans and suffer. My blue period John and Yoko was extremely well thought of; almost everyone could guess who it was meant to be.
Copying photographs and album covers was all very well but it was never going to make me the next Hockney. Despite a steady hand and a prediliction for painting in different shades of the one colour, I had to admit the truth: I lacked the spark of originality necessary for greatness.
The battered paintbox was slung to the back of the cupboard with the ten bob guitar.
I met up with writing again. We flirted and dabbled. Created satisfying sentences, felicitous phrases, veracious vignettes. But the Troll of Music hadn’t finished with me yet.
When a singer-songwriter boyfriend upped and went to Germany to pursue his career I was devastated. I coped with this rejection by deciding to outdo him. (I think this is known as the I’ll-get-you-you-bastard form of therapy.) Despite an inability to distinguish a B flat from an A minor, I equipped myself with a Fender acoustic and a Play in a Day instruction booklet. I learned all the chords I hadn’t bothered with in my earlier musical interlude.
In no time at all I was strumming along with my Nigerian friend Bowale while he slapped his congas and shouted in Yoruba. It was a kind of Sprechgesang but a lot louder. Astonishingly, we got gigs in pubs. Some of them actually gave us money. Other friends, inspired by our bewildering overnight success, muscled in on the action. Before long I was a member of a seven piece combo called Nigerian Grass and had acquired an electric guitar and an amplifier. The band now featured at least three real musicians. (Who let them in?)
We played on the then burgeoning Alternative Comedy circuit. (Reader, I shared a dressingroom with Paul Merton!) I put our success down to the fact that African music was becoming popular at that time but no one yet knew enough about it to realise what it should sound like. The highlight of our career was a gig at the Rock Garden. Which just goes to show you can get away with anything if you have thick enough skin. And a good sound engineer.
Sadly, musical differences (the fact that some of us could actually play an instrument while some of us, ahem, couldn’t) eventually split us up.
There was nothing else for it. I returned to my first and most lasting love: writing.
And I’ve never looked back. Well, apart from a brief foray into amateur dramatics but I soon hacked the head off that Troll. (Actually, it was my head that was hacked off. I played Dr Crippen’s wife and was poisoned, shot, chopped up and boiled. I only appeared in the first act.)
So after many adventures, after finding myself lost in numerous dark woods, after fending off all the dragons that tried to steer me from my course, I finally killed the Grendel, found the Grail, and married the princess.
Writing and I have been together for nearly thirty years now. We’ve spawned a clutch of novels, a fistful of short stories and a bunch of miscellaneous other scribblings.
And we’re still very much in love.
Barbara Scott Emmett’s new novel Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion will be published in association with Triskele Books in October 2014. The ebook will be available from 1st August. Find out more about it here. (http://bit.ly/1rYqaDT )
Her other work is available from Amazon, Smashwords, and other online stores via Pentalpha Publishing Edinburgh. Find out more from her blog or website.
Check out An Erotic Conversation on this very blog, where Barbara and I discuss what constitutes hot writing.
My Blog http://barbarascottemmett.blogspot.co.uk/
July 9, 2014
Passion for place is something I never stop banging on about.
Today marks my one year anniversary as guest columnist of The Displaced Nation.
So what better time for a birthday retrospective of my favourite replies?
And for extra icing, a handful of books feature location as a character in its own right.
Barbara Scott-Emmett never learns.
She’s let me back onto her blog, despite the last incident.
Here I talk about The One That Got Away… Or Did It?
Since throwing myself into the world of publishing, I have been staggered by the kindness and generosity of other professionals.
The Book Designer blog showcases 9 Self-Publishing Fiction Writers You Should Follow Today.
I’ve met some, interviewed others and follow most on that list. They scare me by how much they achieve, but I find them all inspiring.
Yet I’d like to put forward a list of my own. Not only self-published, but from across the spectrum.
These people taught me much about the craft of writing and I return to them again and again.
How To Be Disciplined. How To Be Courageous. How To Be A Writer.
Thank you, People!
July 2, 2014
The newspaper I’ve read since I was able to choose for myself is The Guardian. We share a roughly similar world view, their standard of journalism is high and they tackle controversial issues. Best of all, I love their books section, book passion and literary mindset. I could spend all day browsing their features and reviews.
They were one of the first broadsheets to get behind self-publishing as a serious literary phenomenon and I couldn’t have been prouder to appear in their pages as a Reader Recommended indie book last year.
Now they’ve launched a prize for Best Self-Published Book, which runs monthly. Hooray!
(Note: As a non-UK resident, I am ineligible to enter. This is not a ‘How Dare They Overlook My Genius’ hissy fit, but a general concern.)
It’s early days, but the first two winning books have been selected and duly reviewed. Two very different winners; a comic romp and the story of a suffragette.
Much to admire in Tom Moran’s Dinosaurs and Prime Numbers, but the reviewer says this:
But it is surprisingly easy to forget that Dinosaurs and Prime Numbers is self-published – that it hasn’t been through the editing, streamlining, stringent process of a publishing house. Spelling, grammar, the rest of it, are all spot-on, and Moran’s story hangs together neatly, pleasingly, and open-endedly ready for a follow-up.
… a slice of (sometimes) comic fantasy which deserves comparison to the likes of Robert Rankin – another author who isn’t afraid to pile on the quips, and who nonetheless enjoys a home at a mainstream publisher. There’s talent, here, if you can trample through the jokes to find it.
The reviewer of The Right of the Subjects, by Jude Starling, makes her judgement in the headline. A closely researched and passionately told story of suffragism, this novel could have been greatly improved by a conventional publisher.
… They [editors] may remind you that people don’t describe themselves as going somewhere with “our eyes shining”. They’ll mention that The Right of the Subjects might not be the most alluring title. They won’t let you use the word “tut” three times on one page, or the same formula each time you describe someone’s physical appearance, or have a character called Annie appearing alongside a character called Amie. They’ll tell you when your book is, say, 25% (30,000 words or so, in this case) too long.
Rather makes me glad I’m not eligible if this is my reward. A pat on the head for a ‘nice try’?
I have several issues with this.
If you are awarding a prize for the Best Self-Published Novel, why not choose one you can rave about? I’m a regular reviewer for Bookmuse, never differentiating between indie, trad or small press (unless I feel it deserves a mention, such as with A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing). I’ve read literary fiction, horror, in translation, YA, thriller and general fiction from a range of sources, and won’t review if I can’t recommend. Not one self-published novel on the site merited such half-hearted enthusiasm as these prize winners. If I were Mr Moran or Ms Starling, I’d find this chalice not quite poisoned, but certainly corked.
Traditional/conventional/mainstream/trade publishing is not always better. Top indie authors use professional editors, copy editors and proofreaders. They work with expert designers and typesetters. They work hard on their marketing just the same as any midlist author with a trad press must, and are often more creative and flexible in reaching readers.
Example of trade press publication editing: (author unnamed as I see this as publisher failure).p.21 – A. was explaining something to S., elaborately gesticulating. He liked to use them a lot while talking, just like an Italian. p. 42 – Wrong character name p. 68 – Wrong character name p. 77 – For a few seconds, she lost balance, the creaking tyres leaving a long black mark behind. p. 81 – C smiled afflicted. p. 89 – Truly awful metaphor p. 90 – …there was something grander then the trivial petty misery p. 90 – A fomer boyfriend p. 109 – The spheric sound of Goldfrap p. 129 – “Take me under you microscope” p. 132 – …as she watched him filetting that turbot p. 138 – Mother and daugther. p. 157 – C. and her friends are a rangle of mid-thirties character without…
The assessment of what ‘the best’ is always going to be subjective. Is that a polished package with its own branding? Or something that makes news because it sells? Or a brilliantly imaginative experiment in a tacky cover with a nasty font? Or a multimedia set of discoverables for readers to assemble and interpret? Or ‘almost as good as something the Big Five might put out’?
I find it depressing that the first two reviews of Best Self-Published Books in The Guardian/Legend Prize contain such reactionary observations and still hold up the trade model as ideal.
Self-publishing’s grown up.
Time reviewers caught up.
June 15, 2014
Words with JAM – the thinking person’s litmag – has a new competition. Fun, challenging and free!
A condensed spoof of your favourite genre, up to 1000 words. For examples, see below.
It could only happen to Honey!
She’s standing in the rain in only her chemise, her Uggs are soaked and the keys are still upstairs in her Mulberry Bayswater. She only ran out to stop JayCee escaping into the cute little park at the end of her divine Chelsea mews terrace. But the blue-point Siamese has a mind of his own. He slipped between Honey’s shapely, tanned and smooth ankles, just before the door slammed shut. Just wait till she tells the girls about this tonight at the Balenciaga apero!
A taxi pulls up and a man gets out. Honey has no time to notice the Savile Row suit, the hand-tooled Italian leather loafers and rose-gold Rolex Oyster, because she’s hypnotised by his absinthe-green eyes.
“You’re wet,” he says, his voice the rich roasted brown of Sicilian espresso.
“I know,” she breathes, her voice the rippling tinkle of Nepalese windchimes.
Allegra, Sophia and Loveday screech when they hear about the tall, dark, handsome, minted neighbour. By half-past Bellini, they’re talking weddings.
“And his name?” demands Allegra.
Sophia tuts. “If it’s neither one or three syllables, darling, I simply forbid further contact.”
Honey does the Lady Di (dipped chin, coy smile, lowered lashes).
Allegra gasps. “OhEmGee, it’s both!”
“His name’s Benedict Story. But I can call him Ben.”
Screams, air kisses, more Bellinis.
Loveday cuts to the cuticle. “So no visible weirds?”
Honey hesitates. “He is a bit… odd. He wants to know my ‘über-narrative’ and says stuff like ‘Content is king’. Is that normal?”
Sophia scowls. “Probably works in publishing. Does he have a hairy back?”
Shanice finds her, eventually, with no tears left to cry. When Honey spills the reason she collapsed on the Conran chaise, unable to move since her morning macchiato, Shanice shrugs and gets on with the dusting. Honey gathers all her sobbed-out strength to confront her. Shanice says Ben has a point. Not only does Benedict see Honey as shallow and lacking a developmental arc, but her cleaning lady agrees! Honey can’t bear it. She has no alternative. She must go to Bali.
A monk in saffron robes (totes perfect for the downstairs bathroom) tells Honey she needs a spiritual leader. She tells him she already has one and confesses why she named her cat JayCee. Turns out he’s never heard of Jimmy Choo.
Meditation sucks. At least while sitting still for a facial peel, Honey knows she’ll look radiant. Inner contemplation is about as interesting as Radio Four. Sophia, Allegra and Loveday are in New York but ‘admire Honey so much for seeking herself’. Easy to say when sipping Cosmopolitans on Fifth Avenue.
Heathrow Airport, even after a First Class full reclining bed and antioxidant breakfast, is absolutely as hellish as Honey remembers. But before she can hail a taxi, a burly, brawny and Tom-Ford-scented pair of arms spin her off her feet.
“Benedict Story! I… um… what… er… ohm…”
“Honey. I missed you. So did JayCee. I may look like a catalogue model with passionate ethics and expressive brows, but I’m just a boy in love with the girl next door. Could we combine our expertise and contacts? What say we set up a bespoke personal service providing a beginning, middle and end for the terminally vacuous?”
“Why Benedict, I adore the idea. Whatever shall we call it?”
He blushes attractively. “If you will consent to become my wife, we could call it… Making Up Stories.”
It’s Friday night in Greensville, Colorado. Apple-cheeked Melanie Mills is pretty tired after school and a volunteer shift at Kitty Corner, the homeless cat charity. But tonight is special. She has a secret. She tells her folks she’s studying with the girls and heads out for her romantic blind date.
I’m neither romantic nor blind, but I’m waiting for you, Melanie. Inside my head is a lonely place. Inside my pocket is a garlic crusher. Tonight is for Daddy.
Lauren Laphroaig (don’t try to pronounce it, honey, you’ll choke) is woken at 3am by the phone. On the other end is Detective O’Malley, wearing a shower cap on each shoe, shouting at civilians to stand back and chain-smoking cheroots. The mutilated body of an apple-cheeked teenage girl just washed up in the creek. Lauren sighs, swears and drags on a leather jacket. En route to the river, she listens to Miles Davis, snacks on a chilli dog and regrets her inability to commit to relationships.
Chief Inspector Elmet Bird is at the scene when she arrives; besuited, livid and in urgent need of soundbites for the city council. Lauren rolls her eyes (because she’s feisty) and mimes ‘Bird Brain’ to O’Malley. Bird spots their sniggering and assigns one of his own to assist in the investigation. Travis C. Weed is a law-enforcement-consultant with an apricot tie and a handshake limper than wilted chard.
Pathologist Rita Ferrongut won’t hazard a wild guess as to cause of death, insisting on a full PM first. Lauren and Weed talk to Melanie’s parents (traumatic), her friends (dramatic) and the weird owner of the cat sanctuary (erratic). Weed takes everything in his stride and asks intelligent questions. Lauren notices his long eyelashes and warm smile but still hates his tie.
The morgue. Ferrongut is having lunch (sashimi, sushi and edamame beans) over Melanie’s eviscerated corpse. She offers everyone chopsticks, while demonstrating how the victim’s injuries were caused by kitchen implements, including an oyster schucker. Weed rushes out to puke. Ferrongut belches. Lauren sighs, swears and goes home for a hot shower.
Time to wash off all that death, grief and wasabi. Wraps herself in bathrobe, fills whisky glass, puts on Chet Baker, has bitter phone call with ex-husband. “Married to the job? Maybe. But I’d rather be married to something I care about.” She sighs, swears and sleeps on the sofa.
Detective O’Malley uncovers police records for Barry King, owner of Kitty Corner. The man is dangerous. So Lauren decides to investigate, at night, alone, with no phone. Oh, and it’s raining.
Stumbling blindly through the midnight-black catty-combs beneath the feline refuge, Lauren is whacked on the back of the head. When she comes around, she’s in a cage, gagged and tied with fish scales smeared on her face. Barry (call me Bar) King, with fetid tuna breath, unveils his master plan – the only restaurant in the world to serve human flesh.
Weed, worried, turns up at Lauren’s house. He finds her mobile and listens to the last message. Kitty Corner? That weird guy who smelt of Whiskas? Of course! He tracks them down and calls for back up. But waiting is not an option when Bar King selects the Hiromoto Hacker from his knife block. Today’s Dish of the Day, with truffle oil and rocket, will be Carpaccio of Inner Thigh.
Weed mans up and bursts in, wrests the cleaver from the madman’s grasp and stabs King with a chopstick. With his last gurgling breaths, King explains he was abused as a child and only allowed to eat tofu.
Beside the corpse, Weed unties Lauren and wipes the scales from her cheek. Relieved, she holds him tight. Confused, he confesses his love.
Lauren sighs, swears and with one regretful lingering kiss, moves on to the sequel.