Speaking about an author’s voice

annieb Last week I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet Annie Barrows, who was a co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Her new book, The Truth According to Us is set in 1938 in the fictional West Virginia town of Macedonia. It looks at how stories create different versions of the truth, and how the past is mostly stories that have been told over and over.
Annie talked about how, when she studied writing, there was a lot said about an author’s voice – on finding what it was about the way you told a story and the stories you chose to tell, that was unique.
Of course, she threw that out the window when she came to complete the story of Guernsey – she had to tell the story the way her aunt would have told it. As she’d grown up with her aunt and her mother telling her stories , that was something she could do, and do so seamlesly that readers can’t unpick where Mary Ann’s storytelling stopped and Annie’s began.
This got me thinking … you can read a lot about an author’s voice and the cultivation thereof. About how it needs to be originl and authentic. How it should have authority and a distinctive style.
But I think if I sat down at a keyboard to write, while consciously thinking about my voice, I would silence myself. Overanalysis would equal writer’s block. The books that I’ve read, the things that I’ve seen, the people that I’ve known – all of that influences the stories and the way that I tell those stories – but not consciously.
Could I tell someone else’s story their way?
It’s an interesting question. Annie’s experience of finishing her aunt’s book made me wonder if I’m close enough to anyone elses fictional heartland to write with their voice.
I don’t think I could, and that made me admire even more what Annie Barrows has achieved with her writing.

Too cool for school slam poetry


The night before last I attended the slam poetry competition at my son’s school.
It was awesome.
The kids were awesome.

There’s nothing more inspiring than being in a room with people who have a passion for words and who let those words out. Huge kudos to Mark Buzolic, the Varsity College teacher who got this idea on its feet and has made it happen now for three years. He’s a big inspiration to his students and leads by example with writing and performing poetry. Thanks also to local poet and performer Louise Moriarty who helped widen out the world view on where poetry might lead you.

The theme was “too cool for school” and the poetry went to some pretty interesting places with that as a starting point. I went home with my head buzzing.

It’s been a lot of years since I wrote any poetry, but I woke up the next morning with the first eight lines of a poem, on the theme, that really needed to be slammed.
The rest just kind of followed.

So, here it is. *

A problem with school
Don’t ask me a question,‘cause you won’t like my answer,
Yes, sir, no, sir, yeah, I got a plan, sir –
Sliding through school by the seat of my pants, sir.
Not learning, just burning with frustration like a cancer
And ridden by yearning for sensations that’ll answer
Why we’ve hidden all the meaning in a puzzle that won’t fit;
Why we’re bidden to wear muzzles so our teacher won’t get bit.
Plus, the problem you’re posing’s not the part that needs solution,
It’s your model of mendacity that calls for revolution.
It’s the certainty of surliness when authority is questioned,
As you tug the leash that lashes our attention to your lesson.
Your didactic pedagogy’s like a bullet to my brain,
Your regurgitated data runs like refuse down the drain.
I’m not learning, just rehashing –
Aimed at earning, that’s the fashion.
“Get on track, with the agenda!”
Disgorge facts – return to sender.
‘Cause my passion and my thinking’s not required,
Just neuron-shrinking, soulless, uninspired
Standardisation, in our schools and in our nation:
“Learn this data, toe the line, get a job and you’ll be fine,
Work from 9 to 5 and then – repeat, repeat, repeat again.”
Drink a beer, watch the screen, numb your brain. It is obscene.
Trudging through a slow accretion of life’s tedious secretions,
Piling up the lies they’ve told me,
All the ties and binds that hold me.
Parents, teachers, priests and leaders,
Taste the pap they try to feed us:
“Be quiet! Be attentive! Be upstanding! Be retentive!
Be obedient and passive!
Take your medicine!” It’s massive
Doses of a numbing poppy,
A barbiturate for happy hordes of factory slaves,
Worked from school into our graves.
“Never question! Don’t complain! Sit up straight! Do it again!”
Should I be a lotus eater, stuck in amber like a fly?
A bloated bottom-feeder, mucking out their stinking sty?
A corporate dream-believer, buying slices of the lie,
And then pass and work and rut and spend and gorge until I die?
If that’s the dream you’re selling, then I don’t want to buy.
And all the lies you’re telling can’t convince me I should try
To play the game, and be the same, and lie and cry and die.
So it’s time for the rhyme that calls your paradigm a crime.
‘Cause I’m sick of the hating, all the waiting, anticipating
That it’s gonna get better when it only gets worse
So instead of a letter, I’ve said it with a verse,
Like a twisted vendetta, tied up with a curse:
Take your learning and your earning –
Shove it where the sun don’t shine.
I can think and read and love and learn with passion, I’ll be fine.
And while you’re ticking boxes
And banging square pegs in round holes,
I’ll be living life outside the box and nurturing my soul.

*being too cool for school does not, necessarily, reflect the opinions of the management, you know what I’m saying? But I had fun constructing a slam for the affirmative side in the notional ‘are you too cool for school’ debate.

So, written any poetry lately, or, you know, in the last decade or so?


Happy trails and horses as characters

If I had a horse, today would be the day that I gave it cake. So, happy birthday horses of the world.

I don’t know a great deal about horses, not practical things, never having had anything much to do with them, unless you count reading a lot of horse adventure fiction when I was 9 or 10. Which I don’t. I’m making that sneery ‘you’re kidding me, right?’ face at myself right now.

I think horses rate high on the aesthetics of form chart and I adore the words that are associated with all things equine – fetlock, snaffle, currycomb and withers – as well as all the different words that only get used to descibe horse gaits and horse colours and, of course, different breeds. A whole lexicon in itself.

But, while writing historical fiction, if one wants to get one’s characters from point A to place B  then one needs, quite possibly, a horse. And while I think the idea of naming a car is vaguely ridiculous, a horse is a character and needs a name. And a personality. And a description. And a relationship with its person.

And so my main character’s horse went through four name changes because, frankly, I think you can tell a lot about a person from what they choose to name their companion creatures and how they interact with them. Quite early on I had settled on Argus for my main character’s hound, because he is a rangy, spotted dog and, obviously, Greek mythology has both the multi-eyed giant and Odysseus’ faithful Argos.

But that ruled out another mythological or Classical name for the horse.

A virtue name, perhaps? It was 1832, after all. But, no, it’s not really the sort of thing the character would do.

An everyday kind of person name? No, not quite right either.

And then I saw a photo of a beautiful black and white horse, which didn’t really look like a funny little seabird, but something about the white blaze and white chest reminded me of a puffin. And so Puffin got her name.

Which was fortuitous, because it provided an unforced, lightly jocular piece of dialogue when some of the characters were getting to know each other. And even though she’s not real, still I wrote her so she is kind of my horse, so happy birthday Puffin!

Any suggestions on great horse names very welcome…

The first and third person

people-threeI’ve been working on finishing a story that I started writing years ago, but put aside to work on other things. I still really like it and have added around 11,000 words in the last three weeks to the 43,000 I already had. Which is great, but, this last week, it’s been feeling … wrong.

And when I read what I’ve written out loud (I so recommend this even if you’re pretty sure it makes you look crazy – just, you know, get a room) it sounds wrong.

I’m now convinced that I need to rewrite it in first person, with the main character telling the story. I have thought this before, and when I came back to it three weeks ago I thought it again. But, I told myself that I’d just finished a manuscript written in first person and I was just being a princess about changing over to third person.

Nope. I’m afraid not.

It’s already so strongly from this character’s point of view that it feels odd not to be in first person.

So, wish me luck in rewriting now, before I go any further, and tell me, have you ever had to change from 1st to 3rd or from 3rd to 1st? Ever discovered your tense was all wrong, or changed your whole manuscript’s point of view?

Go on, make me feel like this is normal, fellow writers.

Today is tomorrow’s history

oude waalToday, I’ve been putting together some notes for tomorrow’s writers’ group in the library. We’ll be talking about a writer’s online presence so, today, I’m posting to my blog so that, tomorrow, I don’t look like a hypocrite when I say you really should post regularly.

Hello future me! Hello writers’ group!

And, speaking of the future me, nearly four million people have used FutureMe.org, so it may not be new to you, but I was intrigued to discover that you can send your future self an email. I have read old diaries and letters that I wrote years ago – so much intensity! – and I imagine this is the non-hoarder’s, paperless version.

What are the things you think you might need to remind your future self?

What are the things you wish you could tell your earlier self?

I found the link to Future Me with an amazing bunch of resources for writers on the toolkit page of Jenny Blake. Absolutely stellar stuff, including an incredible, free, 15 tab book marketing schedule. Thank you, Ms Blake, it’s very generous of you.


Historical fashion faux pas

1830 fashion plate History is full of fashion that clashes horrifically with current aesthetics.

I’m fairly certain that one of the reasons for the popularity of Regency-era historical fiction is that the women’s fashions were, for a brief period there, relatively simple. They look a lot better, to our modern eyes, because of it.

My WIP is set in 1832 and by then women’s fashions had swung away from the simplicity of the Empire style to something a little more atrocious. OK, a lot further along the ugly scale than most of us are comfortable with. The ideal female silhouette had wide, wide skirts, a tiny little waist, sloping shoulders, leg of mutton sleeves and hair bunched over the ears so that one looked like a spaniel.

But, as you might imagine given that my working title is “This Unnatural Masquerade”, there is some gender obfuscation going on. And in this respect, the 1830s are the perfect time for a young woman to pass herself off as a man, as you can tell from the fashion plate to the left.

Is he not the last word in manliness?

Sew ready for stories?

patchwork I love knowing the names for things.

If you’ve read The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin you will already know that, of course, the true names for things have power. Sometimes, all those names, all those lovely words, can be overwhelming….

Fowler’s Cut is a short story (under 3000 words) that takes place in an archaic city where magic and trade and crime converge.

I submitted it (unsuccessfully) to the Small Owl Workshop’s Lane of Unusual Traders world building project. What a lovely thing it is that they are making! I’ve edited my story to remove the identifiers that placed it in their world.

It’s immersive. I got carried away with words – with the names of colours and fabric, just as I get carried away with the tactile enjoyment of sewing something like the patchwork throw in the picture.

And, fair warning, there’s dialect. Sorry. I won’t do it again, I promise.

The fourth is strong in this one

action figure yodaGreetings fellow nerds and sci-fi fans and happy Star Wars Day.

What I like about Yoda, well, what’s not to like about Yoda? But what I particularly like about Yoda is that his distinctive syntax makes him an even more memorable and amazing character than he would otherwise be.

So simply done, and so effective.

I have been assured that I cannot, should not and must not use dialect in my story – “ee, by gum, an’ it were so grand!” But distinctive syntax is fine. So Yoda is my writing insiration for this week.

Letting the wins fill my sails

I’ve always written. But I rarely used to finish what I started writing.

I decided to change that, 18 months ago, when I won a local short story writing competition and determined to put the money that I won towards attending a 5 day writing masterclass. This time last week I was pitching my manuscript to Anna, HarperCollins fiction publisher, at Fiona McIntosh’s commercial fiction masterclass.

It was a fantastic experience. If going from a dreamer, who has stories to tell, to a published author can be called the writer’s journey, the 5 days of masterclass were like catching a lift on the inter-city express bullet train.  Absolutely life-changing.

Now I’m a lot further down the road, or the tracks, which is odd when I started this post with a boat metaphor. Anyway, I have attached my short story, which needed to be a maximum of 1500 words on the Gold Coast having both the hinterland forests and the beaches to enjoy.

I hope you enjoy reading:  Bonogin Dusk, Burleigh Dawn

Playing in the graveyard

I spent a lot of time in graveyards when I was a child.

Well, I guess it wasn’t a lot of time, but my mum had a thing about stopping at old cemeteries and walking along reading the headstones out loud to us, with suitable asides about the names, the dates and the mundane tragedy of death as experienced by complete strangers a century before.

So there are graveyards in the story I’m writing, and I added in another one when I was writing a scene today. Despite working on historical fiction, I was aided by Google maps – I knew exactly where I wanted the event to take place, around 300 years ago. I had a look at the street view of Duns to get a sense of the layout, and there directly across the road is a fabulous old cemetery, raised up above the road. What a perfect stage for a dramatic declaration.