Greetings, fellow writers, and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This week, I thought I’d answer a few reader queries.
Most weeks, on this blog, we look at the first page of a novice author’s novel or short story and consider ways to make it better. I think it’s the most useful way to learn, but it does make one or two macro aspects of craft difficult to shoehorn into the discussion. So occasionally I like to do posts focusing on some compositional principle or broader topic, so we can think about bigger concepts alongside our micro-fixes on the line.
If there’s enough interest, I’d like to make the Mailbag a semi-regular feature – not as a replacement for our In The Barber’s Chair segments, but as bonus Monday episodes. If you have a question about any aspect of fiction writing or fiction editing, let me know by emailing me via the ‘Contact Me’ link in the right-hand column, or pop your query into the comments box below. I’ll do my best to tackle it, unless I don’t know the answer in which case I’ll just throw my hands up in despair and look resentful.
The other reason I fancied a change this week is because I am (finally) deep into first draft mode on the new novel. Oy, it was horrible getting started. But now I have some momentum and I am cheerfully churning out poop prose at an acceptable daily rate. The Great Editing Troll snores loudly in the dungeon of my subconscious. I don’t want him to wake up until I need him. Later on, I’m going to unleash him and he will crush skulls and wreak terrible vengeance. But right now, I need my Magical Creativity Piskies to generate content. Lots and lots of content. If they see the Editing Troll they will – rightly – get spooked and flee.
Basically, what I am saying is: editing skills are an essential and powerful tool. Like a chainsaw. But if you can’t switch them off and you use them indiscriminately, they’re fatal. Like a chainsaw.
The novel’s due out in April, by the way guys. The Honours. Don’t forget.
So, ZZ Toph writes:
Do you have any advice on how to introduce sudden action without using signposts like ‘suddenly’?
Compare these two versions:
‘I don’t care much for your talking to me like that,’ said Finn.
Suddenly, his head detached from his shoulders with a wet thwack.
‘I don’t care for much your talking to me like that,’ said Finn.
His head detached from his shoulders with a wet thwack.
Which is more of a shock? Which better conveys a sense of suddenness?
So there’s your answer. Almost every instance of ‘suddenly’ can be replaced with… fuck all. Try it! It will feel terrifying and transgressive at first, like weeing with the toilet door open when you’re home alone, but – also like weeing with an open door – it is ultimately liberating and doing it makes you a total mensch.
A quick mea culpa is necessary here – if you search We Can’t All Be Astronauts on Google Books, you’ll see I’ve used ‘suddenly’ a bunch. And I think almost every instance could have been avoided. Sorry! My non-fiction voice is hella sloppy compared to my fiction voice. If I had followed my own advice it would have been a punchier book. (he said like a shitty Jacob Marley with chains forged from redundant adverbs and tautologies like ‘my own’ – ‘my’ is already a possessive, you cackhanded dead dickwad!)
Next up, Dan writes:
I’m extremely interested in voice at the moment and wondered, how would you describe or categorise your voice? I’ve always found the informal voice difficult to master without slipping into the narrative style of a teenager from Hollyoaks. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on voice and any problems you’ve overcome.
Voice, I think, is the number one thing agents and editors are looking for – particularly with literary fiction. A really compelling, quirky or sympathetic narrator can more or less obliterate the need for story. Indeed, a lot of voice novels that I’ve read really struggle in that final quarter, often shoehorning in a contrived denouement to make the book feel like a coherent whole and not just a series of engaging, interrelated anecdotes.
‘Voice’ sounds like it should be entirely about style, but actually it’s a complicated mix of stylistic decisions and point-of-view. Like, to pick one of the most famous examples, we talk about enjoying Holden Caulfield’s unique voice in Catcher In The Rye, but really what we’re attending to is a combination of vocal tics (‘It really is.’ ‘He probably broke every toe in her body.’) and the lens through which he views the world (Holden is both a cynic and an idealist). If Holden’s voice was all style and no perspective, then he’d just be irritating. And if it was all his ‘isn’t the adult world a terrible place oh by the way I have a skeevy fascination with prepubescent girls’ perspective and no style, then he’d just be every second poster on 4chan.
The same with Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. We’re simultaneously enjoying Thompson’s twisted, pyrotechnic prose (‘What were we doing out here…? What was the meaning of this trip? Did I actually have a big red convertible out there on the street? Was I just roaming around these Mint Hotel escalators in a drug frenzy of some kind, or had I really come out here to Las Vegas to work on a story?‘) and his skewering of corrupt, complacent America. (‘The Circus-Circus is what the whole world would be doing Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the Sixth Reich.’) Drug stories are legendary in their tediousness, but he has a character and he has an angle.
The same with True Grit. Or non-fiction(ish) like Michael Herr’s Dispatches or Hemingway’s Death In The Afternoon. These are people you just want to hang out with, not because they’re necessarily nice, but because a distinct set of prose tactics intersects with (and sometimes arises out of) an interesting take on the world.
Hemingway, for instance, is prize streak of dong yoghurt if ever there was one – a nasty, swaggering bigot – but there’s a weird, vulnerable humanity that wrongfoots you. (Thompson made a career of following the staggering Hemingway zombie, collecting limbs as they fell off and sucking out the juicy bits) It’s not enough just to say ‘but damn, he can write’. That’s not a thing. It’s an almost meaningless assertion. In Death In The Afternoon he’s freewheeling and arrogant and he does these showboaty flights of whimsy and breaks off into sub-sections like an improv troupe. At one stage he introduces an old lady character who starts taking over the narrative to chide him about his book’s failings:
A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE DEAD
Old lady: I don’t care for the title.
Author: I didn’t say you would. You may very well not like any of it. But here it is…
And later on in the book:
Old lady: I thought you said it wasn’t about animals.
Author: It won’t be for long. Be patient, can’t you? It’s very hard to write like this.
This rather gentle humour in a book about the majesty and art of slaughtering animals for sport is oddly disarming. But notice it’s not especially complex. The ‘voice’ comes from the point of view, not from manic adjective-stacking.
Voice – of course – exists in third-person narratives too. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Suzanna Clarke is one of my favourite examples. (although technically I suppose one could argue the toss, since we know that the narrator is implicitly Lord Portishead, a character from the novel) Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels are third-person, but they have a consistent, deceptively simple storytelling voice that renders the content crisp and compelling. Wind In The Willows has a beautiful voice to it.
I do have a little bit of a bias to declare – I love a strong voice in a novel, but I reckon the world of literary publishing sometimes gets a bit starry-eyed over voice to the detriment of, you know, plot and structure. It’s a lot to ask, really, and in a way I’d prefer a decent voice with a limp fart of a plot to a slick plot delivered via shit prose. But often critics turn backflips over first-person narrators who, frankly, sound like competent audition pieces by third-year drama students. You know – not bad, or anything. But disproportionately praised, I feel, versus poor old plot, smoking rollies out by the bins.
You’ll get your moment in the spotlight one day, plot. Your time will come.
Voice isn’t about your character seeing a tree and immediately drenching it in the steaming piss of half a dozen similes. It’s about giving your reader an amazing new pair of spectacles that transforms how he or she sees the world. Maybe they connect objects we never knew were connected. Maybe they make all of the animals really huge, and all the people fade into the background. Maybe they make everyone look like monsters. Maybe they let us see through time. Maybe they block out our vision completely, but our sense of smell becomes almost unbearably intense. Maybe they are mirrors, and they help us see that we’ve been wearing spectacles all this time without realising it.
The best way to start engaging with voice is to read lots of voicey novels (I’d recommend any of the ones I’ve mentioned – oh, and I’m reading Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey at the moment, which is very good so far). You might also want to read some theatre books on exploring characters. Introducing authors to a lot of entry-level exercises about getting under a character’s skin and asking them questions and trying to experience them from the inside-out is like bringing fire to the monkeys. Seriously. Crosstrain, you pricks.
And on that note, the Mailbag is closed.