Okay, due to a slight technical hitch, I’ve been unable to bring you the Very Special Guest post which was originally scheduled for today, so, rather than deprive you of this pleasure full stop, I’ve decided to deftly step in with my own regular contribution and then (hopefully!) reschedule the guest post for my usual slot in a couple of weeks’ time.
Anyway, today I thought I’d reflecton the subject of ‘the voice.’ No, not the television programme of that name, but the art of finding the right words for what you’re trying to say and putting them down in the right order, in– perhaps most importantly – a manner which perfectly suits the story that you’re trying to write.
When I first joined the Paisley Writers' Group a decade or more ago, this challenge was thrown down almost immediately. You must find your voice. Well known authors frequently remind us of this fact, almost invariably adding (as if trying to become a writer is not demoralising enough...) that you’ll have to write a million words or thereabouts until this elusive holy grail is finally within your grasp.
Sadly, there’s more than a grain of truth in these words. The art of stringing words together nicely is the easy part of being a writer, I think. The knack is to move beyond this, to nestle comfortably into a style that’s yours. As a writer, you know when you’ve got into this zone because you feel comfortable when you're writing this way. And because you’re comfortable, the story flows well. This isn’t to say that the first draft will be flawless – in some rare cases, no doubt it will be, but with others (myself included) there’s a lot of homing and polishing required before the block of marble turns into a form that’s pleasing to behold.
It took me about six years and four false starts until I finally found the voice I needed to tell the story behind Fire and Sword. Faced with such a thankless task, I’m sure that most people would have chucked the manuscript aside and left it abandoned, convincing themselves that it was the story that was at fault, not the way in which it was written. But all along I had faith in the story. I knew instinctively that I just needed to find the right way to tell it, and yes, it must have taken at least half a million words (on that one novel alone) until it came out the way I wanted it. After that, writing the follow-up was comparatively easy. I knew the style and the tone that I was wanting, so the transition to writing a new book in a similar vein was relatively seamless.
My current WIP has been an entirely different matter. It’s set partly in the modern world as opposed to the late 15th century, which means that the characters see the world in a totally different way. But despite the recurring presence of mobiles, and cars, and street lights, and wheelie bins, and stuff like that, there's no escaping the truth: the tone and the style remain consistent with my earlier work. All well and good – but when you’re dealing with two time strands, both crucial to the plot, you need a means of differentiation.
And that was the challenge. Finding the right voice for the backstory.
I tried omniscient, writing from the viewpoint of the all-seeing narrator. That didn’t work. I tried Tight Third (always my Last Refuge of the Desperate, because it’s what I invariably use for most of my writing). Nope. No luck there. I wanted First Person, a journal. And I wanted it to be written by a seventeen year old. And therein lay the problem. When Lucy was speaking, she was too old, too sophisticated, too intellectual. Whatever I tried, her voice was just out of reach, a tantalising presence. So I wrote. And I wrote. And I wrote some more. Over and over again.
And then, one day, like a shaft of sunlight piercing the clouds, she was there. I knew her. I saw the world through her eyes. I found my voice, and suddenly the words were singing. Out onto the page they flowed. A gleaming multitude, a splendid deluge. Okay, so she's more Avril Lavaigne than Kiri Te Kanawa, but you know, she's a teenager. That's only to be expected.
Hard work, yes. You cannot believe how much of a slog it was. How many times I despaired of ever capturing the essence of the narrative. All the more frustrating, when I was trying desperately to capture something that was simple and plain in its essence and delivery. Even now, I’ve done no more than reach the point where the true effort really begins, the stage where I begin to sculpt the form from the block of marble.
But the block has been quarried, and now it stands before me, waiting. I see its qualities, its promise, and I'm eager to begin the hard graft.
All of a sudden, the effort is worthwhile.