Monthly Archives: March 2017

7 prompts for wrtiers #4: voice

Another Place by Antony Gormley

Voice is an interesting aspect to writing – at least I find it so. I think of it in two ways. First, there is the writer’s voice. The often difficult-to pin-down ‘something’ which means when we pick up a book we know it is by a particular author (and not only because that author’s name is on the front cover). Secondly, there are the various (and hopefully variable) voices the writer might choose to take on to create, for instance, a character or a tone for a poem.

It might be easier to compare it to actors. There are actors who have a very strong and defined presence – perhaps Michael Cain is an example – and this comes through in any part they play. Then there are actors who appear to morph into different roles. I remember seeing Daniel Day Lewis in three films in a single year – one being My Left Foot – and I would not have been able to say it was the same actor playing the main protagonist in each, his portrayals were so varied. The writer’s voice is part Michael Cain and part Daniel Day Lewis.

So let’s initially look at the Michael Cain aspect of a writer’s voice. I believe it might take a time for a writer to hit upon their voice and this voice – much as with our natural voice – may change over our writing life. I think mine has become more confident, perhaps more measured, less anxious about its nature – which is (I have gathered from feedback) fairly slow, poetic, discursive.

How to nourish this part of the writer’s voice? Write, lots, as freely as you can, bringing you to what you actually want to write, and not what you feel you ought to write. I follow the methods of Julia Cameron (morning pages – thought I rarely do them in the morning – in her book The Artist’s Way) and Nathalie Goldberg (in her book Writing Down the Bones).

The aim of free writing, says Nathalie Goldberg, is to ‘burn through to first thoughts … to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel’, to ‘explore the rugged edge of thought.’ This does take practice and may initially go against our writing instinct.

One thing which certainly squashes the Michael Cain part of our writer’s voice, is criticism (or fear of it) too early in the process, too often and when it is overly or overwhelmingly negative.

Then there is the Daniel Day Lewis aspect. Where does this come from? It comes from listening. Listening to other people: to their use of language, to the cadence of their voice. And from watching, observing their body language. We can also research voices: through interviewing people, through oral history projects and archives. I recently went to the wonderful national centre for the written word in South Shields (http://theworduk.org/visit-us/) where they are collecting examples of dialect both written and spoken. What a great resource.

We do not want all our characters, or poems, to have our voice, so, as writers, we must develop attentive listening skills. Then, once we have done our writing, we must read it out and listen again, to ensure we have captured what we hoped to. I have found the recording function on my computer useful for this, so I can read out and then listen back to my writing.

Writing exercise: take yourself to a local café on your own and choose a corner table. Have a listen. Have a go at reproducing the voices you hear around you in your writing. Or interview someone who has a very different upbringing/background to yourself. Choose parts to transcribe. Notice the use of language. How would you describe the unique cadences in your writing?

What are your thoughts on your writer’s voice?

 

Author Interview: Maggie James

This week I am delighted to invite fellow writer, Maggie James to my blog. Living in Bristol, she writes psychological suspense novels. Her first book, His Kidnapper’s Shoes, was completed in 2011 and self-published in 2013. It has now been republished under a contract with Lake Union. Maggie’s next three books, Sister, Psychopath, Guilty Innocence and The Second Captive followed, along with a free novella, Blackwater Lake. She has also written a non-fiction book aimed at would-be authors, called Write Your Novel! From Getting Started to First Draft. She recently signed a two-book deal with Bloodhound Books for Guilty Innocence and The Second Captive. They will be republished later in 2017. 

Her latest novel is After She’s Gone, published by Lake Union on March 16, 2017 (http://smarturl.it/aftershesgone).

Before turning her hand to writing, Maggie worked mainly as an accountant, with a diversion into practising as a nutritional therapist. Diet and health remain high on her list of interests, along with travel. Accountancy does not, but then it never did. The urge to pack a bag and go off travelling is always lurking in the background. When not writing, going to the gym, practising yoga or travelling, Maggie can be found seeking new four-legged friends to pet; animals are a lifelong love.

What are you currently working on?
I have two writing projects on the go at present. One is plotting my sixth novel, title as yet unknown, which will examine the theme of betrayal. I got the idea from a TV documentary centred on con artists and the suffering they wreak on their victims. The concept is still in the early stages, but I’m keen to start writing. The other book I’m working on is a revised version of my second novel, Sister Psychopath.

What has inspired your most recent novel/writing?
My latest novel is After She’s Gone, released on March 16, 2017. I’d been drawn to the theme of arson for a while, as well as examining how a family copes with murder. Somehow the two ideas became interwoven and ended up as After She’s Gone. In the book, the dead body of a teenage girl is found in a burning building, and as her grief-stricken relatives struggle with the fallout, the fires move ever closer to their home. Who is setting them, and why are they targeting the Goldens?

How much do you think fiction intertwines with real life?
Very much so in some cases, as I’ve found out. After I finished the first draft of His Kidnapper’s Shoes, a case came to light in America of a young child who was snatched as a baby and brought up by her abductor. A similar situation, also in the USA, emerged recently. My book wasn’t inspired by such events – I got the idea after a casual conversation – but the similarity was spooky. Sister, Psychopath was also inspired by a real-life murder. As for Blackwater Lake, I suspect that somewhere buried deep in someone’s compulsive hoarding may indeed be the solution to a crime, as happens in my novella.

Many novels have intertwined fiction with real life, of course. Take Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho, based on the killer Ed Gein. Or Lionel Shiver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, inspired by the 1999 Colombine shootings. Real life can provide fertile materials for novelists, and that won’t stop anytime soon.

Could you give five tips on how to tackle either characterisation or plotting or dialogue or descriptive passages?
I think I’ll go with dialogue on this one. Here are my five tips:

  1. This one gets mentioned a lot by authors and editors, but it’s important: don’t overuse speech tags. For the most part it should be clear who’s speaking, so you don’t need to add ‘he said/she said’ to every sentence. It’s unnecessary and clogs the flow of the discourse. Less is more.
  2. For dialogue that does require a speech tag, keep it simple. ‘Said’ is often the most effective one. You don’t need verbs like ‘averred’, ‘theorised’, ‘opined’, etc. The brain tends to skip over short, familiar words like ‘said’, whereas ‘expostulated’ will cause it to do a double take. You don’t want to write something that will jar the reader’s attention away from your story.
  3. Make it sound natural, but without all the ‘ums’, ‘ers’, ‘likes’ and ‘you-knows’ that clog most people’s speech. Contractions such as don’t, shouldn’t, won’t are good, though, because we all use them.
  4. Dialect is a difficult one to get right. Don’t attempt to convey regional speech by changing the spelling of words, as it irritates many readers. It’s best to use speech patterns and colloquialisms instead.
  5. Read your dialogue aloud. What better way to discover if your written conversations sound authentic? Or try text to speech software.

 How would you describe your writing process?
I’m a planner by nature; I couldn’t write a novel without a road map to get my story to where it needs to go. I use the Snowflake method of plotting, whereby I take an idea, and expand it until it’s a fully-fledged outline, complete with character notes, timeline, etc.  For writing software, I use Scrivener, and I love it; it’s excellent and worth every penny of the paltry purchase price. It’s customisable, flexible, and enables me to keep everything I need – research, notes, etc. – all in one place. Then it compiles my document into a formatted e-book in a couple of clicks. Magic!

After I’ve done the basic plotting, it takes me about two months to write the first draft. The next part, editing and revising, takes me much longer. I can spend forever tweaking my narrative, so when I can’t stand the sight of it any longer, I know it’s time to release it to the world.

What helps you to write/what gets in the way?
As I’ve mentioned, I couldn’t write without a structured outline. I could just about make do without Scrivener – after all, my first novel was written using Microsoft Word – but I wouldn’t want to. I need silence to write as well, although white noise such as traffic is fine. Definitely no music, though. As for what gets in the way, sometimes my motivation isn’t as high as I’d like, and I procrastinate. If I’ve had a great writing session one day, completing lots of words, I often need to take it easy the day after. It’s all about balance, I guess.

What kind of research do you do & how do you go about it?
It depends on what the novel requires. I’m not keen on doing lots of research, as I’d rather be writing, but at the same time I don’t want inaccuracies in my books. For police procedural matters, I use Michael O’Byrne’s The Crime Writer’s Guide to Police Practice and Procedure, along with picking the brains of a couple of friends who are retired police officers.

Google is my friend when it comes to research. Like many novelists, I often joke that the police would have a field day should they ever inspect my browsing history. I’ve used Google to check out topics such as identity theft, computer hacking, body decomposition rates, etc.

I also often visit the locations involved in my books. They’re all based in my home city of Bristol, so I can easily check whatever I need. For example, The Second Captive involved a very pleasant afternoon wandering round Siston, taking notes and photographs.

If you are indie published, why did you choose this route? What are your five tips for would-be indie authors? What are the pros & cons to indie publishing?
I’m a hybrid author, meaning that some of my books are with publishing houses and others are self-published. I’d recommend anyone to try self-publishing, even if they hanker after a traditional contract. More and more publishers are keeping an eye on who’s doing well in the self-published world and signing them up. It’s happened to me, as well as to other author friends.

My five tips for indie authors? Here they are:

  1. Don’t skimp on editing. Hire the best you can afford, and listen carefully to his/her suggestions. My editor, Gillian Holmes, has been invaluable in helping me polish my books. Please don’t be like some authors who think correct spelling, punctuation and grammar don’t matter. Self-publishing equates to low standards in the minds of many readers, and it’s a perception with some basis in truth, given a few of the books I’ve read.
  2. Get the best cover you can afford. I often see real howlers on Amazon that look as though I’ve created them; they’re that bad! (There are websites devoted to poking fun at these gems, but I digress.) People do judge books by their covers, and a sloppy one with amateurish fonts might well sink your novel.
  3. Build your author platform as you write your book, so that it’s ready for when you launch. I didn’t, and regretted it later. Set up a website and start cultivating readers, book bloggers and other writers on social media as soon as possible.
  4. Develop a thick skin if you intend to read your reviews. Many authors choose not to; the Internet can be a brutal place and some readers can be unnecessarily vicious.
  5. Learn as much as you can about book marketing. Check out successful authors on social media and find out how they operate. A good start is Joanna Penn’s blog The Creative Penn. It’s packed with advice for indie authors, and Joanna’s written several useful books about marketing.

Pros of self-publishing? In my view this option holds most of the cards. You can set the pace for your writing career, writing as little or as much as you want, and pocketing 70% royalties from Amazon. You’ll need to work hard on your marketing, and put in a lot of hours, but big rewards are possible. A con of self-publishing can be the lack of support and the feeling that you’re going it alone, although that can be mitigated by forming strong support networks with other writers.

If you are traditionally published, could you say something of your journey and your experience?
Until last year, I was entirely self-published, and happy to be so. Having been offered a traditional contract a while back, and rejecting it, I was clear I wanted to remain self-published. My reasons? Higher royalties along with total control over every step of the publication process. That was until I got a phone call one afternoon.

I found myself talking with an acquisitions editor from Lake Union, one of Amazon’s publishing imprints. She enthused over His Kidnapper’s Shoes, and we chatted, with her saying she’d like to explore ways to work with me. More phone calls and emails followed, the end result being the offer of a publishing contract for His Kidnapper’s Shoes and my latest novel, After She’s Gone. Lake Union, being a digital publisher, can offer a far more attractive deal than the traditional publishing firms, and after a lot of thought I accepted, thus becoming a hybrid author.

Since then, I’ve signed a two-book deal with Bloodhound Books, who will re-release my novels Guilty Innocence and The Second Captive later this year. At this stage I’m unsure what will happen with future books, but I suspect I may retain my hybrid status. It seems to offer the best of both worlds.

The question you wished I’d asked you.
I think I’ll go with, ‘Have you always wanted to be a novelist?’ I chose that question thanks to my delight at being able to write fulltime, as it’s the culmination of a lifelong ambition. As a child, I devoured books (nothing has changed!) and never doubted I’d become a novelist when I grew up. Instead, when I reached adulthood, I went into accountancy, where I stayed for the next twenty-eight years. The urge to write never left me, even though I did nothing about it. In my forties, I started penning some short pieces, which were well received online, but I found the idea of a novel daunting. Then I ran into issues at work, which I used as a wake-up call. I booked flights to Asia, Australia and South America and travelled for a year, with the aim of writing the first draft of a novel while away. And that’s what happened, with me finishing His Kidnapper’s Shoes while enjoying the splendours of Bolivia.

How can readers find you and learn more about your writing?
My website and blog can be found at http://www.maggiejamesfiction.com. You can find links to all my books, including my non-fiction offering, Write Your Novel! From Getting Started to First Draft. You can also download my free novella, Blackwater Lake. I blog weekly on all matters book-related, including reviews, discussion topics and author interviews. You can also sign up for my newsletter and receive free books.

Here are my social media links:
Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/MJamesFiction/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/mjamesfiction

LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/maggie-james/64/381/727

Google+ : https://plus.google.com/101511690389687930651

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/828751.Maggie_James

Pinterest:  http://www.pinterest.com/maggiejamesfict/

Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Maggie-James/e/B00BS9LVMI

BookBub: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/maggie-james