Right after my divorce (cue violins), I took myself off to a friend’s houseboat in Sausalito, located on the northern shore of San Francisco Bay. I went to lick my wounds and pour my heart out on paper, having not written much for months. Away from the daily grind and inspired by the scenery, I produced a whole short story in only three days: the quickest story I’d ever written.
After that, I became convinced that retreats were the way forward for my writing but didn’t go on another till March 2020, just before lockdown. (2020-2021 should’ve been one long writing retreat, but I barely wrote a word during the height of the restrictions—my brain just didn’t cooperate.) Finally, this July, I was able to get away on another retreat; this time, a five-day tutored course at the Garsdale Retreat in the Yorkshire Dales. Run by married couple Hamish and Rebecca, the location was opened in 2017 by playwright, novelist and songwriter Willy Russell (which pleased me, having lived with his daughter in my early twenties).
I treated myself to the most expensive option of a private room and en suite (costing £860), but cheaper options are available if you’re willing to share a bathroom with other guests or share a bedroom with a writer friend. Whatever your options, attending a retreat is always a significant outlay for anyone, so was it worth it? In my case, the answer is a resounding YES, and there are a number of reasons I found it great value for money:
I would wholeheartedly recommend the Garsdale Retreat, but there many more to choose from. But wherever you go, be it in the UK or further afield, a retreat is a major investment of both your time and money, so here are some pointers if you’re thinking of giving it a go:
Every writer, at some point, has been told to ‘write what you know.’ The advice has become cliched, but lately it has been the focus of a debate that’s raging in the literary world: should writers (especially cis, straight, white, middleclass ones) be creating characters and stories that are outside of their lived experience? In other words, should certain writers be limited to autobiographical fiction (‘autofiction’)?
This debate continued at this year’s Hay Festival, reported in The Guardian this week, with contributions from authors Rose Tremain, Anna Lloyd Banwo, Kate Mosse, and Damon Galgut. The consensus among experienced authors is that you can ‘write what you like, but do it well,’ which means the following:
But what does it mean for the many emerging authors without the publishing deals or means to do any of the above?
Authors may have the best intentions when creating characters or stories to which they cannot personally relate. However, ALL writers should be aware that we live in more sensitive but less forgiving times. There are those who seek out reasons to be offended (usually on behalf of other people!), and then there are people who, due to a history of oppression, have every right to take issue with the appropriation or misrepresentation of their culture, struggles or experiences. It’s this latter group that every writer must care about most.
Of course, anyone can self-publish anything, so long as they’re willing to accept the backlash from readers who feel the author got it wrong. But writers who aim to get an agent or traditional publisher should steer clear of straying too far from their own experience. Or, if they do, they must scrutinize their work through as honest a lens as possible. Some of the questions they might ask themselves are:
Personally, as a writer, I never step too far outside my comfort zone when creating protagonists and stories. I have written from different perspectives, such as male or older person’s viewpoint, and have included minor characters from other cultures/communities in stories. But overall, my key characters are always people I can easily imagine myself being, and the situations I put them in are always ones I can see myself in. My work is very much rooted in my worldview.
Nevertheless, I did have one potentially tricky moment as an author. I wrote a story that was published in a journal and the publication commissioned artwork for it. The illustrator depicted my protagonist as black, when in my mind they had been white (although the only hint of race, to be fair, was their Irish surname). The problem was that the character was a drug dealer, so I was worried that readers might see the image and accuse me of stereotyping. I'm sure the artist had the best intentions, but I would have preferred to avoid any potential for controversy!
Speaking as a professional editor, it is not always possible to edit within my natural comfort zone. As an editor who is cis, white, middle class, straight, neurotypical and non-disabled (yeah, I am that vanilla!), I am aware of my own limitations when editing for people from cultures or communities that I have no intimacy with. I would certainly decline a project if I felt unable to edit with sufficient sensitivity, but mostly I relish opportunities to enter fictional or nonfictional worlds portraying a different life experience. Some of the most memorable and affecting books I have edited are written by and about people who have lived very different lives to mine, and the objectivity I bring as an ‘outsider’ is often helpful because I am able to identify where the writing can be clearer or more inclusive to readers from a different background to the author.
Ultimately, authors have a responsibility to write the truth. In the case of fiction, this doesn’t mean novels or stories must always be autobiographical; it simply means the world, the situations, the relationships, and the emotions that a writer creates in their fiction must be authentic. And once you have truth on your side, your imagination can run free!
In the past 12 months, I’ve started giving online writing classes via The Writers Workshop as part of my mission to turn writers into skilled self-editors. This month, I delivered an online class called The Art of Descriptive Prose, which was not only a wonderful opportunity to dissect some brilliant descriptive passages from books I love, but also a reminder of an often-neglected function of description: emotional depth.
As an editor, I am sad to say that I rarely come across memorable descriptive prose. Sure, I am often shown a setting, or told what a character is wearing, but these are occasional images or details. But passages of description that take me into the beating heart of a scene, setting or character are rarely well executed.
It’s the writer’s task to select the best narrative mode at every point in the story. Writers may choose between action (characters doing stuff), exposition (narrator explaining stuff), interiority (characters thinking stuff), dialogue (characters talking about stuff), and our topic du jour, description.
Description is the obvious mode of choice when writers need to give the reader critical information about the world of the story (especially important in historical fiction, sci-fi, horror or fantasy), an unusual setting, an important object or, of course, a key character. But when the mode is deployed most powerfully, it works on an emotional level too, either conveying a character’s state of mind and/or eliciting certain feelings in the reader.
In my editorial experience, writers often struggle with the emotional depth of description. It can often result in ‘purple prose’, which is overwritten, overwrought description that often comes off as melodramatic. 'Less is more' when it comes to emotion, and the single most important decision a writer must make is what tone best fits the descriptive moment. Tone is created by vocabulary and syntax (sentence structure), as in the following two examples.
This tone conveys the 'gut emotion' of the character or creates it within the reader. The vocabulary is strong, blunt, literal, shocking, graphic, and sensory. In terms of sentence structure, the visceral favours simple, active sentences, and it can effectively mess with ‘proper’ grammar. How does this passage from Daphne DuMaurier’s story ‘The Birds’ make you feel?
It was pitch dark. The wind was blowing harder than ever, coming in steady gusts, icy, from the sea. He kicked at the step outside the door. It was heaped with birds. There were dead birds everywhere. Under the windows, against the walls. These were the suicides, the divers, the ones with broken necks. Wherever he looked he saw dead birds. No trace of the living. The living had flown seaward with the turn of the tide.
He set to work in the darkness. It was queer; he hated touching them. The bodies were still warm and bloody. The blood matted their feathers. He felt his stomach turn, but he went on with his work. He noticed, grimly, that every window-pane was shattered. Only the boards had kept the birds from breaking in. He stuffed the cracked panes with the bleeding bodies of the birds.
This tone primarily creates gentle (rather than gut) emotion in the reader. Its vocabulary is wistful, nostalgic, poetic, beautiful, and figurative. The style can rhythmic and the sentence structure elaborate, as illustrated by this passage from Joanne Harris’s The Salt Road:
The ocean has many voices. It sings in the voice of the pilot whale; the voice of dolphin; the waves on the beach. It sings in voice of a thousand birds; it cries in the wind that howls through the rocks upon the distant skerries. But most of all, it sings in voice of selkie; those people of the ocean clans that hunt with the seal, and dance with the waves, and, nameless, go on forever.
The voice of selkie is soft and low. At first you may not hear it. At first you may mistake it for the cry of a bird, or the bark of the seal, or the sound of the tide on the pebbles. But listen, and you will realize that each of those sounds is a story—the crunch of pebbles underfoot; the splash of a leaping mackerel; the cry of a sea-eagle hunting above the white rocky shores of the islands.
In addition to the tone, there are several literary devices that help build emotional layers in description. There is no time to get into all of them here, but two common devices are:
Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.
One may guess the power of the north wind, blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.
Finally, it’s important to remember that effective description is often about restraint because your reader’s own imagination can be the most powerful tool at your disposal. Stephen King wrote in On Writing that ‘description should begin in the writer’s imagination and end in the reader’s.’ Sage advice indeed. If you trust your reader to build a fulsome image of their own, based on well-chosen details you’ve provided, you make them a co-creator of your book and they will have a stronger stake in your story.
In conclusion, here are few more description tips:
Let me introduce you to my most amazing writer friend, Bree Barton. I am a huge admirer of her as both writer and all-round brilliant human, and so I'm excited to share this exclusive interview ahead of the release of her middle-grade debut, ZIA ERASES THE WORLD (Viking/Penguin Random House) on April 26, 2022.
It's not just that Bree is a dear friend that I'm plugging her latest book; it's because she writes true BOOKS WITH SPINE for young readers. Bree doesn't shy away from BIG issues; in fact, she runs towards them, ready to tackle them full on.
If you like what she has to say in this interview, you might be interested to note that she and I are plotting to run a special online writing-for-young-readers masterclass soon. If you want to be the FIRST to know when it's scheduled, register your interest today.
First, a Bit about Bree ...
Bree lives in Ithaca, New York, and is the author of the YA trilogy HEART OF THORNS (KT/HarperCollins), published in seven countries and four languages, and has published op-eds in The Washington Post, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times. Her short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, McSweeney’s, Roxane Gay’s PANK, and sundry other literary magazines. You can find her on Instagram @speakbreely or YouTube @breebarton.
Soooo, tell us, what is ZIA ERASES THE WORLD about?
This is the tale of headstrong Zia and the magical dictionary she hopes will explain the complicated feelings she can’t find the right words for—or erase them altogether.
Zia remembers the exact night the Shadoom arrived. One moment she was laughing with her best friends, and the next a dark room of shadows had crept into her chest. Zia has always loved words, but she can’t find a real one for the fear growing inside her. How can you defeat something if you don’t know its name?
One day, Zia discovers a family heirloom: the C. Scuro Dictionary, 13th Edition. This is no ordinary dictionary. Hidden within its magical pages is a mysterious blue eraser with which Zia can erase words associated with the Shadoom and make them disappear from the world around her. But things quickly dissolve into chaos as the words she erases turn out to be more vital than Zia ever expected.
ZIA deals with a big topic: depression in childhood. Why was it important for you to take on this topic, and was it difficult, as an adult, to convey such challenging emotions from a child's perspective?
Please allow me to tell my sob story: in 2018, I lost my sixth grade journal. I was on tour for the first book of my YA fantasy trilogy, and I brought the journal with me to read funny excerpts at events. As a kid, I spilled everything in that journal: my fear, my pain, my sadness ... and, yes, also why Jonathan Taylor Thomas and I were destined to fall in love. (I loved animals! JTT loved animals! Clearly my OTP.) There it was, unfettered access to my thoughts, dreams, even my speech patterns as an eleven-year-old, the year I was slammed with my first major depression. The best guide to writing a middle-grade book about depression, ever, and I lost it. (If you happen to find my journal ... she answers to "Sage" ... call me! I beg you.)
In the absence of having that window into my past, I was forced to remember, to conjure the bodily sensations of the depression (a tightness in my chest, like being gripped by a fist), to recall the predominant visual landscape (darkness, so much darkness), to reflect on all the nights my mom held me while I sobbed. That was both hard and, ultimately, good for the story. I had to sit in that place of being a scared kid who didn't know what was happening to my brain and body. That's a place a lot of kids know well, more than ever after the last two years. My hope is that what Zia is going through will resonate with anyone who is hurting—of any age, really—and struggling to find the words.
What challenges or considerations did you have creating the character of Zia and telling her story?
There's a big bundle of my personal biography in Zia. In addition to the depression, I, too, had a tabby cat, a hard-working single mom, and a bff named J. But I was determined to give Z her own narrative and not make it a carbon copy of mine. Every draft of this novel was an opportunity to extract kernels of Bree Barton's biography and choose instead to shape Zia Angelis's unique story.
Also, since Zia is Greek-American, and her new friend, Alice Phan, is Vietnamese-American, it was extremely important to me that I be culturally sensitive and not inadvertently cause harm. My publisher, Viking/Penguin, hired Vietnamese and Greek authenticity readers, and they were indispensable, pointing out places I could do better as a white American writer. I took every bit of their advice.
Zia loves to create new vocabulary. What role does language play in book and why is language so important to Zia?
I love language—which will become immediately apparent to anyone reading the book. In my HEART OF THORNS trilogy, my style was more lush and lyrical, and I genuinely enjoyed wearing that hat. But with Zia, a contemporary story, I got to be wildly playful. And as a result, so did Zia! Language is the way she makes sense of her world. And creating new vocabulary is how she brings some lightness to the Shadoom—the room of shadows—in her chest.
One of the most fun things for me was the structure: I always knew I wanted 26 chapter interstitials that would be dictionary entries (early working title for this book was From A to Z). And there are a lot of made-up words, everything from shortmanteau ("mashing two words together to make a new word, like mashing two short men into a tall one") to kilarious ("marked by extreme hilarity, followed by an emotional sucker punch to the gut").
I would, however, like to take this opportunity to apologize to my copyeditor. I love seeing the publisher's style sheets for my books—it's where the bits and bobs in my head become canon—but, WOW. Not only did I not have chapter numbers, which threw the production department for a major loop, but also there were so many invented words! Pity the poor copy editor who had to query: "Um, by potado did you mean potato?" Little did she know a potado was a whirling tornado of violently rotating potatoes ...
Do you expect to follow Zia's story as she grows up, or do you expect this to be a standalone book?
Funny you should ask! I've always thought of this as a standalone story, but a sixth grade classroom read an early copy of ZIA last week, and I've now heard from several parents that their children are demanding a sequel because, the kids point out, there's a cliffhanger at the end of the book. And now that I've mulled it over: I think they're right! Kids are always right. But my gut says a second book wouldn't be Zia's story; it would be her friend Alice's ...
When you were growing up, which books had the biggest impact on you and why?
Such a great question. As a kid, I loved all of the Narnia books, which my mom read to me as bedtime stories—they were so imaginative and fantastic (and I've been jonesing for Turkish Delight ever since).
When I was a little older, I gravitated toward books with rich character work and a depth of emotion. We're sometimes told kids have a limited range of feelings, but I think they often feel things more deeply than adults, because they haven't yet learned how to seal themselves off from the parts that hurt.
The three books that had the biggest impact on me as a middle grader: Bridge to Terabithia (so tragic!), Island of the Blue Dolphins (so haunting!), and The Witch of Blackbird Pond (so much girl power!). Geez, was I only impacted by Newbery winners? I clearly haven't changed a bit, since Tae Keller's When You Trap a Tiger, which won the Newbery Medal in 2021, absolutely blew me away. Tae also blurbed my book, which felt like being kissed by the gods.
What is your next literary project?
So, I just—as in, two hours before writing this—sent the first 40 pages of a new middle grade book to my agent. Twelve-year-old Delores DiFazio is reeling when her famous sci-fi author dad walks out on her and her mom. But actually, her dad has jumped into an alternate universe ... and found a better version of Delores and her mom. Del must travel through the multiverse, confronting various doppelgängers, both friend and foe, to discover the truth about her family and find her true self. Get ready for:
a) more magic
b) more hijinks
c) chapters told in 'multiple choice'
d) all of the above!
Ecological catastrophes, global pandemics, endless armed conflicts … With the world in a constant state of turmoil, sometimes I wonder what the hell I am doing and if it matters even one iota.
If you have ever wondered something similar, we are fellow members of the Existential Crisis Club. The club has welcomed many new members since a spikey little coronavirus forced millions of people to evaluate their lives and what they were doing with them, sparking the so-called Great Resignation. In 2021, 47.8 million Americans quit their jobs, and the quitting continues as people tire of doing something they consider valueless and search for something more meaningful. In Europe in 2022, citizens facing the renewed threat of a cold war are also pondering the point of it all—life, that is.
For some, this existential panic takes a serious toll on their mental health. For me, it’s simply a constant hum of anxiety, like mild tinnitus of the soul that increases in volume every so often before subsiding again into the background: ever present but not debilitating. As a writer, the anxiety is partly about the legacy of my creativity.
Writers (all artists, of course) often suffer a lack of confidence in their value as a creator and the worth of their work in the world, especially when the daily struggles of everyday people are so blatant. What’s the point of asking people to buy our stuff when so few people can afford to properly heat their homes? Maybe they can burn the pages in the grate …
But writers don’t need a global pandemic or enemy invasion to be thrown into existential despair; frequently all it takes is a single rejection from an agent or publisher. Just one ‘no’ can make us question the value of every word we’ve ever written. With a rejection/acceptance ratio of several billion to one, it’s amazing any writer has any self-belief at all.
So, how do we as writers deal with such crises of self-worth? As far as I’m concerned, we could all take a leaf from the Stoics’ book. Here are a few basic tenets of Stoicism to keep in mind when the going gets tough existentially speaking.
1. Focus on what you can control. That means ignoring the vagaries of the publishing industry and concentrating on putting words on paper. Continuing to take action is crucial here; simply giving up with a shrug and a night of Netflix is not being Stoic … that’s just being lazy.
2. Be virtuous. Okay, this might seem like a stretch, but stay with me. Writers can spread happiness through their writing. So what if Harper Collins gives you the bum’s rush? Sharing your work with your friends, family or other forums makes your work valuable, and being an active and generous member of a writing community will help you and your fellow writers feel seen, heard and valued.
3. Limit your ego. Remember that A) Rejection is 99 times out of 100 about the rejecter, not the rejected, and B) You are not entitled to success because, as noted in point 1, there are too many variables to contend with. Behaving like a moody teenager when you don’t get what you want or being jealous of another writer’s success isn’t a good look, and you’ll only perpetuate your existential misery … follow point 2 instead!
4. Build resilience. For Stoical writers, this means managing your emotions and channelling them into action. In his book on modern Stoicism, The Obstacle Is the Way, Ryan Holiday writes: “Under pressure and trial we get better—become better people, leaders, and thinkers. … See things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must. What blocked the path is now a path. What once impeded action advances action.” In other words, learn to see setbacks as opportunities. How we feel about rejection and our self-worth (indeed, everything in life) is ultimately a choice, but that type of decision-making is a learned skill for many of us, so be patient and practice resilience daily.
5. Practice gratitude. Ah yes, where would the pep talk be without the platitude of gratitude! This is hard, but try to find things to celebrate every day on your writing journey, from the smallest achievements to the biggest successes. Perhaps you’re simply grateful for the fact you own a laptop! Recognise the fact that writing is a privilege and not everyone has the luxury of sitting down each day for an hour to work on their opus. Don’t abuse that privilege by giving into bitterness or self-pity.
Finally, when I’ve got my head firmly up my butt in a bout of existential angst, I remember that D.H. Lawrence said it best: “Life and love are life and love, a bunch of violets is a bunch of violets, and to drag in the idea of a point is to ruin everything. Live and let live, love and let love, flower and fade, and follow the natural curve, which flows on, pointless.”
For some, this quote might make matters worse. For me, I am soothed by the idea that we must simply enjoy life in the moment without the expectation of reward. After all, if tomorrow never comes, none of our work will matter, period.
Did you know that the first known novel was written by a woman? In 11th-century Japan, Lady Murasaki Shikibu published The Tale of Genji chapter by chapter to a readership of ladies-in-waiting. Its protagonist was not a woman, sadly, but it's miraculous that she was able to produce a literary work, given the restrictions on all women, irrespective of status and culture, at that time ... and for many centuries afterwards.
Literature, like many artforms, quickly became a male domain, and very few male novelists featured women as central characters. When they did, often the women were debauched (e.g., Moll Flanders) or debased (e.g., Tess of the d'Urbervilles). It took Jane Austen to put strong (within boundaries) women at the heart of the story, and then the Brontës and Eliot to do the same a little later, albeit initially under male pen names. (Of course I'm being somewhat reductive here, but you get my drift!)
So, "women's fiction" has been around since the 11th century, yet it is the male-centric Hero's Journey "monomyth", popularised by writer Joseph Campbell in the 1950s, that has come to dominate the contemporary teaching of writing and how to structure stories. In a nutshell, this is how Campbell describes the monomyth in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949): "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on HIS fellow MAN." [Emphasis mine]. The journey looks like this (lifted from Wikipedia):
But does this monomythic storytelling structure serve female heroes? Does that even matter?
It matters (at least to me) because women are -- and have always been -- subject to certain social and moral pressures not historically faced by men. Their desires and goals as protagonists are often hampered by these factors. Simply put, women have been torn between private desire and social expectation and her journey is disrupted by that dilemma; whereas a male hero is free to go off on his journey without the obstacles put up by the patriarchy. Sure, you can squeeze women's stories into the model, which is often done with protagonists like Jane Eyre, but might there be an alternative?
I believe it would be better for women to have their own storytelling monomyth, one that respects and reflects their individual journeys toward their goals. This is why I have invited friend and scholar Dr. Stacey Simmons to share her research into the "Divided Woman" archetype and a new women-centred storytelling model called The Queen's Path in a special FREE event on March 20, 2022. It promises to be a thought-provoking session, one that could help you shape your women-centred novel, memoir, play or screenplay.
If you want to join this session, hop over to the Writers Workshop page and register today!
There are so many ways to tell a story, be it fiction or nonfiction. But when it comes to telling true stories, the decision is especially important ... after all, you're dealing with real people's real lives. Quite the responsibility!
A range of nonfiction projects cross my desk during the course of a year. While they are always interesting in their own ways, I sometimes wonder if they may have been better had the writer taken a different approach.
There are plenty of factors that can influence the choice of genre, but the writer must first determine their objectives in telling their personal story. If the writer is aiming for publication, there are two motivations they should always avoid:
These motivations are too inward-looking and ignore the very existence of a reader. Instead, the writer needs to ask one critical reader-focused question at the outset: What do I want my book to do?
Reader-focused objectives include:
All of these objectives may play a role, but identifying a primary objective will help you figure out the right approach to writing your content, be it:
If the thought of writing a no-holes-barred memoir might be too painful, think about framing your story as an inspirational book that can focus on the positive aspects of your journey. If you have learned lots of life lessons on your journey, perhaps an instructional book might be more effective. If you feel a strong sense of injustice about your experience, consider writing a persuasive book with a powerful call to action.
Picking the right path is a great first step. The next challenge is writing something powerful. Each of the approaches (narrative, expository, persuasive) require different writing skills, which the first-time writer should spend time developing before they dive into writing their book. They can do this by:
Your story is important, so it's vital that you tell it as well as possible so that it can go out into the world and fulfil its mission ... and in doing so become a real book with spine!
I love short stories. A great short story is a short, hot shower, while a great novel is a long, luxurious bath, and both are equally satisfying to me.
However, the short story is an underappreciated literary form in Western culture, perhaps even more so than poetry. I blame the big publishing houses for marginalising the short story by actively discriminating against its creators, blatantly refusing to accept submissions of short story collections.
“Too niche,” they claim.
“Bullshit,” I say.
The reason so many people don’t read the short form is that the publishing industry perpetuates the myths that A) size matters, and B) short stories are too “literary” to have mass appeal. But, in actual fact, audiences LOVE short-form storytelling. They love it in the form of a beloved childhood storybook; they love it in the form of the many feature films adapted from short stories; they love it in the form of the annual Christmas tearjerker ad campaigns; they love it in the form of episodes of their favourite shows. The public would love short story collections too, if only the publishers gave readers the chance to discover them.
This unjustified literary prejudice is depressingly prevalent among new writers, too. Most of the writers I meet are working on full-length projects, be it a memoir or a novel, because they either think the short story too trivial or too intimidating. On that matter of triviality, those writers could not be more wrong. But when it comes to writing, the short story is certainly no easy option.
Why are short stories so tough? In my view, they are hard because the artform requires the author to NOT write. The short story needs restraint because it is most powerful when it is economical and undiluted, and when its ending is not neatly resolved but left open. Trickiest of all, the focus of a story must be narrow but its resonance universal.
Turning out a first draft of a short story might be quicker than a first draft of a novel, but it still requires a lot of work to hone it ... as the philosopher Cicero so eloquently put it, “If I had longer, I would have written you a shorter letter.” Nevertheless, I believe that writers should embrace the artform for many reasons, of which here are my top three:
1. A first draft of a short story can be finished quickly. This is great for new writers because finishing a first draft of anything is a huge confidence booster.
2. The short form is perfect for experimenting. It is a great vehicle for the dark, the weird, and the crazy because the writer doesn’t have to sustain it for long. It allows the writer to let their imagination loose and explore new voices and styles without committing to the long, exhausting marathon of novel-writing.
3. A story is more likely to give a writer their first publishing credit. There are thousands of publishers of short stories but relatively few for full-length work. With a couple of story publications or story contest victories under their belts, writers stand a far higher chance of attracting an agent or publisher for their novels.
Here are my recommendations for initiating yourself into the wonderful world of the short form:
Look out of my Short Story Study Group launching via The Writers Workshop in 2022! We will read and analyse short stories and use them to inspire our own short-form creativity.
On October 18, I participated in the annual Novel Slam, held as part of Sheffield's Off the Shelf lit fest. But until 30 seconds before I got up on stage to deliver my novel's first line and 1-minute pitch, there was no way I was going through with it.
I absolutely detest being front-and-centre. As I often tell my editing clients, "I am not the person on the stage; I am the one in the lighting booth." I have always had a fear of performing. I recall the occasions as a child when I had to sing or act and hating every single second, mostly in contrast to my peers who seemed to revel in the attention and thrill of performing. Fortunately for me on Monday, I had two things in my favour:
1. A friend who would not let me back out
2. A surname that put me last in the pitching order
Both of these helped me conquer my fear in the moment and put myself out there. And man, did I sweat! But I am so pleased I did it, given that I was voted into the final eight entrants by the Novel Slam audience and then placed second by the panel of esteemed judges. Hurrah for validation! The experience has relit the fire in my belly, and I'm more determined than ever to get my novel published.
So, what did I learn from this little adventure?
1. Find a friend who will hold you accountable and (if necessary) shame you into putting yourself out there, be it as a contest entrant or performer of your work.
2. Understand why you're afraid to put yourself out there. For me, the reason is usually imposter syndrome, which is a decades-old affliction. However, since hitting 40, I care very little about others' judgement, so my reason no longer holds water. If you understand your reason for hiding, there will be plenty of advice online about how to overcome your fear.
3. The writing community is incredibly supportive. Wherever you are, you'll be part of a community that's in it together. Sure, you'll find a few oddballs, but mostly other writers have got your back and want you to succeed. Knowing this makes putting yourself out there much easier.
4. Be prepared! I showed up to the event not expecting a pitching slot, but I went armed with my materials anyway. I'm not suggesting you carry your manuscript everywhere on the off-chance, but I would suggest having your elevator pitch committed to memory. You simply never know who might want to hear it! It's a heck of a lot easier to put yourself out there one-to-one, too.
5. Putting yourself out there is the job of a serious author. There is no choice, so suck it up! If you don't put yourself out there, your just a guy or gal in a room with a laptop.
All this said, my Achilles heel is social media. The very idea of Instagram fills me with dread and a weariness I cannot describe, and Twitter just irritates me. But social media unavoidable because its the most efficient way of putting yourself out there, so I guess that's my next challenge--one that can wait till 2022.
Voice is one of those intangible aspects of writing that emerging authors often have difficulty grappling with. They've heard that 'proper writers' have 'voice' but what exactly is it, and how will they know when they have truly found it? Tricky questions! And, of course, there are no straightforward answers.
The concept of voice is problematic because we're talking, in fact, about two things:
1. Authorial voice
2. Narrative voice
Inevitably, a writer's experience, opinions, biases, beliefs and values shape their fiction, from the stories they choose to tell, to the kinds of heroes and villains they create, and their writing style (grammar/syntax, vocab, etc.).
On either a conscious or subconscious level, all writers are compelled to share their worldview with an audience, and often a writer will return to genres, themes, and settings to create a distinctive oeuvre. Their body of work often speaks volumes about who the author is and their worldview. Of course, the authorial voice is not fixed, and it may change as the author develops and ages.
A weak authorial voice will undermine the writer's ability to create strong narrative voices, so it isn't to be ignored! One way to ensure you're maximising your authorial voice is to write only what you are passionate about and feel compelled to write, whether serious or lighthearted. Simply stated, if you are excited about writing your story, your voice will ring out. However, sometimes it might be necessary to focus on personal development if you're to become a better writer: new interests, philosophies, knowledge, and life experiences will invigorate your creative writing.
Narrative voice, on the other hand, is specific to a single book and hinges on the strength of the primary character and/or narrator. This voice comes from the character's background, desires, flaws, social status and so on (which, of course, may be markedly different from the author's).
It is this voice that will attract the reader, agent or publisher, and it is this that will elevate a run-of-the-mill tale into something memorable. Narrative voice is often talked about in terms of POV (first person, third person, etc.), but this is merely technique. I think of a powerful narrative voice as something complex, both morally and emotionally, that thereby gives depth to a story.
As an editor, I can only concern myself with the narrative voice. In particular, I am looking at the consistency of tone and characterisation, ensuring the voice is cohesive, even as the character undergoes change. I am also looking for individuality, i.e., a voice that not only makes them different from other key characters in the book but also different from anything I might have read before ... so watch out for character cliché! (See the June blog for more on compelling characters).
If you feel your book's narrative voice is weak, it might be because you do not fully understand what makes your primary character tick. Revisit him/her/them and figure out their complete backstory, even if it is not pertinent to the plot of the book. As an exercise, write a detailed bio for your protagonist, giving all the circumstances of their upbringing, including key events in their formative years that shaped their worldview. You're not trying to articulate who they are, but WHY they are who they are ... a subtle but important difference. These 'whys' drive everything your character does and says (or doesn't do or say), and ultimately this is their 'voice'.
Let me know in the comments below which authors and characters have voices that have made an impact on you!
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith