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Blog : Posts tagged with 'novels'

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The Writer’s Voice

In which FP reads, and learns more about writing as a result


Writing this post from the other week, with its long rant about the poor quality of the worldbuilding in BBC3’s Being Human, has made me think more in general about the quality of writing, and the quality of my own writing. After all, am I in a position to excoriate other people’s ability to write and worldbuild, when I don’t exactly have much to demonstrate on my own behalf there?

It set my brain off on a tangent, though. Not so much about worldbuilding, but about the authorial voice. Because that’s something I used to worry about, years back: I would never be any good at writing because I didn’t have my own voice. If you read any of my prose, there would be nothing at all distinctive about it. Whether that was true back then, back when I used to worry about such things, I don’t know, and I have no real desire to go back and read anything that old. It probably isn’t true any more, though. Certainly, one of the things K likes about my blog posts is that, she says, in my writing I sound just as I do when I speak.

I’ve been a reader since I was small: I’ve been able to read since before memory, since before virtually all of my memories, so I have no conception of what it feels like to see words and not understand them. Ever since I started reading for myself, though, I’ve been a silent reader, a very quick reader, and I also tend to be a very poor reader. Because I’m a quick reader I skim too much. I miss things. I miss things out, have to go back, don’t notice Important Plot Points and don’t take in any of the craft involved in the work. However, I think I’ve found a solution to this. I’ve started reading things aloud, and it has turned around the way I look at writing.

What started all this was: I’d just started reading a book I’ve had sitting around unread for a couple of years almost, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.* Only on the second or third chapter, we had to take a plane journey, and K didn’t have anything interesting herself to read. “Read to me?” she asked. So, since, I’ve been reading a passage of Wolf Hall to her in bed every evening. It’s been a couple of months now; reading aloud is much slower than reading silently, and we’re not awake enough for a chapter** every single night. In doing it, I’ve learned a lot about syntax, prosody, and prosody’s representation. Hilary Mantel has been one of my favourite novelists for many years now,*** and Wolf Hall, award-winning and all, is very readable, but it’s not always the easiest novel to read aloud. Its long sentences are just slightly too long for comfort in the voice: lists of things, and there are many lists of things, always have one term too many to easily read aloud. Her authorial voice is very readable, very concise and very accessible, but her sentences are sometimes a little too long to know automatically where the stresses are intended to fall. Which isn’t to deny that it is, absolutely, an excellent novel; it just isn’t perfect for me to read aloud, at least not without a rehearsal.

Wolf Hall‘s sequel will be coming out before too long, and no doubt will be something I will read to K at some point. In the meantime, we are assembling a list of books to be read: The Third Policeman after last week’s opera;**** some Peter Ackroyd, such as Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem; maybe Lanark, although that will be a mammoth adventure. In the meantime, I am taking a lot from reading aloud. It makes me confident that I do have a voice when I write, a voice I can manipulate if I want to. It makes me confident, too, that I have a readable voice, a voice that might be publishable. Most importantly, it has helped an awful lot to reconnect the craft of writing with the act of reading. The two, obviously, are very closely linked; but I think I’d forgotten just how closely linked they are. I think I’d forgotten to write for the reader.

* I can tell you where I started reading it, too: waiting for a train in Frankfurt an der Oder.

** Strictly speaking, it would be very hard to read a chapter every night, because Wolf Hall has very uneven chapter lengths. Some are getting on for a hundred pages of the book; others are no more than two or three.

*** At root, her earlier historical novel about the lives of Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins is one of the things to blame for the time I got myself on the telly the other year.

**** Tricky, with all its footnotes.

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All The Dead Writers And Me: Jan Mark

In which we remember a great writer


This post has been a long time coming. Ever since I read her obituary, I’ve been meaning to write it, and been putting it off; and that was back in January.

Jan Mark is probably one of the writers who has meant the most to me over the years, at least in terms of understanding writing, and storytelling. She was mostly known as a children’s writer, producing prizewinning, wonderful work such as Thunder And Lightnings. My own favourite piece from her children’s books was a short story, “Nule”,* about two children who treat one of their house’s newel posts as if it’s human, then start to worry that it’s becoming slightly too human.

My favourite book of hers, though, is her single “adult” book, Zeno Was Here. It’s a love story, a very touching one, but it’s mostly about writing itself. It’s about the writing process, the nature of writing, and the feeling of being written about. It’s a novel about the structure of novels, and it’s the book which introduced me to the works of Flann O’Brien.** It’s about coincidence. It ends with the kind of bone-jarring unexpected coincidence that just doesn’t happen in novels; and then you remember that a hundred pages earlier, the characters were discussing just why those sort of events don’t happen in novels, when they crop up in real life all the time.

It’s quite an obscure book, and – as far as I know – has been out of print for ten years, at least. I found my copy of it by just the sort of coincidences that don’t happen in books: finding out that it existed, and going to my local library to see if they had a copy, I found it among the fifty or so tatty things on the “Withdrawn, For Sale” table. It’s only right, I suppose, that you should find a book about coincidence in that sort of way. If you find a copy yourself, read it, because it deserves to be better-known.

* from the collection Nothing To Be Afraid Of

** Another writer I’ve been meaning to post about, but haven’t

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