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Finding Your Voice


A strong, distinctive, authoritative writing voice is something most fiction writers want – and something no editor or teacher can impart. There are, after all, no rules for writing like yourself. ~ Browne & King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

But blimey, they try. Chapter after chapter of craft books are devoted to the subject of ‘voice’. It’s an ephemeral prize, and all the talking tends to muddy the water. “What is voice in writing?” I hear you (metaphorically) cry. “Do you mean my voice or the characters’?”

Simple Answer

Character. In the vast majority of modern writing, most books are told either from first person or from close third person perspective. So the voice you’re writing in is usually intimately linked to the voice of the narrator-character.

Complicated Answer

‘Voice’ is what clues the reader into the atmosphere of the story. Word choice, sentence structure and paragraph structure all offer clues as to the time period, culture, type of characters, type of setting, etc. You aren’t writing in your voice, you’re writing the voice of the story, and each story should have its own. As mentioned above, the fashion in modern story-telling is for 1POV or close 3POV, so the story is seen through the eyes of a primary character. The voice is therefore also a vital clue into the nature and background of that character. The story is essentially told in their voice.

It’s important to remember that, whilst the reader is getting everything filtered through their perspective, the dialogue of the other characters shouldn’t sound the same. Each character should have their own voice – it’s simply that one is dominant in telling the tale.

If you’re writing in omniscient POV (you brave soul), you obviously don’t have a particular character to use as a primary voice. But you’re still trying to convey a particular atmosphere, genre, culture, etc. In this case, you use the character of the story itself. I’m not going to use the same styles in a sci fi romp about space pirates, and an Elizabethan romance, right? The characteristics of the setting become the character of the story, and give you it’s voice.

Put like that, it sounds like the whole subject has nothing to do with authorial voice – it’s all character, right? Well, kind of. You certainly shouldn’t try to clinically work out what your personal authorial voice sounds like, and then apply it to stories. That way lies shoe-horning and stilted prose. But as you build up your portfolio, certain stylistic points will inevitably become common because – as much as you put yourself into your characters’ heads – you’re still the person holding the pen/keyboard/dictaphone/personal monkey-scribe. Your go-to vocabulary and stylistic choices will form a pattern. Which is totally cool and awesome, and what fans will love without realising it. But don’t go looking for it.

Types of Voice

Hardy Griffin wrote a great essay called Voice: The Sound of a Story, in a book published by the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. I recommend getting your hands on a copy, and not just because it was published by a group called Gotham. In it, Griffin lists a number of different types of voice. It’s not an exhaustive list but it is quite a good starting point, if you’re looking for stylistic ideas.

  • Conversational: the narrator sounds like they’re having a casual chat. Almost always 1POV, heavy on the stream-of-consciousness type of inner monologue.
  • Informal: still pretty casual, but less heavy on the colloquialisms. Fully formed, grammatically correct sentences. This is the most commonly used style in contemporary fiction.
  • Formal: less intimate, with a grander range in vocabulary. Generally more detached from extreme emotions being experienced by the characters. This can work in 1POV (e.g. The Great Gatsby) but it’s more common to see it in 3POV or omniscient.
  • Ceremonial: high language, high style. Think public speaking, but in book form. Very detached from emotion, and often quite poetic. Dickens used ceremonial voice. It’s way less common now.

I’ve tried to keep this pretty basic, because over-complication keeps getting in the way of the topic. I hope that helped.

TL;DR – basically, write each book in the language and style of your narrator/protagonist. It’s that simple.


Oh, and don’t try to use the voices of other writers. It only leads to hackneyed writing and tentacles.

The Poetics of Topography: How to Describe Places


I’d like to start by saying that literary criticism has a tendency to be – in terms of vocabulary, at least – up its own backside. The first bit of critical analysis I had to read took me three goes and a dictionary to get through. I submit Exhibit A for your consideration:

The over-arching imperatives of socioecological critique can detract from fiction’s own aesthetic distinction, enlisting novelists tangentially in correspondence with activist affairs. ~ David James, Contemporary British fiction and the artistry of space

Anyway, let’s move on to the ‘poetics of topography’, or (in normal language) how to describe places. There’s the obvious: physical description. Next to the pub is a post office, next to the post office is a supermarket, and so on. But that’s pretty boring to read and doesn’t actually give the reader much of a clue about what each one really looks like. It’s certainly not a story.

There’s two main tricks to describing a place in a way that will make it real to the reader: history and emotion.


Think about how your characters interact with the place. When they look at the pub, they don’t just see a building with booze in it. They see Friday night with friends, the day they went in for a meal and got caught in hail on the way home, the time some drunken idiot spilled a full pint all down their leg. You can take it bigger – encompassing a town, for example – or smaller, down to a room. If it helps (which it did for me), don’t think of it as describing the place. Think of it as using the place to describe aspects of your character.

One thing to be aware of with this approach is bias. It’s very difficult to describe something entirely without bias. Even maps suffer from this – think of the relative size of Africa and the UK on British world maps, for example. When you’re describing a place, beware of your own bias as a writer. Try to keep your assumptions and history from bleeding in. More productively, you can use it to show the reader something about your character’s bias. It can even be a subtle plot hook – if the character’s history contains a bad experience of hospitals, for example, that can be hinted at early on by how they see a hospital or doctor’s surgery.

Guy Gavriel Kaye and Kate Griffen are both great examples of authors who use history to describe places.

That's a story of imperial attitude right there.

That’s a story of imperial attitude right there.


It’s not just about how a place looks, or even smells and sounds. It’s about atmosphere. What does a place feel like? The key to all stories is to hook a reader’s emotions, and that shouldn’t stop with characterisation and plot.

My tutor gave me two passages to read. One described the setting very well, with clear topography. The other barely gave any physical description but the way it felt to the characters was extremely powerful. After reading them both, it was the atmosphere that stayed with me most strongly. This approach is all about ‘show not tell’. You can’t just tell  reader somewhere is oppressive – you have to make them feel it by showing why it’s oppressive.

I found the challenge with this is to strike a balance between the physical and the emotional. The piece I wrote for the exercise focused so much on the emotional that the readers were confused as to the physical location. There needs to be an anchor of some kind that the reader can navigate by.

Mary Stewart and Erin Morgenstern would be my recommendations for good examples of emotional places.


The idea of describing a place by emotion changed my style a bit. I think it can be too much if used all the time, but very powerful if used at the right time. Anyway, this is what I came up with. It needs some more work – the aforementioned physical anchor’s still lacking – but I was quite pleased with it. Any feedback welcomed!


The letter, hand-written on Savoy Hotel notepaper, was brief.

  Your son’s alive. You need to come home.

Trojan had to read three times before it stopped being ink and became meaning. The page fell from strangely numb fingers and slip-slid through still air to the floorboards. He raised his head, seeking comfort from the sun lancing through the wall of skylights. The sun was real. The letter could not be.

  You need to come home.

Home meant London, grey air clogged with politics he couldn’t breathe through. It meant his father’s cold house, full of closed doors and memories that could still stab through the decade to his heart. It meant an end to this exile in a foreign land.

Mr. Bloch was singing on the balcony below, a fine old voice fond of opera. Trojan had left a punnet of tomatoes outside his door last autumn in return for the music. It was the closest he’d got to a friendship in ten years. He’d never been good at making friends; never been given the opportunity to learn how.

  Your son’s alive.

That could not be real. His son came cold into the world and went straight to soil, without Trojan even knowing until after. His father had sent word, one crack in the silence that stretched like an iceberg between them. Unless his father had lied.

  Trojan swallowed, rubbing roughly at his throat. “I am alright,” he told the narrow room, answering silent concern. “Do not worry.”

The tiers of green settled a little, reassured. These were his friends, his adopted children. The palms and the succulents, the ferns and the cacti, the orchids and the jasmine. They depended on him for water and love. They listened to Mr. Bloch’s singing with him, and told him their simple dreams as he watched the stars through curtainless windows. His garret was an Eden of figs and lemons offered up for praise, gifts of blooms unfurling in purple and gold. The wealth of a king, he told them often, and no exiled prince could ask for more.

  Your son’s alive.

His son. All he had left of Sophie,  with her smile like the coming of Spring and skin the lilies openly envied. Her ghost followed him from London and, though the quiet of this place kept her gentle, he could feel the hollowness of his narrow bed. She would have talked to Mr. Bloch, coaxed her favourite tunes from him and made him laugh. She had always been good at making people laugh. Even Trojan, who had never heard such a miracle before.

  Your son’s alive.

The Kentia Palm by the window unfurled a frond as the strains of Tosca’s Recondita armonia floated past. The palm was particularly fond of Tosca.

  Your son’s alive.

He nearly didn’t go.

Creating Memorable Characters – Workshop with Peters Fraser Dunlop


This is part 2 of last week’s post – the agent’s side of the workshop. The agent in question was Nelle Andrew from Peters Fraser Dunlop, and she had some very strong opinions about what makes her take on a book.

Basically, it’s all about memorable characters. Characters who transcend their own narrative – characters you recognize even if you haven’t read the book, such as Lizzie Bennett, Gandalf, Voldemort. Characters who are people, not vehicles for plot.


The first tip Andrew gave was to visualise the character. Good characters have a very strong visual, which should be described early. To not describe it at all, Andrew said, is lazy writing. Because humans work the way we do, visual images are the easiest and quickest form of communication. Convey the personality and characteristics through appearance, as much as possible. If the character is OCD, reflect it in how the pens are lined up in their top pocket, for example. Don’t stop at the aesthetic – use walking and talking, nervous tics, the whole physicality of the character to create a visual.

Secondly, leverage dialogue and inner monologue as much as possible. The reader inhabits the character – the act of reading is an act of empathy. Dia/monologue is vital to making that happen. Remember, too, that the reader should feel like they are in a privileged position with inner monologue – they are getting information that the other characters don’t have about the narrator. It also allows you to contrast how the character appears with how they actually feel. This provides internal conflict, which can drive plot.

Thirdly, how does the character affect their environment? How do other people react to them, how do they make other people feel? And how do they react to what other people do? This shows a lot about their personality without telling.


People do things for a reason. Choices and consequences make the plot, not the other way around. Beware of the red thread! You must make the reader believe your characters would naturally make the choices that you have them make on the page. There are a couple of things to consider which will help you achieve this.

1) Freedom vs determination: does the character have control, or does the environment enforce choices? Are they free to decide or are there constraints? Did the character need to do that or were there other options? If they make an extreme choice, it must be because there were no other options, or the reader will not find it credible.

2) Heredity vs environment: how much is in their nature and how much was formed by environment?

3) Active vs reactive: do they react or take the initiative? This can really drive plot. Active generally is more compelling, with more leadership qualities, but being unable to react (e.g. in prison, paralysed) can also be very powerful. See the Bone Collector for a superb example of this. Reactive doesn’t mean weak, and active doesn’t mean good! Also, remember that most people are a mix – active in some aspects of life and reactive in others. As a general rule, 1POV characters are more reactive – happy to watch what’s going on and narrate it. 3POV are more active.

4) Level of risk: the emotional journey only happens if the character is threatened or in peril. Risk makes us care about what happens to them and whether they’ll make it through. Risk is what keeps readers reading.


You need to decide what kind of author you want to be. Do you want to have critical success or do you want to sell books? Do you want to be Proust or EL James? According to Andrew, 60% of all book sales are from supermarkets, not bookstores or online, and they will stock the kinds of things their customers are likely to buy. That ain’t Proust.

You also need to ensure that you don’t jolt your reader. They should forget there’s an author involved in the story at all. That means thinking VERY carefully about changing POVs or tenses between chapters. Each time you do, there’s a jolt as the reader has to change mental gear. Probably best not to.

And Andrew’s final words of wisdom:

Talent is great but what authors really need is emotional resilience.

You will have agents take your story apart. Then editors. Then critics. Then the public. And almost every time, you need to roll with the punches and adapt. If you can’t do that, you aren’t going to make it as a writer. To be honest, I found that the most daunting piece of advice in the entire workshop and I’m pretty confident Andrew intended it that way. Fortunately I met up with Dr. Nick just after the workshop ended, and he gave me a look that said you doubt your emotional resilience? Seriously?’. And then I felt better.

So MY final words of wisdom are these: you don’t just need talent and emotional resilience. You also need faith in yourself, and support from others when that faith has a wobble. And surprise. And fear. And ruthless efficiency. And an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope…


I’ll come in again.

From Inspiration to Paper – Workshop with CM Taylor


Last week I attended an evening workshop on editing fiction, conducted by an author and an agent. I came away with pages and pages of notes, which I will share with as much rhyme and reason as I can order them into. This week it’ll be the author – CM Taylor – and next week it’ll be the agent.

Taylor started by saying that his definition of a story was the transmission of emotion through structure. When writing your plot, structure is vital and you cannot ignore it. Readers have such an intrinsic understanding of structure that, if you deviate from its principles, you risk jolting them or losing them entirely. It also means that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel with every book.

When he gets an idea for a story, he starts by finding existing literary models for the core concept of that idea. For example, if the story is about people wanting to get home you could look at Homer’s Odyssey, or Paul Scott’s Staying On, or even Sheila Burnford’s Incredible Journey. If there’s also an element of class war in the story, then look at something like Downton Abbey. Use multiple models for different aspects of the idea and jigsaw bits of them together to create something new. It’s not about plagiarism – it’s about ideas for structure. Importantly, it also helps to throw light on how your story idea is different.


The Inside Story is a book by Dara Marks, a screenwriting theorist, about the structure of the heroic journey – what she calls the ‘transformational arc’:


Looks vaguely familiar, right? Three act structure with a rise and fall, inciting incident, call to action, etc. The key to this diagram is the idea of change. The two halves of the story are resistance to change, and release of emotional strength after change is embraced. People naturally resist change, as reflected in the traditional heroic journey by the Refusal of the Call.

The transition from resistance to release starts with a Grace Period – once the character has admitted change is required, it releases a ‘high of truth’ and emotional energy. This then leads into the Fall, as the energy drains or the world doesn’t enable that internal resolution for change. The aspiration to change is not the same as making it happen!

The Death Experience, incidentally, doesn’t necessarily mean death. It can be betrayal, miscommunication, bad coincidence, etc. Whatever the worst thing is that can happen to the character’s internal aspirations.

Note that I’ve referred to it throughout as the character, not the hero. This arc should be applied to every character, although they will be at different stages along it at the start and end of your story. When one character changes, everyone in their community is affected somehow. It’s fairly standard psychology that a change in one part of the community means the rest start to question their own status quo.


Because a form of behaviour has been successful in the past, they continue it into inappropriate situations and this shows up their character flaw. – CM Taylor

Obviously nobody’s perfect, and you certainly don’t want your hero / protagonist to be. They need to transform, to improve, and to do that there must be a flaw to start with. Taylor gave the workshop group an exercise, which I found massively useful and I highly recommend you have a go at it. For any given character(s), work out the following:

  1. What is their character flaw? If you’re having trouble identifying it, think in terms of ‘too / not enough’, i.e. too tolerant / not tolerant enough.
  2. How did the character get this flaw? Remember that the flaw is usually a pattern of behaviour which is carried into unsuitable circumstances.
  3. Identify a point in your story where the world somehow presses on or challenges this flaw. How does the character react?

As an example, here are my answers for one of the lead characters in my current project:

  1. Trojan is too obedient and passive to his father’s demands. When told to leave his family home for falling in love with someone his father deems unsuitable, he goes without challenge. Even falling in love was despite his obedience, not an actively rebellious act.
  2. He was raised by his father to be a passive tool, intended for a political marriage that would unite two warring factions. His father was stern, oppressive, and kept Trojan fairly isolated.
  3. His moment of enlightenment comes when he learns his father was responsible for the death of both his lover and his twin. In the Grace Period when emotion is released he rebels for the first time and kills his father. In the Fall, as the emotional high drains away, he is arrested and goes quietly.

This exercise really helped me clarify Trojan’s internal drives, as well as solidifying the mid-point of the story as the death of his father, which therefore helps with the overall structure.

One final point about structure: Taylor said he uses it as a checklist, going through drafts and literally ticking off whether he’s covered each point within the transformational arc. You can’t know whether you’ve written a good quality book, he said, but structure helps you identify and remove the obvious errors.

Next week I’ll cover the agent’s perspective on character building. For now, what results do you get if you do the character flaw exercise? Was it helpful for you?

Causal Chains: Defining the Beginning & the End


Caroline-Made-This-1More from Orson Scott Card this week, again looking at something which could be considered fairly basic but actually deserves quite a lot of thought. Where do you begin and end your story? Just saying ‘start at the beginning’ doesn’t work because, in OSC’s terms, the myth of a story is far longer than the text. Do you start with your detective protagonist finding the body? His argument with his boss that morning? His divorce the year before? Do you start with his childhood, which made him the man he is today? His birth? His parents meeting?

The myth of the story is actually a long network of cause and effect which begins long before the story and continues long afterwards. You, however, must choose a point where the text begins and a point where it ends.   ~ OSC, How to write Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Beginning of the End

The two are, of course, intrinsically linked and not just because they are both key events within the same story. The way you structure the beginning dictates to a greater extent what ending your audience are geared to anticipate. It also dictates what the focus of the story is. If you start with the detective protagonist’s parents getting married, for example, then the murder case which is the main text of your book is going to seem out of place and will take a while to get to.

The beginning must make the audience ask questions that are answered by the story’s ending so that, when they reach that ending, they recognize that the story is over.   ~OSC, HtwSF&F

It comes back, really, to starting your story as close to the immediate action as possible but not so close that we don’t care about the people when bullet start flying towards them. If background from earlier in the myth is relevant to the text, you can bring it in gradually as flashbacks, explanations, insights, and so on. You don’t have to tell the entire story in a linear fashion. Writers have the power of time travel. We’re awesome, that way.

The MICE Quotient

Okay, so beginnings set up the expectations of endings. But that still doesn’t help decide what the right beginning is, or where it is. OSC has a system for defining this – something he calls the MICE Quotient. MICE stands for the four elements that define structure in a story: Milieu, Idea, Character, Event. Depending on the kind of story you’re telling, a different one of these will be the dominant factor.

  • MILIEU: the planet / society / family. The world setting, in essence. Milieu stories almost always follow the same structure: an observer, who sees things as his audience would see them, goes to strange places, is transformed by them, and comes home. The story starts when he reaches the strange lands and ends when he leaves (or decides not to).
  • IDEA: essentially, this is a story about characters finding out new information. It starts by raising a question (e.g. who killed Jimmy? Why did this civilisation decline? Is there life on Mars?), and finishes when the question is answered.
  • CHARACTER: the transformation of a character, where that transformation is the primary thread of the story rather than a consequence or subplot. (OSC says that good characterization is essential for Character stories but not for the others – I disagree with him there.) The story begins when the main character begins the process of change, either because they’re forced to or because they are unhappy with their current role, and ends when they settle into a new role or become resigned to the old one. In a Character story, according to OSC, a lot of the plot will come from people resisting that attempt to change.
  • EVENT: something is wrong and must be dealt with. The story ends when it’s been fixed / gone catastrophically badly and all hope of fixing it is lost. It does not, however, start when the thing goes wrong in the first place. The starting point is when ‘the character whose actions are most crucial to establishing the new order becomes involved in the struggle’. As an example, Lord of the Rings doesn’t start when Sauron comes to power, or even when the ring is found by Bilbo. It starts when Frodo gets involved. Most fantasy uses this structure.

This is not the mouse you’re looking for

It’s important to repeat that a story isn’t just one of these – there’s plenty of scope for using all four types of plot, but one will dominate and that should help you structure accordingly. In particular, it should give you an identification for the start and end points, to set up the right expectations in your readers. Make sure you identify which that primary thread is. And if your story isn’t working? OSC suggests that you try rewriting it with one of the other MICE options as the primary focus. It will probably change the entire structure.

For more on using the MICE Quotient throughout the story, click here for an entertaining and enlightening explanation by Writing Excuses podcast, or here for a written review.