alex_beecroft: A blue octopus in an armchair, reading a book (Default)

You know what I hate? I hate this modern style of over-active prose. I just opened a book this morning. It sounded great – it’s about mysterious goings on in Istanbul, cults and relics and stuff. All things which have appealed to me since the first Indiana Jones film.

450px-Non_violence_-_Gbg_-_C_F_Reutersward

But, damn, the style. All short driving sentences and maximum impact and urgency. I feel as if the author got me by the hair and kept hitting me in the face, shouting “WAKE UP! WAKE UP, PAY ATTENTION. I WANT TO SEE THAT ADRENALIN RUSH.” Slap! Slap! “TELL ME YOU’RE ENJOYING IT ALREADY! LOOK!” *Twists my head unmercifully* “DEATH! SEX! PERIL! MORE DEATH! AREN’T YOU HAVING FUN YET?”

I just want to throw the book straight in the bin (within the first 5 pages) and never read anything else by that author. Because, fuck you! Even if I was into BDSM and liked a bit of pain, you’d have to work up to this level of intense from a ground floor of mildly interested. But actually I’m not into BDSM and having you (metaphorically) shout in my face, spraying me with spittle, just makes me want to (metaphorically) get out my machine gun and blow you into a million shredded scraps. And then possibly stamp on the pieces afterwards.

So yes, this is probably an object lesson in why I hate all that advice designed to turn your (flowing, lyrical) prose into ACTION!PROSE. I like to be hooked, intrigued, as much as the next man, but I also like to have time to appreciate that lovely sunrise, the river valley we’re in, the wonders of Istanbul, the moral dilemma that confronts our hero, the moments of joy and beauty amidst the peril etc etc without being bludgeoned repeatedly with DEATH! PERIL! SEX! DEATH! NOW, NOW, NOW!

If this is how the book starts, does anyone ever get to the end of it without a heart attack?


Mirrored from Alex Beecroft - Author of Gay Historical and Fantasy Fiction.

alex_beecroft: A blue octopus in an armchair, reading a book (Default)

Most of what I have to say on this subject, I have already said in an earlier post in which I was vehement about voice. I decided to repeat that here, and add a little bit on the bottom about how you develop your voice.

If there was one thing that came out of the UK Meet for me (and actually there were several) it was the importance of voice. Let me say that again, because I don’t think I used enough emphasis. It was the importance of an author’s VOICE. Aleks Voinov speaking on behalf of publishers everywhere, and Jenre, speaking on behalf of reviewers, both emphasized strongly how much, when they cracked open a new book, they were looking for a unique voice.

It’s all very mystical, and possibly vaguely amusing in an ironic kind of way. Because the internet and ‘how to write’ books appear unanimous that the way to good writing is an adherence to action verbs, and a willingness to pare down ones adjectives and adverbs to the absolute bare minimum. Cut, cut, cut, people say. Make your language transparent, so that it doesn’t get in the way of the story. You don’t want to throw out your reader’s suspension of disbelief every other sentence with a gorgeous phrase or a word they need to look up in the dictionary. Have good characters, have a story hook in the first paragraph, keep piling on the tension, break for a black point three quarters of the way through and set everything on its head at the half way point.

If this is advice on ‘voice,’ this is the advice to write like everyone else.

How can you write like everyone else and still have a unique voice? You can’t.

When I listen to this advice about paring down your words to the minimum, I think about the writers whose books I love and it applies to none of them. Tolkien, with his chapter-long descriptions of scenery and his insistence that you had to spell ‘dwarfs’ ‘dwarves’ because obviously it was formed on the same principle as ‘loaf’ and ‘loaves’. That if you spelled it differently, you denied it its history. Tolkien who taught me what a hythe was, and gave me the gift of finding out that ‘gore’ isn’t only blood, or a triangular panel in a skirt, but it’s also a spear-head shaped piece of land. Tolkien who never flinched from a right word just because nobody but him remembered what it meant.

Patrick O’Brian, with his rampant, laughing lists of 18th Century words, and his puns and his sometimes-roaring, sometimes sly delight in combinations of phrases that make you chortle.

China Mieville – oh Lord, I just finished reading ‘Kraken’. There’s another man who loves his words when they’re decked out in carnival costumes and on the trapeze:

“Subby Subby Subby,” whispered Goss. “Keep those little bells on your slippers as quiet as you can. Sparklehorse and Starpink have managed to creep out of Apple Palace past all the monkeyfish, but if we’re silent as tiny goblins we can surprise them and then all frolic off together in the Meadow of Happy Kites.”

You may not particularly like any of these writers but, lets face it, they are incredibly successful, critically acclaimed and widely regarded as being at the top of their respective genres. And none of them are writing stripped down transparent, zero-added-value prose. They all have VOICE (imagine that said in a Doctor DOOM tone. I know I do.)

It doesn’t mean that your voice as a writer should be like their voice. If you don’t like obscure words and you don’t feel strongly about how to decline ancient nouns, don’t rush to use them because you think you should. Voice is about being you, after all. But I find it comforting to think that so many writers who’ve said ‘fuck you’ to the transparent-prose-style-gurus, so many writers who’ve reveled in the language they’re using, dived in and splashed and played with words, should have reached so high and done so well with it.

Partly this pleases me because I like to see the internet pundits proved wrong. But mostly it pleases me because it gives back to every writer the chance to do what the hell they like with their own voice. Maybe you like stripped down prose, where a very few perfect descriptors give the effect of a splash of colour in a minimalist white house. Good for you – do that then. Ursula LeGuin does something like that, although she also makes sure the rhythm of her sentences sounds like poetry. I love her stuff, but don’t have the elegance to write like that myself. I’m just glad to know that I don’t have to try to. I’m free to discover whatever it is that I want to do with my words instead.

When I tell my words how high to jump, I want them to ask “d’you want me to be wearing the sparkly skirt with that?” Not to worry about how other writers do it. They’re my words, after all.

To quote Terry Pratchett (another top hatted master of the three ring word circus): “If cats looked like frogs we’d realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That’s what people remember.”
Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies

~

Having said that, how do you go about developing your author’s voice?

The first thing I would say is that IMO it’s not something you need to worry about when you’re writing the first draft of your first novel. Actually it’s not something you need to worry about at all. Your voice is simply what happens when you learn to express yourself in the way that comes naturally to you. So all you have to do is write lots of stories, and your voice will happen by itself.

This is not very helpful advice, is it? You want to know how you develop your voice right now. You don’t want to have to wait until you’ve written 15 novels, all of which you’ll look back on at some time in the future and think “that doesn’t even sound like me!”

And this is true. If you don’t want to find your voice by churning out lots of text, making mistakes, correcting them and trying again – the way we learn to walk – much can be done by reading advice on style. Only so long as it’s the right advice – advice which is congenial to you.

Out there on the internet there are hundreds of people who will tell you to mangle your grammar by removing the word ‘was’ wholesale. There are people who will tell you that any verb ending with ‘ing’ is ‘passive’ and must be annihilated by nuclear warheads (when actually a verb ending in ‘ing’ indicates that the action of the verb is continuing. Ie they didn’t ‘run’ in the past, they aren’t going to ‘run’ in the future, they are ‘running’ right now as we speak. You can’t get much more active than that.)

If you’re going to take style advice from someone, look for advice from the writers you love. If you love their writing, chances are their advice will tend towards producing writing like that.

I thoroughly recommend “Steering the Craft” by Ursula LeGuin and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. These authors do not lay down hard and fast rules about which words you’re allowed to use and which you aren’t, they encourage you to pay attention to the way words sound together, to hear them like music or poetry and allow them to have rhythm and character and fun. They also give you some exercises to do to develop a style of your own.

Just as I would say “go for style advice to writers whose style you admire” I would also say “look at the writing of writers you admire and try to work out how they do it.” If necessary, try writing something in their style, so that you can figure out which bits seem to fit you and which bits feel horribly awkward.

I trained myself to write settings, description and atmosphere by imitating Tolkien, who I consider a master of the creeping ambiance. I trained myself to look for the most concrete words instead of vague ones because he said that was how he did it – and I think it works. You may start off imitating, just as a new dancer starts off imitating what they see the experienced dancers doing, but before long the parts that come naturally to you will become your own, and you will drop the other parts and be left with a new amalgam which is specifically your own.

If you see a device being used with lots of panache by another writer and it speaks to something in you that says “Oh God! I want to write like that!” then do. Steal the technique (not the actual words, that would be wrong) and apply it yourself. I love Patrick O’Brian’s sentence fragments. They spatter the book with a flying spray of words like sea foam flying past the bow of a ship. So I started doing it too.

Editors aren’t terribly fond of that aspect of my writing, so I’ve dialed it back a little these days, but I still feel that some of the exuberance of the technique has made it through to influence my own voice. And after all, I don’t want to sound too much like someone else. Take techniques that work from anywhere you see them, but use them in your own way.

How will you know what your own way is? It will come naturally. It will be the only way you can write. It will be the sentence you look at and think ‘yes. That’s right.’ The simile only you could have thought of, because no one else seems to have had the same experience, the turn of phrase that makes you grin like a sickle moon. Trust yourself and write on.


Mirrored from Alex Beecroft - Author of Gay Historical and Fantasy Fiction.

alex_beecroft: A blue octopus in an armchair, reading a book (Default)

I share many of my own characteristics with my characters – if they have my paranoia or my faith it gives me a sort of trap door into their minds through which I can get in there and rummage around to see what else there is.

I may have mentioned before that the particular aspect I gave poor Conrad from By Honor Betrayed was my decision making process. Like him, I can’t help revisiting every thought, decision and action endlessly, trying to make sure I’ve seen all the possible angles, been as fair as I can be, guessed as many of the reasons behind [whatever] and attempted to predict any and all consequences from any and all possible actions.

This makes it hard to say anything with certainty, and means I often end up coming back and semi-contradicting what I said earlier. And ever since I posted that post about finding your author’s voice, I’ve been plagued by the thought that I might not have covered the full complexity of things.

Firstly, I stand by my opinion that you don’t need to go looking for your ‘authorial voice’. I still think your over-all style, the thing that makes your writing yours and when distilled smells of “essence of Beecroft” (not honestly a thing that sounds terribly attractive) is something you don’t have to go looking for. It will turn up on its own as you write and continue to write.

However (there’s always a ‘however’) I do think it’s important to point out that each individual book has a voice, and that does need to be found.

If I’m writing a book set in the 18th Century, I write in a different way to how I write contemporary. Because I’m a very instinctive writer – I do stuff without knowing why I do it – I didn’t really notice this fact until I started writing A Pilgrims’ Tale. When I wrote Shining in the Sun, I knew that something in me rejoiced in the ability to run wild and free with characters who were suddenly allowed to utter elegant sentences such as “Oh fuck you, you fucking wanker!” And to be able to use words like “psychiatrist” and “aspirin” and “Volkswagen.” That was terribly exciting, but I didn’t really give it a second thought until I had to shift gears again and start something Saxon.

A Pilgrims’ Tale is set in early Anglo-Saxon England, in the days when the English Language looked like this:

þær ic ne gehyrde
butan hlimman sæ,
iscaldne wæg.
(There I heard naught but the roaring sea, the ice-cold wave.)

And to me it seemed obvious that I couldn’t possibly use the same ‘voice’ for a story set in the 8th Century as the voice I used for the 18th or the 21st. The way people use language says so much about their attitudes and their beliefs that to use modern language for the past, or historical language for the present sounds ridiculous and falsifies the way people think.

When I read the journals of an 18th Century writer, I’m always struck by the careful but confident elegance of the way they express themselves. You can feel the spirit of the age in them – in the way that they make such an effort to be civilized, urbane and delicate – and yet keep slipping into roaring, lively vulgarity. They’re a noisy, self-confident people with lots of animal vitality who are trying to tame themselves for the sake of civilization. And if you can get all of that from the way they express themselves, then the writer can get all of that across to the reader simply by allowing the book to speak in the same way. (Or at least, as close as you can get without losing your modern reader altogether.)

But when I read Anglo-Saxon poetry I get something very different. Although the undercurrent of lively vulgarity is still there, the overcurrent (so to speak) is in a much more minor key – it’s melancholy but strong. It laments the hardships of the world and finds consolation in reputation and shield-brothers, in a good lord and the possibility of doing the right thing. It’s fatalistic and – if not despairing – it is resigned to the futility of everything in this world and the inevitability of death.

Somehow, using a language that has changed so much from its Old English roots that you need dictionaries and grammars to translate it, I have to find a voice for this book which captures something of the proud, grim, beautiful act of endurance that was life in Saxon days. I have to find a voice for this book which is different from my 18th Century voice, and different again from my contemporary one.

How to do that?

For me the first step is always reading what the people of the time have written. You really can’t get into their heads in any other way. No amount of looking at grave goods or reading text books can substitute for reading the actual people’s actual words. How else would we know that the Saxons were plagued with thoughts that the days of glory were gone, the ancient works of giants were destroyed and they were living in a mean little post-apocalyptic world where nothing would ever be as good again?

Dagas sind gewitene,
ealle onmedlan
eorþan rices;
The days are gone of all the glory of the kingdoms of the earth;

How else, too, would I know how they expressed themselves, and be able to take elements of that to use for myself?

Once I’ve read a lot of original source documents (even if it has to be in translation) the way they express themselves will begin to sink in. With the Saxons I notice that the words are simple, but the phrases alliterate, and the whole thing has a beat like a drum. I notice the tendency for certain sentences to sound a bit like proverbs – and I remember that outside the monasteries this is an oral culture, so people need mnemonics to help them remember things. There’s a heaviness, a portentousness there. These are serious-minded people.

And all of that is stuff I can do myself. So when I started writing A Pilgrims’ Tale, I deliberately chose simple words with English roots over complex words with French roots. (My characters ‘turn thoughts over’ rather than ‘consider’ or ‘cogitate’ or even ‘reflect’.) My scop (bard) character has a tendency to speak in alliterative verse – because he’s been so highly trained and memorised so much of it that that’s how he thinks. And everyone has a tendency to offer each other gnomic pieces of advice, and faintly regret that they weren’t born in a more splendid time.

The result of which is that A Pilgrim’s Tale will have a very different ‘voice’ to anything I’ve done before. It’ll still be my authorial voice, but it’ll be what my voice sounds like when speaking about the Saxons. The book voice will be different, whatever makes me me (and therefore my author voice) will be the same.

Here endeth my needless complication on the idea of ‘voice’ :)

Mirrored from Alex Beecroft - Author of Gay Historical and Fantasy Fiction.

alex_beecroft: A blue octopus in an armchair, reading a book (Default)

A DIY guide.

I decided on Monday that I would talk about this. On Tuesday Chuck Wendig, freelance penmonkey, posted 25 Things Authors should know about finding their voice on his blog, at which point I threw my hands in the air and went “Oh, fine, I won’t write a blog post then!”

(Because, let’s be honest, I am outclassed in every way, and that’s not a competition I want to get into.)

However, I read the post and then I read it again, and while it says many useful and entertaining things about finding your voice – many things which if you’re at all interested, you should go and read now – it didn’t quite say the one thing I was going to say. So I’m going to say the one thing anyway. Possibly in a slightly smaller voice than I might have done if I’d got in first. But then if I had got in first, I would be even more embarrassed and without the chance to say so.

Polite British self depreciating introduction over with, here’s what I was thinking recently about finding your style as an author. It’s couched in the form of a ramble about cover art, but there is a point in there somewhere, like a pin left behind in a tailored suit – useful if you can get it out, but a nagging worry if you can’t.

I started making cover art a while ago. It’s nice to have something that engages parts of your brain that writing cannot reach. When I set out to make my first cover, I had no idea what my style would be. I would have said it was a bit pretentious of me to hope to have a style at all. All I wanted to do was to put some pictures together in a way that would result in the sort of cover I could imagine on a book.

So I got some photos I liked and fiddled with them until they looked OK together, and paged through fonts until I found some I thought looked nice, and I made my first cover. I didn’t worry about style. I didn’t say “what’s going to be my signature move? What’s going to be the thing that identifies this as a cover by me, as opposed to someone else? What’s my cover artist’s voice?”

I didn’t say that because I was too busy trying to get the damn thing to work in a way that was possible and looked good to me, given all the stuff I wanted to include.

Rinse and repeat with several more covers, and I began to notice something interesting. I loved and admired covers with subtle colour in misty, soft-focus. I loved complicated covers with big design elements superimposed over textural brushes so the picture looked aged and painted-over and intricate. In short, I loved covers like this:

CaptainsSurrender300 or this UnderTheHill-Dogfighters300-2

But when I made cover art myself I consistently went for as few design elements as possible, choosing to make them as bold as I could. I went for hard-edged lines, sharp focus, strong colours, clarity and simplicity. This sort of thing:

wingmentry2 or this charlielargebw

and it dawned on me that without giving it a thought, I had achieved a recognisable style of my own. It’s peculiar and a little ironic that my style in no way resembles the things that I like. It’s odd that my own style came as a surprise to me. But it’s amazing and rather gratifying to find that I have one, and it came as a free gift with the process of just getting on with it.

Which is my conclusion, really. Don’t worry about finding your authorial voice. Just tell your stories in the only way you can get them to work, given the stuff you’ve chosen to put in them. Tell them in a way that pleases you, without worrying that other authors – even the ones that you love – do it differently. Do it your way, because you are you, so doing it your way is the only way for you to be authentic. Then, when you’ve done it for five books or so, your author’s voice will jump out and laugh at you and say “Stupid! You’ve had a voice all along. You write like this!” And it may be an odd surprise, but it should be a pleasant one, if only because it didn’t ever need to be a big deal.

Mirrored from Alex Beecroft - Author of Gay Historical and Fantasy Fiction.

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