29 April 2010

Description: Signposts in the Text

19th century novels were heavy on description - very heavy on description - as authors conveyed mental pictures of places and things most readers would never see during their entire lives.

In contrast 21st century readers are force-fed information from around the globe 24 hours a day, much of it visually. We know what a coral reef looks like; we in Europe certainly know what an erupting volcano looks like.

Straight description no longer holds the fascination for readers it once did simply because so much visual stimulation is already filed in our minds. But this is to be embraced by writers of fiction. It makes our work so much easier. We need only to set signposts in the text and readers will do our work for us, calling up images that fit.

What mental images are conjured by these single words?


Water, okay? But what sort of water: size, colour, speed of flow? Because they were single word signposts, as a reader you will have automatically "filled in the blanks". Perhaps stream brought an image of a narrow stretch of water - and grassy banks, or reeds, or leaves being carried on its surface. Perhaps river brought an image of a wider, deeper, stretch of water, perhaps with a faster flow - and a small boat, water fowl, a bridge. Perhaps estuary... you get the idea.

However, there are drawbacks to doing this. The images I've given came from a British landscape because that's the landscape I live in; I interact with it every day. If you are reading this in Malaysia, or Canada, or Argentina, your images will be different because without supporting signposts readers' minds automatically default to their own normality. So do bear this in mind.

Over the next few posts I'll be discussing Description in more detail, including using supporting signposts, and how to use description to create atmosphere and tone.

Description is a necessary part of building a world experience for readers, but it should not swamp them. Pick the right descriptive word and an entire retinue of images follows on behind.

2 April 2010

Finding Your Voice

It’s a question I am asked by earnest, if not worried, fiction writers: how do I find my voice?

My answer usually floors them: You don’t. You keep your own voice well out of it.

First, a bit of explanation. The belief that the work of a good writer (note the term) has an individual ‘voice’ dates from when writers were artists who starved alone in garrets while pontificating to the world about the human condition. This was at a time when ‘literary’ and ‘fiction’ were synonymous, and those who wrote genre fiction were looked upon as polluting the authorial waters with ‘trash’, if not actually ‘prostituting one’s art’, a term that was flung – yes, flung – into my face complete with spittle when I first started writing. Hilarious now, but the odour still wafts through occasionally.

Does this mean that no writer should have an individual voice? Not at all. If you are writing, for instance, a personal memoir, then something of your own personality has to come across in the writing to help enthral readers. If you are relating a trip through the Indonesian rain forest, or your family’s trials and tribulations setting up a sheep farm in the Lake District, and it is conveyed in a grammar-correct monotone, you’ll have few readers. But if your writing is breathless or witty or lyrical then it is far more liable to carry along readers in the wake of your sheer exuberance.

But even then, it has to be focused. Personal writing is akin to writing a blog. You are reading this blog, lurking in fact (yes, you are), with no intention of leaving a comment but just dropping by in case I’m posting on a subject that interests you. That’s fine, feel free. But would you drop by for that same information if you had to wade through posts about my mother, the antics of her cats, or the fact that the local sparrowhawk nabbed one of our cooing doves yesterday and the garden is covered in silver-grey feathers? Let’s face it, you are backing away already.

Trivia, personal or otherwise, isn’t what you are here for; pertinent information is what you are here for, and it is my belief that you’d prefer it delivered in a straightforward, accessible manner, not in a grammar-correct monotone. Is this, therefore, my voice, or is it the tone I choose when writing this blog? Good question.

Voice and tone are elements closely related to the target market. If I were writing this article for a writers’ journal, or to be included in a non-fiction how-to book, my personal voice – my chatty style - would need to be subdued and the tone I am using would be tailored to fit the requirements of the editor, who has already assessed the best method of conveying the information to the targeted readership of the magazine or book series. If you are reading a paper by an academic you’ll expect footnotes, not jokes; if you are reading a technical manual you’ll expect diagrams; the voice and the tone of the writing will be different, distinct to their target readership. The only series of non-fiction books I can think of which has successfully, very successfully, crossed the voice/tone threshold is ‘The Idiot’s Guide to…’ and you don’t need me to explain the reason – it’s all in accessing the targeted readership.

Having established that voice, or lack of it, plays an important part in writing non-fiction, what about its role in writing fiction? Here the side-show turns into a three-ringed circus, and I assert my belief that writers should keep their own voice well out of their work.

Fiction is not about the writer, it is about the characters. Even – especially – when writing in first person viewpoint, the voice on the page belongs to the character, not the person behind the keyboard. You’ve been reading this post for a while so your ear is attuned to its/my delivery. Now try this:
Spaz passed across the wrap and I gave him the money.
   "Sure you only want one?"
   "No," I said, "I want six. Hell, let's not quibble about numbers. I'll have ten."
   I hadn't even given him The Look, and already his elbows were leaving the small bar table as he backed into his chair.
   "Okay, okay," he said. "Do you think I know the state of your finances?"
   I picked up my glass and dribbled the contents into my mouth. There wasn't even enough to coat my tongue.
   "If you're looking for a source... Well, I might know of an off-licence, y'know, with an unguarded window…?"
   "And what use would that be to me?" I snapped. "Think I'm an alckie?"
   The little prat moved closer, sure of himself now.
   "That's the beaut, isn't it? Could be there's an anxious buyer."
   I slid my empty glass across the table towards him. He looked disconcerted, and it made me smile. "Buy me another and we'll talk about it."
   He didn't even try to argue, but dragged back his chair and limped towards the bar. I eyed his roll and sneered. He believed he had a charmed life, did Spaz, believed the sharks ignored the little fish. Silly bastard. Twice in plaster and still he thought he could fish the waters.

It’s the opening to A Contribution to Mankind, a short story I wrote some years ago which will be reissued shortly in an ebook collection. Read it again. Is this me talking and thinking, or have I taken on a narrative persona – the first person character’s persona?

Now think about this: the voice used is what I shall term as ‘working class English’. Would the words, the syntax, the delivery be the same if this short scene were between two men from non-English cultural backgrounds, West Indian, or Pakistani, or Polish? Would it be different if it were between two women?

Much of this relates to the Show versus Tell technique, and is where many beginner writers fall foul. They decide to write in first person because it is regarded as easier, but all they are doing is dressing themselves in fancy clothes and carrying props. The thinking is theirs, the morals are theirs, and soon the speech becomes theirs, too. The authenticity of the fiction stutters as their personal wish-fulfilment takes over.

Does this mean that I display no distinct ‘Linda Acaster’ voice across the breadth of my fiction? I hope so. What I’ll admit to is a personal style. No matter the genre or type of story I write, I aim for authenticity of character persona, clarity and depth.

So don’t confuse your style with your voice. Writers develop a style over time and keep their personal voices well out of it. Good writers ensure that style doesn’t become a rut.